Miss Sierra Nevada: What I learned in Irish Dance Class

IMG_5136Hi there! You might remember me from a few posts ago…My name is Carley Ryckman and I am Miss Sierra Nevada (check me out on Instagram! @MissSierraNevada). Happy St. Patrick’s Day! As “the Irish Dancer” of the Miss California class of 2015, I thought I’d step in and tell you a little bit about what I learned in Irish Dance class.

For much of my life, St. Patrick’s Day was the busiest holiday ever. I most certainly missed any and every St. Patrick’s Day celebration at my school to visit other people’s schools, retirement centers, Girl Scout Troops, house parties, places of worship, shopping centers… I was one of those little curly tops that showed up, danced, and left before they handed around the shamrock cookies. While you were searching for the leprechaun that was hiding in the classroom art closet, I was dancing.

I often (unexpectedly) danced at peoples’ weddings, a couple of bar and bat mitzvahs, people’s living rooms, graduation parties–let’s just say, I began to expect it–because, to the outside world, Irish Dancers are one-in-a-million and telling someone you’re an Irish dancer is like telling someone you have a pet unicorn, they just have to see it. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. For all intents and purposes, Irish dance was my first love and made me the person that I am today.

(IMG_0867Sadly) I don’t have a single Irish bone in my body. One spring afternoon when I was four years old, my family decided to take my brother and I to the local Swedish festival and, lo and behold, the Irish Dancers were there (I mean… totally logical, right?). Once we picked our jaws up off of the floor, we signed up for dance class. Or we tried, at least. I was too little and had to wait until I was five.

So, just days after my fifth birthday, I traded in my ballet, tap, and jazz shoes and hung up my little pink leotard for ghillies, poodle socks, and curls. I never looked back. I spent about 6 days a week for roughly 13 years of my life, walking in and out of the doors of the Irish Dance studio. The walls of that studio saw a skinny-legged, glasses-wearing little girl through her “one, two, threes”, to her first feis, her first pair of heavy shoes (and the blisters—and tears—that accompanied them), to her first solo dress, a fractured back (complete with 9 months of brace-wearing), a torn hamstring, a few twisted ankles, regionals practices, nationals practices, a performance on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, and off to college… But in that studio, I learned far more than just how to Irish Dance.

FIMG_1412or almost the entirety of my dancing career, my grandmother drove me to my classes. My studio was about an hour’s drive (no traffic) from my house. My house was about an hour’s drive from my grandma’s house. So, yes, multiple times a week, my grandma drove FOUR HOURS ROUND TRIP to get me to dance. I don’t think I fully appreciated this until I became a commuter myself: her quiet enthusiasm towards my dream. In those moments, especially reflecting back now, I learned what it meant (and felt like) to be wholly dedicated to something (or in my grandma’s case, someone) that you love. I was not, by any means, the best Irish Dancer. And I lost far more times than I won. But, win or lose, come Monday we would get back in that car and make the trip. Me, in the back seat with my homework, my grandma, faithfully braving the freeways. That trip taught me that, if you want something, if you love something, you don’t let anything get in your way, you get back up, and you keep on going. My grandma drove me to class almost daily until she was diagnosed with colon cancer, and then I drove to class (a freshly licensed sixteen year old) while we talked on the phone. Her dedication to my dream of being the best Irish Dancer I could be, taught me what true love and dedication really was.

Earlier I listed a few of the more major injuries I faced in my 13 years of competitive Irish Dance. This sport—yes, SPORT—taught me true athleticism. Having been a competitive Irish Dancer, I have no greater respect than that I have for a true athlete. The kind that throws themselves back in the pool, on the court, on the field, or the dance floor, day after day, no matter how tired, no matter how sore, no matter how fed up, for the love of the sport.

