By Claudia Mathis
Regina Dziergas, eighth grader at Christian Brothers Academy, is extremely excited. She will be competing along with 53 other dancers from the Johnston School of Irish Dance at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Competition, better known as Oireachtas. The Oireachtas, a gathering of top dancers from schools in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, will take place Nov. 25-27 at the Marriot in Philadelphia, Pa.
In addition to Regina, five other students representing diocesan Catholic schools will compete that weekend.
“I can’t wait,” said Regina, of the upcoming competition. The teen has been dancing since she was five years old and has competed in many local feisanna (the Gaelic word for Irish dance competitions) since the age of seven.
Last year, Regina participated in the Mid-Atlantic competition for the first time. “I felt like I was the best of the best,” she said. “It was great to meet those people from all over and to connect with them.”
Regina has achieved a level of competency that qualifies her to compete on a solo level. “I’ve been moving up in levels,” Regina said. “When I learn of my mistakes, I correct them right away.”
Regina said she likes dressing in the attire of an Irish dancer when she performs at the competition. The solo dresses are ornate and colorful and the girls wear wigs of long, curly hair. “It makes me feel special,” she explained.
Regina enjoys her dance lessons at the Johnston School of Irish Dance. “I love practice and learning the new steps,” she said. “I really love the sport and the people that I practice with — they are like my brothers and sisters.”
In addition to taking lessons, Regina practices at home as often as she can and sometimes works out at the YMCA in Fayetteville to keep in shape for the vigorous sport.
The roots of Irish step dancing in the U.S. today date back to the late 1890s, when Irish immigrants established dancing schools.
In Syracuse, Ann Johnston-Sullivan opened the Johnston School of Irish Dance in 1993. She had only four students at that time, but as the popularity of Irish dancing grew with the advent of Riverdance, the school’s enrollment multiplied. In 1997, Johnston-Sullivan asked her long-time friend and dance colleague Patty Wilsch to join her in teaching the students. The enterprise is extremely successful with locations in Syracuse, Fayetteville, Utica and Watertown.
Johnston-Sullivan and Wilsch are very proud of their students, especially the two who placed eighth in the international competition last April in Dublin, Ireland. In addition, some of her students who danced as a group placed eighth in the competition.
The instructors said their students benefit from the sport of Irish dancing in numerous ways. As dedicated students they become very disciplined as they learn to budget the time needed to practice the sport. “It also exposes them to different people and situations,” added Johnston-Sullivan.
Aine and Mairead McIntyre are sisters who both attend Most Holy Rosary School in Syracuse. Aine, who is nine years old, placed third in last year’s Oireachtas after her solo dance. And last July she placed 10th in the national competition. Aine said she is looking forward to dancing with others at the upcoming competition. “I like dancing with the friends I’ve made,” she said.
Mairead, a fifth-grader, will be performing a solo dance for the first time this year. “I’m nervous, but excited,” Mairead said. She enjoys dressing up for her performances and also dancing at community events and at nursing homes with her fellow dancers.
Jordan Connell, 17, is a senior at Bishop Ludden Junior/Senior High School. She has taken lessons since she was seven years old and she qualified to compete on a national level when she was 13 years old. “Being committed to the sport is really important,” said Jordan. She said she enjoys the sense of community she feels from her many dancing friends. Jordan said the upcoming competition will mean a lot to her because it will be one of the last few times that she will compete.
Molly and Brendan Sullivan, 9-year-old twins who are in fourth grade at Holy Cross School in DeWitt, said they find the competitions very enlightening. “You find out what you need to fix,” said Molly. She is looking forward to wearing a pink skirt and a black shirt for her solo dance at the competition.
Brendan said he likes to compete because it inspires him to work harder.
Marianne Sullivan, the twins’ mother, said her children became interested in Irish step dancing after seeing the Johnston School dancers perform at the St. Patrick’s Irish Festival on Tipp Hill in Syracuse when they were kindergartners. “They wanted to dance,” said Sullivan. “When they began to take lessons, they embarked on something that increased their self confidence and social skills. It’s been a great experience.”
For more information about the Johnston School of Irish Dance, call Johnston-Sullivan at (315) 458-2436.