As the lilting rills and jaunty Celtic music picked up intensity, young dancers deftly stepped across the stage.
Lauryn Blondell felt the nerves as she waited her turn. The 11-year-old Edinburgh resident was participating in her first Oireachtas, a competition that gathered the best Irish dancers in the Midwest.
But as soon as she pranced out in front of the judges, any nervousness disappeared.
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“It makes me really more confident in myself. Not a lot of people can get up there and do this. People at school don’t understand how I go up and dance like that,” she said.
Through Irish dance, Lauryn has discovered abilities that she never knew she had. Her passion for it has grown as she’d learned the varying steps and styles of the dances, gaining confidence as the rhythm flowed through her legs.
With her dedication and hard work, Lauryn recently placed near the top of her age group during the Mid-American Oireachtas. She has a full slate of eight competitions planned for the next year, and hopes that as her skills develop, she’ll continue to find success in the art form that she loves.
“Irish dancing is a pretty niche sport, so we thought that was a good accomplishment for her,” said Olivia Ryan, founder of Ryan Academy of Irish Dance, where Lauryn is a student. “It was great to see my first group of students go to this competition, and really proud to see how dedicated and hard this group was able to learn.”
Every Wednesday evening, Lauryn and her mom, Karrie Blondell, load into the car for the trip to dance practice. After founding her dance studio in Bloomington, Ryan has since moved to teaching in New Albany.
The Blondells opted to stick with the Ryan Academy, so they make the hour-long trek there and back each week. When Lauryn has a competition coming up, she’ll have additional practice on Saturdays as well.
The drive is worth it, though.
“She goes up in the middle of all of these people and dances. It’s been nothing but a positive for her,” Karrie Blondell said. “It has changed her.”
Lauryn, a sixth-grader at Southwestern Elementary in Shelby County, had been dancing tap and jazz for a few years when she discovered Irish dance. She was at a recital when she saw another group of dancers doing it and thought it looked interesting. Her parents signed her up for a summer camp that featured it, and Lauryn became hooked.
“I liked how it was different than a lot of other dances. Everyone has heard of ballet, they’ve heard of tap, they’ve heard of jazz. Not everyone has heard of Irish,” she said. “It’s a lot faster than other dance, and where other dances use their hands, you don’t in Irish dance.”
Irish dance is a traditional art form that has woven through Ireland’s history, but also has evolved as it has become more mainstream. The popularity of dancers such as Michael Flatley and his “Riverdance” show helped bring it more into popular culture.
That has helped spawn a resurgence in the style in the U.S., leading to regional associations and competitions.
“One thing I really appreciate about it is the level of precision and technical execution that it requires. That has always spoken to the way I think. I appreciate it as an art, but also that there’s a very high standard that you have to reach in order to be competitive in it,” Ryan said.
Ryan grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, where she was heavily involved with Irish dance in the city. When she moved to Indiana after graduating from college, she found that there wasn’t an outlet or school for teaching that style.
So, with her experience, she decided to open her own academy. Ryan started the Ryan Academy of Irish Dance in Bloomington in 2014. That same year, Lauryn joined as a student and was one of four dancers from the studio to take part in a feis, or an Irish dance competition.
In Ryan, Lauryn has found an ideal guide as she journeys deeper into the world of Irish dance.
“In my old studio, I had different teachers a lot. Now that I’ve gotten used to the same teacher, we know each other’s personalities more, and we know what we’re good at,” Lauryn said.
The group has worked on the different steps and styles of Irish dance, preparing for small competitions and shows in the area. During the Mid-American Oireachtas, held in late November in Chicago, Lauryn was one of three dancers from Ryan Academy to compete. The competition featured more than 3,000 people in varying age groups.
The sheer size of the event was initially shocking for Lauryn.
“The stage from my normal feises were a lot tinier. This stage was huge, and you’re up there with another dancer at the same time,” she said.
But she didn’t lose her cool when it came time to compete. In her age group, Lauryn finished 29th out of 137 girls — just outside the two 20 percent of competitors.
“Olivia wanted them to have experience, and not have it be the first time of seeing this stage, which is so different. We honestly weren’t expecting anything except getting the nerves out of the way,” Karrie Blondell said.
She had gone into it hoping to finish in the top half of the field. The better-than-expected result leaves her something good to build on for the future.
Competing at the highest levels of Irish dance in the U.S. requires progression through a series of skill levels, from beginners to novice to prizewinner to champions. The only way to move up is to do well in competitions.
In less than a year of work, Lauryn has started that progression. She’ll take part in her next feis in St. Louis in February, and hopes to travel to competitions in Ohio, Kentucky, and possibly Florida as well.
“There’s going to be a lot of practicing,” Lauryn said.
School: Sixth grade at Southwestern Elementary School in Shelby County
Family: Parents David and Karrie Blondell