IMG_1710In 2010, researchers for the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science concluded that the contact force at the ankle joint for an Irish Dancer was 14 times their body weight. For me, that’s a casual 2,000 pounds. You’ve likely seen Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, or a performance from your local Irish Dance School but unless you have a family member or close friend who Irish Dances, you probably just don’t understand the world of competitive Irish Dancing. A lot happens behind the crazy dresses, huge wigs, and poodle socks. Like other athletes, Irish Dancers spend pretty much every waking moment, outside of school, in the studio. And they are quite a bit younger than your average Olympic athlete. Three to five hours a night for six to seven days a week is commonplace. What is even more common is the passion behind that time in the studio. Blisters on your feet? Swollen ankles? Nothing some bandages can’t fix. More times than I am willing to admit, I (and absolutely all of my fellow Irish Dancers) completely overlooked serious injuries in order to continue dancing. While I’m not saying this is a good idea, it is definitely the time where I realized what it meant to be passionate.

I have a vivid memory of my nine year old feet burning after a day of dance class and getting into my grandmother’s car to go home. Upon taking off my shoes and seeing my feet (For fear of terrifying you, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination), I sobbed the entire way home. My mummified little feet were back for more the very next day…I definitely remember what that next day and the rest of the week felt like too. It was moments like that where I knew I was dancing for the love of the sport.

FullSizeRenderReflecting back on my time Irish dancing, both in and out of the studio, I realize how lucky I was to have been able to dedicate so much time to something I truly loved to do while learning to be driven, dedicated, hardworking, and brave. I was never close to becoming a world champion or a star in Riverdance but that really doesn’t matter because Irish dance taught me to always work harder and want more and I wouldn’t trade the lessons learned in Irish Dance class for anything.

Thank you for taking the time to read my post today! If you make it up to Fresno this June (or watch the Miss California webcast, perhaps) you might just see the not-so-Irish Irish dancer perform. Now you know how she got there. While I may not be Irish, nothing makes my heart race quite like the accordion and the occasional bagpipe… Have a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day! Be nice to your local Irish Dancers, today is crazy for them!

Miss Sierra Nevada’s Secret

Hello again!

Today I am here to talk to you about a subject, a point in my life that I don’t often like to bring up. In fact, it is something that, until today, only VERY FEW people know about me. Why did I choose it? Because, (1) in retrospect, I have learned so much from it and (2) perhaps something I say here can prevent you, or one of your friends or family members from experiencing something similar. So, let’s cut to the chase…

I got kicked out of law school. Yes, you read that correctly, I, Carley Marie Ryckman, got kicked out of law school. It is safe to say that August 7, 2014 was one of the darkest days of my young life.

How? What did I do? Why am I sharing this? Let’s rewind… like really far.

FullSizeRender            When I was two years old, I walked into the door of UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute where I was diagnosed with Brown’s Syndrome and Strabismus. What that means is that my eyes were crossed, and then rotated outward. I left with huge thick glasses and an eyepatch that I wore to preschool that would cover my good eye to force the bad one to see(my parents brought extra for my class so that they would understand that I was just like everyone else, my patch was just a…cool accessory?). I was the UCLA Optometry students’ little doll. Each time I came, grad students would line up just to shine lights in my eyes and get a real life look at my conditions, because they were things they probably wouldn’t see again.

When I was 7, I had a surgery where the doctors cut a muscle in my eye with the hopes that they would align. They didn’t actually know for sure if it would work. Spoiler alert, it worked. Pretty soon I didn’t need the patches, and then I graduated to contacts in third grade, by age thirteen I just stopped wearing my glasses. What my parents initially thought was an act of teenage rebellion was really my eyes correcting themselves and I abandoned corrective devices altogether for the freedom of 20/20 vision.

Growing up, I was always the quiet girl in the class. The one that turned everything in on time even if it killed her. I spent hours on all of my take home assignments to make sure they were absolutely perfect—a perfectionist. I was that kid that everyone wanted to do class projects with, not because I was popular but because, if I had anything to do with it, we would get a good grade. I just cared too much. I was definitely labeled a “smart person” and I kind of hated that. What no on ever realized is how long things took me to complete. I liked to read and write papers. I didn’t do well on tests. I never did. No matter how hard I studied, I’d usually get a C, a C+ if I was lucky and maybe a C- if the test was super hard. I “just wasn’t a good test taker”. That’s what I told myself and that’s what my parents assumed. I made it through school on my A papers, my perfect projects, all of the extra credit I could get my hands on, and my sheer work ethic. I had “okay” grades, I was the quiet girl who knew the answer when she was called on and always did the reading. Above average, I guess. There were never any “red flags” to suggest I wasn’t a perfectly okay student.

