WITH THE HELP of years of dancing lessons and an American go-getter attitude, Megan Harper is the newly crowned North American National Irish Dance Champion for girls 18 years and under. This is an amazing accomplishment for an American teen-ager in an art form traditionally dominated by dancers from Ireland, Scotland and England.
Before capturing the North American crown - a gold and silver tiara befitting royalty - the 2002 Severna Park High School graduate participated in her first international competition (called a feis in Gaelic), in February at the All Ireland Championships in Killarney, Ireland. Despite being nervous, Megan, who turns 18 next week, finished 21st among more than 80 young women.
In March, she improved her standing at the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, taking 17th place among 125 dancers.
The North American championships, open to qualifiers from across the world, were held during the July 4 holiday in Boston with 115 dancers competing. She out-danced her stiffest competition from the British Isles.
"I've been doing dance all my life," said Megan, daughter of James and Kathryn Harper of Chartridge. "I love dancing and was always looking for new things. I really fell in love with Irish dance; I found what I was looking for."
Her interest began four years ago when she saw a performance of River Dance. She says that she loved the hypnotic rhythms and told her mother she wanted to try it. Her mother's replied, "You can't learn how to do that. Those people are from Ireland."
Even if she did learn, Megan thought she'd never compete. "Competing did not come easy," she said. "I have to battle my nerves."
Determined to learn, Megan found Irish dance instructor Kevin Broesler, who teaches on the East Coast. Every Monday afternoon, Broesler boards a train from his home in New Jersey to Baltimore, where he teaches classes at the Chesapeake Center for the Arts in Brooklyn Park. Late Monday night, he returns to New Jersey.
Every weekend, Megan takes the train to Broesler's studio in Westwood, N.J. In the process, she learned the differences between ballet, tap and jazz, dances she no longer does, and Irish dancing, to which she is now dedicated.
Unlike symphonic ballet music, Irish dance tunes are often played on a fiddle, an accordion and sometimes a keyboard, she said.
Ballet involves the graceful movement of the head, arms and upper torso, but Irish dancers hold their arms and upper bodies straight, the action happening from the waist down, she explained.
Ballet slippers and the Irish dancers' soft, lace-up shoe called a ghillie are somewhat alike, Megan said. Irish dancers use a hard-soled shoe similar to a tap shoe.
When she studied ballet, Megan could pack her leotard and tutu in a dance bag, but her Irish dance dress, stiffened with underlining and covered with bold designs borrowed from medieval times, looks as if it should be stored in Fort Knox. Her dress is made of raw silk with long lace sleeves. Cape and skirt are covered with heraldic designs in appliqued gold, purple and orange accented with Austrian crystals and beads. Made in Ireland by designer Sheila Hayes, the dress required six months to make and carried a hefty price tag of $1,000.
Megan, who is close to her "two wonderful sisters, Katie and Barbara," is working this summer as a hostess at an Annapolis seafood restaurant and plans to study business at Anne Arundel Community College in the fall.
She plans to continue dancing after college. "I really have grown to love competing; I don't want to stop," she said. She already assists with the younger students in dance class and hopes one day to be certified to teach a new generation of Irish dance champions.
The annual, daylong Baltimore feis, sponsored by Broesler's Irish dance school, takes place Sept. 21 at Lock Raven High School.
For more information, go to www.broesler.com.