Fifteen years of grueling rehearsals and endless practice have finally paid off for Amy Mooney.
The 20-year-old grabbed the first-place trophy at the Oireachtas, the national Irish dancing competition in Dallas, in early December. That was a huge jump from last year's competition, in which she placed fifth. The national title will send her across the Atlantic Ocean to Killarney, Ireland, for the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, the world competition, this June.
"I went last year and qualified to go to Ireland as well, so this is my second time at the (world competition)," she said. "But this year I got first (at nationals). I was really excited and I competed against this girl that I've been trying to beat my whole life, and I finally beat her, and I was like 'Yes!"'
Although Ms. Mooney was terrified during her first trip to Ireland, she now feels confident because she knows what to expect.
Each dancer has three rounds to show the judges her skills. In the first two rounds, a band plays music not chosen by the dancers. Each dancer performs a "soft shoe" routine with a dancer from another team. The second round requires the dancer to perform in "hard shoes," again with another dancer. If the dancer makes it to the third round, she must perform solo, in hard shoes and with music of her choice.
Without the dedication of her grandparents, Louis and Annie Emmett, and her mother, Philomena, Ms. Mooney may have never known of her talent for Irish dancing. The Emmetts came to the United States in 1985 from Ireland and started The Augusta Irish Dancers that year.
"The (dancers) are like the recreational group," Ms. Mooney said. "They do all the shows around town. And Glor na hEireann, which means Pride of Ireland, is like the competitive group. We're the ones that go out and do all the competitions."
A form of folk dance, Irish dancing is distinctive because of its form - dancers, dressed in costumes modeled after the attire of 14th-century peasants, compete in soft and hard shoe. For soft shoe, which is similar to ballet slippers, the focus is on the dancer's form. Hard shoe is more about the dancer's skill, which is judged by the sound the shoes make against the floor.
As much as Ms. Mooney loves the thrill of competing, her first passion is teaching the dancing style. She spends two hours three nights a week in the studio practicing and teaching dance. After she reaches the age requirement of 21 in July, she will take the test to be a certified TCRG (Teasgicoir Choimisiuin Le Rinci Gaelacha, or Gaelic Commission Dancing Teacher). But there will be a price.
"Once you get your TCRG, you're not allowed to compete anymore," Ms. Mooney said. "I'm going to try and win Senior Ladies ... and after that, I'll get my TCRG."
For now, Ms. Mooney shares the duties of teaching the group Glor na hEireann with fellow Irish dancer Abbey Pride, 25, a certified instructor.
"I love my kids," Ms. Mooney said. "That's a lot of the reason why I do it. I can't tell you how much I love those kids. I mean when I was at Georgia Southern (University), I came home every weekend to teach. It's more rewarding with the little kids."
Competitions can be costly.
Dancers pay a fee for dancing at competitions, about $15 per dance. At national and world competitions, dancers pay anywhere from $30 to $50 per dance. There are also the costs of flying and hotel expenses.
Traditional costumes can cost more than $1,500. The dresses and headpieces most Irish dancers wear are made from raw silk and imported from Ireland.
Irish dancers - from America or Ireland - are required to "look" Irish, so most dancers have to buy spiral-curled wigs.
"The (wig) is 100 bucks a pop, and it doesn't last very long," Ms. Mooney said. "You have to get another one after a couple of months, so it's really expensive."
But according to Ms. Mooney, the cost doesn't matter.
"Irish dancing is my love," she said. "I would never give it up because I've been doing it for so long. It's part of my family."
WHAT: Irish Dancing
WHO: The Augusta Irish Dancers with Abbey Pride, TCRG, Philomena Mooney and Amy Mooney
COST: $30 per month
WHAT IS IRISH DANCING?
Irish dancing is a style of folk dancing developed by numerous groups of people who inhabited the Emerald Isle. The Druids, the Celts and the Normans all helped to form Irish dancing. The first type of Irish dancing was figure dancing, also known as Ceili dancing (pronounced Kay-lee). After the Irish were oppressed by the British in the 16th century, dancing became popular, and skilled Dance Masters would travel from city to city, teaching Irish dancing to anyone willing to learn. From there, the dancing evolved into the Riverdance-esque form of today.
Reach Amy Connell at (706) 823-3220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.