Let’s Move Quad Cities celebrates the spirit and determination Quad City area residents take to promote movement and fitness. We welcome guest blogger, 17-year-old Emily Styvaert (above), Davenport Central High School student and Irish step dancer with the Mayer School of Irish Dance.
Irish Step Dancing is Why I Move
By Emily Styvaert, 17, Irish Step Dancer
How did your journey to Irish Step Dancing begin?
One of my mom’s friends had two daughters that were Irish dancers. When I was in first grade, they taught me a show number so I begged my mom to start classes and I’ve been dancing ever since!
What do you enjoy most about step dancing?
I love all of the friends I’ve made! I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in my age group from across the nation and we talk almost every day. Another one of my favorite things is how much hard work you have to put into it. Dance has taught me how to work hard in school, too, and not give up on something when it seems difficult.
Describe the competitions you have attended.
A competition is called a feis (pronounced “fesh”) and they are held all over the world! I’ve personally competed in feises in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, and Indiana.
Every year, dancers can qualify for their regional championships, which we call the Oireachtas. The top placers qualify for the North American Nationals and even the World Championships.
Judging is based on multiple aspects, the main ones being posture, turnout, technique, and stage presence. Getting up on stage gives you a big rush of adrenaline and nerves, but it’s very exciting to perform!
Tell us about the physical demands of step dancing.
Irish dance requires strength in a lot of areas. You have to keep your arms stiff at all times and you have to have strong shoulders to be able to pull them back. You also have to have core strength, which helps you get high off the ground during jumps and helps your posture.
Another big demand is leg strength. While dancing continuously can give you some big calf muscles, it’s important for us to do lots of stretches and strengthening exercises.
Lastly, you need stamina, which is one of the most important things in Irish dance. Stamina allows us to dance our full steps without looking like we’re tired on stage. Jumping rope is one of our most common exercises to help keep our stamina up.
How do you learn the intricate steps?
Lots and lots of practice! While some steps are easy to learn, it’s still a lot of work to perfect it and make it look effortless. It can be frustrating when you can’t pick up a certain piece but drilling it a lot really helps!
What is the most difficult step maneuver to make and how do you do it?
Every dancer has their own piece that takes them a while to master. I had trouble with a piece called “drums.” Drums are a certain toe and heel rhythm combination that, when put together, sound like horse hooves on pavement. It took me a while, but once I broke it down into each individual piece and practiced a lot, I had it!
Does it take years of practice to perfect?
It depends on the dancer. Some of the top-placing dancers have only been dancing for a few years but have a lot of natural talent. However, the majority of top placers have been dancers for most of their lives.
Tell us about the unique costumes!
The girls wear a custom solo dress and the boys wear a long sleeve shirt, a custom waistcoat, and black pants. Within the past few months, the more commonly known traditional 3-panel dresses have been making a comeback among dress designers.
Each dress and waistcoat is different, ranging in all sorts of colors and designs. During competitions, the girls also wear wigs. These wigs are full of curls and come in every natural hair color.
Will you keep dancing after school?
I plan to keep dancing and competing in college as of right now. I’ve also been looking into getting my TCRG, which is the certification you need to become a teacher. I’m really looking forward to keeping dance in my life for as long as possible!
Why do you think young people consider step dancing?
I think young people consider it because it’s not a common form of dance that they see every day. It’s refreshing to see how dance varies among cultures!