I was accepted to the University of California Santa Barbara for college. I was going to be a communications major. I soon realized that the grades in those classes were based on tests and I “just wasn’t a good test taker”. I worked my butt off in communications but there wasn’t a lot of room to compensate for lousy test scores. So, since I loved to read and write anyways, I became an English Major. Because of the aforementioned work ethic and my love for literature and writing, I basically…rocked it. There were usually no tests and just a few papers and I loved papers. I picked up a double minor in professional editing and education because I could write even more and make presentations. And what better minor for a perfectionist than “Professional Editing”.

About half way through college I decided on law school. And, obviously, to get into law school, you have to take the LSAT, a test. Being the person that I am, I spent a year and a half studying for the thing. In the months leading up to the test, I took full-length practice exams, in testing conditions, around THREE TIMES A DAY.

I got into a “pretty good” law school (the one that kicked me out). I was incredibly proud. And even though law school is based almost entirely on test scores, I was going to be the best I could be because I wanted to be a lawyer. Like most law students, I spent all of my time studying, outlining, doing practice exams…I was literally chained to my desk. I didn’t do anything else. I stopped working out. I ate with my books. Wherever I went I had a book with me. And I didn’t really go very many places…except for the extra “success programs” they had during lunch. After my first semester, with all C’s, I had to meet with a counselor because my grades had fallen below good academic standing. Very frustrating for a perfectionist.

That meeting was probably one of the weirdest moments of my life. She asked all about what was going on in my life and why I wasn’t applying myself. Basically to explain why I fell below. I didn’t have answers for her. Nothing was wrong. Then this lady had the nerve (or that’s how I felt that day) to tell me that I probably had learning disabilities. I don’t think I really “believed” in learning disabilities back then. I’d always been a hard-nosed, no excuses kind of girl and I think, deep inside, I saw learning disabilities as an excuse people made up for laziness. I think I spent the next week crying. I’m not entirely sure why. I think I felt like someone was telling me that I was incapable of this big dream of mine. And nobody tells Carley Marie Ryckman that she is incapable.

For the entirety of my second semester, I spent every Friday afternoon (after a full week of law school) at the academic psychologist’s office. I stacked blocks, I read ink blots, I memorized pictures, I listened to strange recordings and repeated them back, I took math tests, eye exams, I explained my academic history and the way I pack a suitcase and why I pack it that way…

At age 23 and a half, I found out that I have learning disabilities, a whole slew of them. I have had them my entire life. By the time my testing was done, it was about a week before my spring semester exams. Therefore, there was no time for me to change my learning and I had to take the exams as usual. I did better. But I was still .02 below good academic standing and therefore “academically disqualified”. With the help of my doctor, my favorite professor, and a couple of attorneys, I petitioned for readmission. On August 7, 2014, the school declined to let me return for my second year of law school.

Don’t worry! This story has a happy ending…I am still going to be an attorney…Once I picked myself up off of the floor, I found a school that listened to my story and let me transfer, as a second year law student. It is very different than the first school, but it is still a law school and I am still on my path to the final goal. And that is something to celebrate.

I don’t tell you this story to “vent” or to make you, whoever you are, feel sorry for me. I tell you this story because it can help you or someone you know.

By definition, people with learning disabilites are of average or above average IQ and have a significant discrepancy between their ability and achievement: people with learning disabilites process information differently. I cannot tell you how many times, since August, I have been called “slower” to my face. This is a direct result of society being under educated about learning disabilities. I’ve also been asked: “so what do you have?” or “what medication are you on?”. Learning disabilities are both real and permanent. I (and many other people with LD) don’t take medications for them. I don’t NEED medications for them. I learn DIFFERENTLY. I don’t learn incorrectly or more slowly. My mind works differently than the way schools are structured to teach, and because of that, it takes me longer to process information in the standard way. Also, not all learning disabilities have specific names: I am not dyslexic or dysgraphic, I don’t have Asperger’s or Autism, I don’t have ADD or ADHD. I can explain how my disabilities work (or don’t) to you but mine, and many others, don’t have a specific title. It doesn’t make them less real.

