Inside the main studio at the Teelin School of Irish Dance, the fiberglass heels and toes of step-dancing shoes pack a thunderous wallop as they pound the floor in precise rhythm.
With motionless arms and erect upper bodies buoyed by high kicks and rapid footwork, the young dancers are a study in contrasts during a rehearsal of intricate, synchronized steps in front of a mirrored wall.
While most people have put away their shamrocks, corned-beef recipes and green attire until next St. Patrick's Day, eight students who train at the Columbia studio are working tirelessly to prepare for a demanding international competition that combines Irish culture with athleticism and artistry.
The dancers, who range in age from 10 to 20, are counting down the days until the 2014 World Irish Dancing Championships in London from April 13-20. The students qualified to compete by placing in the top 10 percent of their age groups in regional competition in December at National Harbor in Prince George's County.
Organized by An Coimisiun Le Rinci Gaelacha, the Dublin-based Irish dancing commission that oversees the competition, the championships stir up an abundance of anticipation and anxiety.
"It would be really exciting to take a step up to the next level," said Gaby Stratmann, a 13-year-old home-schooled student who lives in Ellicott City and is competing at Worlds for the fourth time.
Shawn Stratmann, Gaby's mother and an instructor at the school, said she's seen other competitors suffer from such severe pre-performance jitters backstage that they become physically ill. But she's quick to add that none of Teelin's dancers have ever succumbed that way.
"It's a lot like the Olympics in that so much is riding on one moment in time," she said of the competition in what some people refer to as an art form and others call a sport. "It's a lot of pressure."
Jade Shields, a 10th-grader at River Hill High School who is competing at Worlds for the first time, predicted the competition will be an exciting experience no matter the outcome.
"It's just nice to know you're good enough to compete at such a high level," the 15-year-old Clarksville resident said.
Maureen Gately, the school's co-owner and director, said qualifying for Worlds is a lot like being nominated for an Academy Award, in that the recognition itself is remarkable.
All of the dancers "have to be perfect, then technique is what sets them apart," she said.
The championships are the pinnacle of Irish step-dancing competition and can be daunting. To help dancers stay grounded as they reach for the stars, Teelin gave its eight competitors blue tank tops printed with six lines of encouragement.
The wording, in white capital letters, reads: "Dream | Believe in yourself | Work hard | Enjoy the process | Love the art | Dance with your heart."
The competitors, who are grouped by gender and birth year, will also have the chance to perform along with the rest of the school's dancers when Teelin holds its annual Spring Show at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. April 5 at the Jim Rouse Theatre for Performing Arts.
Gately said the school's instructors employ performance psychology to help students prepare for the mental demands of competing at such a high level, especially those who are returning to the world stage and vying for recognition this year.
The other students who will compete in London are Kayleigh Donnelly, 10, of Ellicott City; Saoirse DeBoy, 14, of Mount Airy; Emily Galoppo, 13, of Odenton; Ellie King, 14, of Arnold; Ben Koolbeck, 20, of Woodstock; and Katie Ortel, 16, of Glenwood.
Not only will Ellie, Emily and Gaby compete against each other, they will be trying to dethrone the three-time champion of their age group.
"Worlds are a culmination of everything these students have worked for," said Gately, who runs the school with her sisters, Kathleen Young and Eileen Narvell. Teelin, named for their mother's hometown in Ireland, has a roster of nearly 300 students and also runs a performance company.
Most of the school's predominantly female student body begin lessons at age 5, said Gately, who founded the school in 2000. She opened her first studio on Red Branch Road in 2005.
Stratmann said that most advanced students, whether they qualified for Worlds this year or not, continue to put in 12 to 15 hours of practice each week. Regular practice helps the dancers to maintain their stamina, which is an important ingredient for success, she said.
Meg Ortel, the school's communications manager, said students understand the value of rehearsals and eagerly commit to a grueling schedule year-round in order to hone their skills.
"To dance at this level and to have that kind of drive, they know they must put in the time and effort to achieve perfection," said Ortel, whose daughter Katie will compete at Worlds for the first time. She also qualified last year, but an ankle injury sidelined her.
All eight students will compete as soloists since sending teams to London this year wasn't financially feasible, Stratmann said. Competition sites alternate among Ireland, Scotland, England and North America, she said. Last year, the school was able to send two teams to compete in Boston.
She also noted that the appeal of Irish dancing is broadening, becoming popular all over the world and in such countries as Australia, Brazil, China, Mexico and Russia.
Gately will stay in London for the entire competition and will be available to assist with individual coaching and to boost performers' morale "if they start falling apart."
"It's all about celebrating what each dancer can do," Ortel said. "Each one of them has strengths and it's about getting the judges to notice those strengths.
"Judging is as fair as possible, but still very subjective. In the world of Irish dance, that's what we call 'character building,'" she said.
For more about Teelin's spring show on April 5, or to view championship results in late April, go to teelin.com.