When Sarah Taylor saw her cousin Irish dancing while visiting family in Belfast, she thought, “This is what I want to do.”
It was a moment for both Sarah, then 6 years old, and her Irish mother, Maria, who also danced competitively until she was 17 years old. When they got back to the United States from the trip, Maria brought out her own dresses from that time and Sarah slipped into one of them.
Now, at nearly the same age, her daughter is not only still dancing she’s trying to work her way up competitively to what she describes as the “Olympics of Irish dancing.”
To do it, she’s working up the levels of competition. There are three major worldwide competitions and, if she makes it there, she’d face an estimated 400 people who are the best Irish dancers in the world.
“As of now, it would be to move up a level because I’m at the second to last level,” Sarah said of how she ranks competitively. “Once I move from this level, I’ll be at the highest level, which is pretty much at the top basically.”It’s hard to qualify for, but that isn’t deterring this Destrehan High School sophomore from making her move to get there.
Irish dancing is Sarah’s main activity out of school, the natural selection after she tried jazz, tap dancing and hip hop.
“I feel like everyone watches it and they think it’s cool, but nobody really understands it unless you actually do it,” Sarah said of those who see Irish dancing for the first time.
Sometimes she wonders if they’re thinking she looks like a little leprechaun clicking its heels, but she hopes they’re seeing the beauty of her Irish heritage in motion.
“I do it because my mom did Irish dancing and I feel somehow I’m carrying on a tradition,” she said. “It makes me feel more connected.”
Sarah also enjoys the feeling of being on stage, which Irish dancing readily affords her. She also welcomes the friendship with the classes and competition.
As far as being Irish, she considers it special.
“My mom always gets questions like ‘Where are you from?’” she said. “At school, I’m asked if my mom is Irish. Yes, it is kind of special and there are lots of Irish people, but it’s cool that I have a part of that in me.”
She also considers herself “a mixing pot” with her father, Sean, being British.
For Maria, being an Irish dancer until nearly 17 years old, highlighted her childhood in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. Like Sarah, she started dancing at six years old and it was a good fit in a place where she could see a 16th-century Norman Castle out of her bedroom window everyday.
“I just saw it somewhere and did it,” she said of dancing. “We didn’t have ‘River Dance’ back then, although it made Irish dance global.”
Maria’s dance style didn’t include the ornate costumes and makeup that it does now.
“I never did any of that,” she said. “It’s a different culture now then back then.”
Even so, she made her mark one year as Ulster champion, but readily concedes she doesn’t dance as well as her daughter.
“It was a good community feeling being a part of a team and you get to dance individually, too,” Maria said. “There is a commitment with practicing and you learn to take the highs and lows. It’s a good education. Life is not a bunch of roses all the time.”
Maria recalled when Sarah put on her dancing costume for the first time and announced “Mommy, I want to do that.” Upon return to the U.S., they found the McTeggart Irish Dancers of Louisiana school and her daughter started taking classes. Last year, Sheila Ryan Davoren of Lafayette took over the school and, now age 15, Sarah is continuing her classes there.
The school, now called the Ryan School of Irish Dance, is funded by the Louisiana Arts Council because it contributes to cultural diversity.
Two weeks ago, Sarah won the Magnolia State Feis competition in New Orleans, which Maria considered a special recognition because she did it in honor of Maureen Hall, the master instructor who taught her Irish dancing.
Hall, who was among the first to establish the Irish dance schools in the U.S., died in February.
“She won it and it’s in memory of her teacher,” she said. “This was a time she danced really well and she really did Ms. Hall proud.”
Sarah has also done her parents proud by sharing her mother’s love for Irish dancing.
“It’s in her blood,” Maria said. “It’s just fabulous that she does it in the United States. It’s part of her heritage and I think it’s really cool she’s carrying it on here.”