So what do my disabilities consist of? Remember my glasses and my eye patch? That is where they begin. I have “tracking and visual processing issues”. Sometimes when I read, especially when I read under a time constraint or when I have been reading for long periods of time, my eyes start on one line and finish on the next. Making the information that came into my mind from the page I read, extremely jumbled. I’ve been doing this for so long that sometimes, when things don’t make sense, my brain makes them make sense by adding words that aren’t there (but that might make sense if they were there). Which means that if I’m reading quickly, my mind could be making up incorrect facts and inserting them into what I’m reading all of the time.

I’m sure this all sounds very scrambled. It is. And because it is very scrambled, my thoughts can often be scrambled. Which is why I take my time and am, admittedly, a bit of a perfectionist. Because the information in my head can be out of order, my life outside of my head is very structured. I list and calendar and outline and organize and plan. I have become incredibly good at creating order outside of my head. In an educational setting, order is very important to me.

I also sometimes have this fear that I’m going to miss getting all of the notes. So sometimes, I will focus all of my attention on speed writing and completely miss paying attention in class.

What is being done to help my disabilities? As you might imagine, in order for me to make sure I have read something correctly, it can take a couple of read throughs. In a normal test taking environment, not so possible. So, to make sure I track things correctly and efficiently, when I take tests, they are written in 18 point font and double spaced. Additionally, I get a bit of extra time. I also tape record many of my classes so that I can focus on the lecture and not the notes because, if I miss something, I can listen to it again later. Just these things have made a world of difference.

What I have learned? Admittedly, at first I was a bit humiliated. Why can’t I learn like a NORMAL PERSON? There’s really no such thing. I have learned to be incredibly flexible and patient. Which are two traits I did not necessarily possess before finding this out. I’ve learned that there’s more than one right way to do almost anything. I have learned that it’s okay to ask for help.
Why did I share? Because maybe you, or someone you know, is struggling in school. Maybe they’re working hard but they “aren’t a good test taker” or they can’t keep up. Everybody can learn. Just not on the same day and not in the same way. Just because something is difficult, there is no reason to give up. There’s no such thing as a “bad test taker”. If you know a “bad test taker”, their test taking conditions aren’t correct for them. Whoever you are, if you know anyone who kind of sounds like me or who is struggling at school in their own way, give your local educational psychologist a call, it will change their world.

Thank you for reading my story today! I hope it helps you to realize that we all face our own hurdles but that our hurdles don’t make us any less capable of the ultimate goal. Sometimes there’s just a different road to it.

Inspiring Self-Love

Carley-Ryckman-Miss-Sierra-NevadaHello there! Before I get started, I just wanted to introduce myself, my name is Carley Marie Ryckman and I am Miss Sierra Nevada 2015. If you want to follow my year, check me out on Instagram at @misssierranevada or my website:

You haven’t heard from me on this blog yet because…I just couldn’t figure out what to write about. And then, a few days ago, my 4 year-old niece Remy handed me the topic on a silver platter. So, thanks to Remy, here I am.

I am aunt to 6 nieces, ranging in age from one to eighteen. I absolutely adore them. I am constantly in awe of how unique, beautiful, funny, and lovely they each are. Hannah, Haley, Louisa, Remy, Ellie, and Norah are my world. Some of my nieces live close to me but Remy lives across the country.

Thanks to technology, we FaceTime pretty regularly. Sometimes for nearly an hour (or more). Other times, just long enough for her to realize her law school student of an aunt is much less interesting than her spider(wo)man costume and that picture she is coloring. Quite frankly, on those days, I can’t blame her.

Carley-Rycman-Miss-Sierra-Nevada-2Just the other day, Remy was showing me her Monster High School doll that my parents sent her for Valentine’s Day. This doll had purple skin and bright, BRIGHT red hair…and maybe cat ears? Trying to be funny, I said something like, “Wow, Remy! Look at her! What would you do if I looked like that? Would you take me to the hospital?” Her response: “No, my silly Carley!!! I would not take you to the hospital! I would think you were so beautiful. SHE IS BEAUTIFUL!!!”

