Young dancers step up a notch

Competition: Three local girls will be traving to Ireland to pit their skills against the best in the world.

March 14, 2004|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jillian Sikora of Bel Air is only 10 years old, but she is a seasoned performer. In a few weeks she will be traveling to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to compete in the World Irish Dancing Championships. She is one of three girls with ties to Harford County who share a drive and dream to excel at the elite level.

The other two who will be in Belfast April 4-11 are Bel Air resident Caitlin Riane Golding, 15, a student at the Kevin Broesler School of Irish Dance in Brooklyn Park, and Courtney McConnell, 14, who like Sikora is a student at the Bel Air branch of the Ryan School of Irish Dance.

McConnell has attended three Irish dance schools. The first, the Broesler School, was where she met Golding - a lifelong co-competitor who quickly became her best friend. "She kind of helped me along the way at Broesler," McConnell said of Golding.

Golding wanted to be an Irish dancer since she was in second grade, after a family vacation to Ireland spurred her interest. "I saw the dancers over there and thought I might try it out. My aunt who is from Ireland used to dance and helped us pick out a school," she said.

A sophomore at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, Golding has been a student at Broesler for eight years and is a three-time veteran of the world competition.

Sikora, a fifth-grader at Hickory Elementary School, has been training for four years in hopes of getting to this point. Last year she was too young to compete; 10 is the youngest age allowed at the event, according to the rules.

Colleen Protzko, a parent and spokeswoman for the Bel Air branch of the Ryan School, said this is the first year the Maryland branch of the school - whose main school is in Philadelphia - has placed in the international competition.

"It's pretty exciting for them to be going, and to have such a young performer go as well," Protzko said. "The Philadelphia [Ryan] school has more World girls going, and we've never had any World girls go - until now."

The event will be broadcast on Irish television. To qualify, 2,500 to 3,000 dancers placed at top levels at their respective regional championships.

McConnell, a freshman at Carver High School in Towson, qualified twice before, but this will be her first year attending. Both of the Ryan girls competed and placed at the North American Nationals and competed in December at the Regional Championships in Norfolk, Va., where Sikora placed second and McConnell placed eighth.

Dancers will compete in a soft-shoe dance called a reel and a hard-shoe dance called a hornpipe. A select few will move onto the recall round to compete in a set dance, which is a specially choreographed routine in a contrasting hard-shoe rhythm. After the recall round, the judges make their decisions.

"When I was little I had seen River Dance and always wanted to do dance like that," Sikora said. "Plus, my grandfather is from Ireland, and Irish heritage is all throughout our family."

Sikora will be competing against 200 girls in her age group. She admits to being more than a little nervous about the performance.

"My nerves take control when I'm up there. The hardest part is trying to control my nerves and not mess up," she said.

Sikora says the other pupils at Hickory Elementary are starting to take an interest in Irish dancing. Two other Hickory pupils recently enrolled at Ryan after seeing Sikora perform at a recent school talent show. "But there is no one in my grade or at my school who is at my level, which is open championship," she said.

Competing is Sikora's favorite aspect of dancing, she said, because it allows her to meet dancers from all walks of life.

"You get to go all around the country for competition. For the world championships you get to go to England and Ireland and [other] places in Europe. You get to meet all types of people from all kinds of places. That's my favorite part," she said.

McConnell has been dancing for seven years. She is a second-generation Irish dancer who was inspired by her mother's love of the dance.

"Back when my mom was dancing, Irish dance competitions didn't go as far as they do today. Believe it or not, Irish dancing wasn't exactly popular when my mom was a kid," she said.

"It has grown over the years. They didn't have the world championships for North American dancers then. It was only for dancers from Ireland, England or Scotland. So a lot of the girls that live in North America now are able to go to the world championships through the regional championships," she said.

Her family "has a little bit of Irish in it everywhere," according to McConnell, who says St. Patrick's Day is by far the busiest time of year for her in terms of performances and events.

Golding has competed at Worlds three times: in 1999 in Belfast; in 2001 in Glasgow, Scotland; and in 2003 in Kilarny, Ireland. She qualified in 2000, but the competition was canceled because of fears related to an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in cattle in England.

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