By Leslie Ballard
Sabrina Mills, an Allegan High School junior, is counting the days until she leaves for Belfast later this month to compete in the 50th Irish Dancing World Championships. Only 1% of the Irish dancers worldwide quality for this event.
The Oireachtus Rince na Cruinne (official title of the World Championships) is the highest level of competition for Irish dancers and draws thousands of competitors from around the globe in solo and team events.
“I’m really excited about dancing in Ireland where this type of dancing began,” said Sabrina. She will compete April 13-14 in the capital of Northern Ireland against approximately 300 dancers in her age group.
This is Sabrina’s fifth qualification for the World Championships and her third time to compete as recent world competitions have been canceled due to Covid.
“I like everything about Irish dancing, competitions most of all,” she stated. “After all the hard work you’ve done, you get to show it on the stage.”
She gets the chance to do that approximately 15-20 times a year as she competes in three regional and national competitions as well as smaller venues called Feis. To qualify for the World Championships, she had to place in the top 14 at the national competition in Phoenix last July. Sabrina did that easily, earning a 1st for her set dance and a 2nd overall, which also earned her a spot on the podium.
Sabrina’s competition regimen is daunting. She takes classes at the Ardan Academy of Dance at Aquinas College twice a week at both the Grand Rapids and Detroit locations. In addition, she practices every day in her home studio and, to maintain the great deal of stamina Irish dancing requires, has a fitness routine that includes running.
She has competed in the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland in 2018 and Greensboro, NC in 2019. “Just being there is a big deal,” she noted given the quality of the competitors. Dancers in other countries such as Ireland and Scotland train full-time for these competitions while in the US it is an extracurricular activity.
Sabrina became involved with Irish dancing at age 7. “I saw it at a Grand Rapids festival, and it was unique, different, and I thought I’d like to do that,” she recalled. It takes years to reach the top level open championship status Sabrina enjoys, with each stage requiring more skills and more top three placements in competitions to move to the next level.
Recuperating from a hip injury a few years ago was a challenge, but Sabrina competed just weeks after getting off crutches. She didn’t place in the top half that day, but she and her mother Amy consider it a victory that she was able to compete at all.
Sabrina’s older sister Sasha also danced, and at times they competed against each other in specials, a part of the program that allows for combined age group competitions, which can result in prizes but which does not allow advancement to the next level of dance. “We had fun,” Sabrina laughed, “it was competitive but fun and we’re good sports.”
Dancers compete in soft shoes and hard shoes and may only use their routines for one year and then must change them. If they place highly enough in the soft and hard shoe portions, they may then compete in the set dance. Sabrina’s favorite set dance is Kilkenney Races, which she has used for 4-5 years, and which earned her a 1st in set at nationals.
Because of her previous injury and her anatomy class, Sabrina has developed an interest in physical therapy, which she hopes to pursue at Aquinas or Notre Dame. Notre Dame also provides scholarships in Irish dancing, which is an added enticement as she plans to continue dancing in college.
Sabrina thinks Irish dancing “has become more popular, and I see more postings about it on Facebook and other sites and see more people joining classes.”
Other competitions include the Oireachtas, which are regional. For instance, the Mid-America Oireachtas includes 14 states and @80 dancers in Sabrina’s age group usually compete. The next level is the nationals where 100-200 dancers in her age group vie for the top spots. Thousands of dancers, male and female, compete each year at these events.
Sabrina’s classmate “are really cool” about her passion for Irish dance and ask her to show them moves. One of her teachers requested her to teach some steps to her gym class. “That was fun teaching, and I think they had fun learning.”
She also participates in cross country and track.
The whole family will be in Belfast to cheer on Sabrina. Her mother also enjoys the travel involved. “We’ve seen so much of the states and the world we wouldn’t have seen,” Amy said as she recounts trips to Vancouver, New Orleans, and Orlando among many other destinations where her daughters have competed.
Sabrina agrees and she and her mother also believe that meeting new people and “making friends from all over the world” has been an additional bonus.
What will an Irish dancer do on St. Patrick’s Day? Sabrina and her Ardan Academy classmates will be touring schools and nursing homes in the Grand Rapids area where they will perform.