Those words out of that giggly little girl set my mind on fire. Articles, studies, videos, documentaries flood social media and the internet at large: apparently we as a society are sending our girls the wrong messages…about everything. But are we really? Or are we doing something right? …because Remy just told me her purple doll with crazy hair and animal ears is beautiful, and later, the most beautiful doll she has ever had. Yet I’m pretty sure Remy isn’t striving to be purple with cat ears. And even if she was, she would feel beautiful about it. Although I may not see these six very often, as their aunt, I strive to do everything in my power to make sure they know that there is at least one person out there (silly aunt Carley) who thinks that they are beautiful, talented, smart, funny, creative, loved…because they each are in their own unique ways.

I think it would be safe to say that the world my nieces are growing up in is quite different than we’ve ever seen before. Undoubtedly, this comes with both positives and negatives. Technology allows them, before they can even fully read, to be able to access a wealth of knowledge. At the tap of a screen, by pressing my picture, they can talk to and see their aunt who lives in an entirely different time zone. However, negative ideas and images are just as easily accessible.
Carley-Rycman-Miss-Sierra-Nevada-3I would argue that the world is currently pushing towards love, acceptance, and equality. My nieces will likely, I hope, grow up in communities that are more diverse than I’ve ever seen before. The “Ideal American Family” is changing. Daily, on social media, I come across articles about acceptance, love, and beauty. About the “real woman”, the “not photoshopped woman”, the “this is a beautiful woman” because of x, y, and z. I’ve been tagged (6 times) in the “20 beautiful women challenge”. Every single time, I think about my nieces. To me, they reflect the larger contingent of young women we as titleholders (really, we the world at large) come into contact with each day. What I want for them is what I want for our world as a whole.

I am the aunt to the little girls mentioned. Not their parent or teacher. I don’t see them everyday. I am someone who has been around as they’ve grown up as a playmate or a pool buddy or a “grown up” who lets them play in her jewelry…sometimes. Someone who knows how to play board games and who will sing and/or act out Disney movies with you at the top of her lungs. Because I’m not a parent, I can’t claim to have it all figured out but here is what I have decided.

As members of the digital age, there is a message that we have the responsibility of sending to our girls through our face-to-face and digital interactions. I hope it is the same message my nieces take away from both their times with me and watching me live my life.

You are beautiful: Inside and outIt does not matter if you are purple or green or black or white or…You are beautiful. YOU are beautiful. Although society often views beauty as something on the outside, it starts from within. No amount of makeup or jewelry or surgeries will change your beauty. While the images you are seeing might reflect something entirely different, you are just as beautiful without any makeup and that black eye from soccer practice as you are when you’re all dressed up and headed out the door to prom. I’m not kidding.

Along with that, love your body—eat right and stay active doing something you enjoy but have that birthday cake. You should never deprive yourself. Some people who love their body have curves, other people who love their body are stick thin. No one should make you think that your body isn’t perfect just the way it is. If you are active and maintaining a balanced diet, you are not “too skinny” and you are not “too fat”.

Carley-Ryckman-Miss-Sierra-Nevada-4You are enough—there will be days where you feel like you just can’t do anything right and if you had to choose today, your career ambition would be laying in your bed in a ball. That being said, you are good enough, strong enough, smart enough. Life isn’t always easy but you have what it takes.

You can do ANYTHING—you are blessed to live in a time where women have more opportunities than ever before. I for instance, can go to law school and become a lawyer. That used to not happen. However, the fact that I can be a lawyer or one of my female friends can become a doctor or a website designer doesn’t make it less okay to be a teacher or a seamstress or anything else. We have choices and we should freely and openly embrace them. It might not always be easy to “do anything” but if you want it badly enough and put in the work and the time (sometimes for a very long time), it will be yours.

You should be YOU, unapologetically—The media gives out a bunch of ideas about the way “people” say you should be to be beautiful, smart, successful, whatever…You should be yourself and like who and what you like. It is okay to like pink. It is okay to hate pink. Wear basketball shorts. Cut your hair off. Wear a cute dress. Grow your hair out. Who you are, what you look like, who you love, what you love, what career path you choose, does not define your worth. Feel beautiful, be happy.

Thank you for reading my post! I hope it gave you some food for thought from a very silly aunt of 6 incredible young ladies who inspire me to be my best self everyday.