For the O’Briens, it’s about more than dancing

The O’Brien family has plenty to show for its involvement with Irish dancing. Their Newton home’s basement, renovated some years ago to accommodate a small practice studio, is full of photos and trophies that chronicle the success of Conor, 21, Claire, 23, and Alana, 25, over nearly two decades of competitions in the US and elsewhere.

And that collection of hardware has a couple of new entries from the World Irish Dance Championship this past April in London, as a result of Conor’s winning the Men 20-21 title, and another first-place finish by Conor and Claire as part of the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance team in the Senior Mixed Ceili competition.

But talk to the O’Brien siblings, and their parents, Stephanie and Andrew, and you get an expansive view of life with Irish dancing, one that goes far beyond the accumulation of prizes. They speak of meeting individual challenges while simultaneously enjoying the familial bonds that have been tested, and ultimately strengthened, by the commitment to dance.

“The three of them knew it was up to them to do the work,” says Stephanie. “But, as a parent, it’s crucial to help your kids set high goals and deal with achieving them – or with not achieving them.”

“The most important thing Mom and Dad did for us,” says Alana, “was that they were good at being parents, rather than trying to be coaches.”

Make no mistake: The O’Briens are proud of the trophies, ribbons, certificates and other marks of accomplishments, but these many years of involvement in Irish dance have been a means of personal growth, for child and adult alike, say the O’Briens – something to savor for its own sake. As another season of preparation for various competitions unfolds among Irish dance schools throughout Boston, New England and beyond, the O’Briens perhaps represent that ideal all-family experience in Irish dance, where true fulfillment isn’t merely something quantified by judge’s scores.

“The families are key to making it all work,” says Lisa Chaplin, a teacher at O’Shea-Chaplin, where the three O’Brien children have been students since early childhood. “They encourage the dancers, cheer them on, and support one another. But while we do encourage the kids to compete and be the best dancers they can be, we make it clear that this is not the be-all and end-all of dancing – and that’s a message the families can help reinforce.”

It’s certainly a message that the younger O’Briens have taken to heart, as they muse on an activity in which they’ve been engaged most of their lives.

“Dancing is rewarding in the relationships you cultivate, not only within your dance school but among the other dancers in competitions, and those relationships can last years,” says Claire. “You also have the opportunity to travel when you’re young, sometimes to faraway places. Then, when you add the reward of qualifying in a competition, and seeing the big stages, that’s when you really feel that it all pays off.”

Adds Conor: “It’s a competition, but also a performance. You’re there to dance not just for the seven judges, but for the hundreds, even thousands, of people behind them in the audience. And when you feel that connection to them, there’s nothing like it.”

Of course, no two families are exactly alike, individually or collectively; there’s no predicting how the mix of personalities and temperaments will play out over time from one household to the next. The O’Briens seem the epitome of the close-knit clan that by and large has been able to bring hearts and minds together and be clear about goals, expectations and roles – something that is equally helpful for any activity, whether athletic, artistic or anything else.

As far as Stephanie is concerned, however, Irish dancing is not like “anything else.” Having participated in Irish dance as a child, albeit on a non-competitive basis, she thought it would be something fun for her own kids. “Irish dance is extraordinarily connected to the music, and is that rare combination of physicality and interpretative movement. As it turned out, our children were both musical and athletic – they all ran track while in high school – so this was a perfect activity for them.”

Claire and Alana started at O’Shea-Chaplin at the same time, at ages 5 and 7, respectively, Conor shortly after that. “We gave him a choice,” laughs Stephanie. “He could dance, or he come grocery shopping with me until it was time to pick up the girls. He said, ‘Anything but the grocery store!’”

The O’Briens have high praise for O’Shea-Chaplin for its insistence that students keep things in perspective: Work at your dancing, but above all have fun, and don’t let it get in the way of important things like family and education.

Still, as Stephanie and the three younger O’Briens attest, even with excellent teaching, not everything fell into place at once; each of the children made progress, though not at a particularly fast pace. But they liked dancing, and they liked being together, enough to continue.

“We didn’t try to push them, and we didn’t have to, really,” says Stephanie. “Andrew was the one who set the tone. He told them, ‘You guys have a secret weapon – each other.’ They’ve always helped one another out.”

The family also used the “target/stretch/dream” meme to identify and work toward goals, says Stephanie: “It’s a way to move yourself along. Start by focusing on a certain level within reach, like making sure you have this step down or getting points from a judge, and practice to that. Go on to something more difficult – ‘stretch’ yourself. And then there’s your ‘dream,’ the goal you really want to achieve, like winning the Worlds. You have to be organized and break things down so you can figure out what it will take to get you there. They were very good with this system.”

Although Conor quips that there are “some wonderful home videos of us screaming at each other,” he and his sisters agree about their mutual “secret weapon” relationship. In fact, at a party last month organized by O’Shea-Chaplin to celebrate the Worlds’ titles, Conor publicly thanked his sisters for the part they’ve played in his success – whether on the dance floor or elsewhere.

“Claire’s my life coach, and Alana’s always such a big help,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “You guys have been my role models, and the ones who’ve told me ‘It will get better’ after a bad day.”

As important as their siblings’ presence has been to each O’Brien child over the years, another enjoyable aspect of Irish dancing has been “that you tend to compete with the same people over a number of years, and they become your friends,” Alana explains. “You know that you’ll always have these connections, and it’s very reassuring as you go on in life.”

Alana’s reference to transition is a relevant one, since she and her siblings are at the point where other concerns and interests are beckoning – Alana is studying medicine at Dartmouth; Claire, a Tufts graduate, is working in London; and Conor is set to graduate from Tufts next spring – while the time, energy and opportunity for Irish dance becomes ever more difficult to cobble together. Getting teacher certification is one possibility for continuing in the Irish dance world. Performance is another option, although as Conor says, “it’s a whole different beast than competing,” and Claire notes that finding those kinds of gigs on a regular basis can take an awful lot of time in and of itself.

Stephanie sounds a nostalgic note as she considers the ways in which Irish dance made a difference in her family’s life – not just for the kids, but for her and Andrew. “I’m not necessarily the most visually adept person, but I did pretty well at making those dance costumes look good. And Andrew? He learned how to be an Irish dance Santa Claus,” she adds with a laugh.

“But really, I think what Andrew and I liked the most was being around not only our kids, but their friends. It gave us an insight into teenagers and who they are, and how they put their heart and soul into what they love, and that was wonderful. To see a kid you know get up there and do well gave you a great feeling – and when they fell short, your heart would break for them. Our lives have been enriched by this experience.”

Fortunately, when you have enough younger family members, friends and acquaintances, you can still continue to hold onto that bond with Irish dance. “We have a nine-year-old cousin just coming up, so we’ll be experiencing it all over again,” says Alana. “Sure, it’s not the same, but you do get a good feeling when you see everything through her eyes and remember how it was for you.”