While most people have put away the shamrocks, corned beef recipes and green clothing until next St. Patrick's Day, two Anne Arundel girls are preparing for a demanding international Irish dance contest that combines athleticism and artistry.
The two are counting the days until the 2014 World Irish Dancing Championships in London on April 13-20. They join six others from the Teelin School of Irish Dance in Columbia who qualified by placing in the top 10 percent of their age groups in regional competition.
Organized by An Coimisiun Le Rinci Gaelacha, the Dublin-based Irish dancing commission that oversees the annual competition, the championships stir up an abundance of anticipation and anxiety in the talented young dancers.
"I've always imagined what it would be like to dance on the big stage and compete against dancers from other countries," said 13-year-old Emily Galoppo of Odenton, who is competing in the event for the first time.
"It would be exciting to place against dancers from other countries," said Emily, who is an eighth-grader at the School of the Incarnation in Gambrills.
Ellie King, a 14-year-old Arnold resident, is heading to the competition for the fourth consecutive year, and she was among the elite third of dancers her age to be recalled by judges to give a second performance in 2013.
"It's exciting to watch people perform who are so good at what they do and to see who will win," said Ellie, a McDonogh School eighth-grader.
The same girl has won the event in Ellie's and Emily's age bracket the past three years — and was deserving of the honor, Ellie said.
But this year, the two dancers and another Teelin student, 13-year-old Gaby Stratmann of Ellicott City, are competing against the reigning champion — and each other — in hopes of capturing their bracket's top prize.
"This is a culmination of all that these eight students have worked for," said Maureen Gately, co-owner and director of the school, in which 300 students are enrolled.
The championships are the pinnacle of Irish step dancing competition. To help dancers stay grounded even 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."
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.
Teelin's competitors all qualified at the Washington-area regional competition held in December at National Harbor in Prince George's County.
Other dancers who will compete in London are Kayleigh Donnelly, 10, of Ellicott City; Saoirse DeBoy, 14, of Mount Airy; Ben Koolbeck, 20, of Woodstock; Katie Ortel, 16, of Glenwood; and Jade Shields, 14, of Clarksville.
All eight are competing as soloists this year and traveling separately with their families — sending teams to London wasn't financially feasible, said Shawn Stratmann, a Teelin instructor and the mother of Gaby. Competitors are grouped by age and gender, and will perform on different days, making traveling as a school too difficult, she said.
Stratmann said that most advanced students, whether they qualified for the world championships this year or not, continue to put in 12 to 15 hours of practice over six days each week. Regular practices help dancers to maintain stamina, an important ingredient for success, she said.
Meg Ortel, communications manager at Teelin, said students understand the value of rehearsals and commit to a grueling schedule year-round in order to perfect 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.
"It's a lot like the Olympics in that so much is riding on one moment in time," Shawn Stratmann said of competing in what some people refer to as an art form and others call a sport. "There's a lot of pressure."
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Teelin will hold a spring show at 1 p.m. April 5 at the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. For details, or to view championship results in late April, go to teelin.com.