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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!