by Katy Kappele
Gabriella Corrigan’s life began before she was born, at a wedding where Irish dancers taught by her aunt were performing, and where Corrigan’s mother fell in love. On the spot, she vowed that her daughters would be Irish dancers.
Corrigan and her older sister, Candice, have both been dancing since they were 6 years old, (although the elder of the sisters began four years earlier).
Gabriella Corrigan, 17, has now been to Ireland 16 times to compete, and is fresh from a stint in the Irish Nationals, where she placed fifth overall for the girls 17&18 division.
“I’ve always just done dancing,” she said. “I like to dance, period. I like that feeling of sweating.”
Corrigan has twice taken first place in the North American Championships, which is open to dancers from across the world. She has also placed fifth in the world, in addition to her recent fifth place finish in the Irish Nationals.
There are two types of Irish dancing, hardshoe and softshoe. Both are judged stringently. The hardshoe dances are danced to the music of the hornpipe and the treble jig, while the softshoe dances are danced to the sound of reels and the slower, more elegant slip jig, in which only women are allowed to compete. Dancers are judged three at a time, although each is dancing different steps to the same music. Choreography is jealously guarded.
“Sometimes people crash,” said Corrigan, and laughed. “The judging is very hard, because it’s very subjective. I think they’re easier on the guys, because they want to promote it. It’s hard to dance against guys because they always win.”
Corrigan was there for the first World Championships held in North America, in 2009. Having them in Philadelphia was “a huge deal,” said Corrigan.
“I love Ireland,” she said. “The people are funny and so nice.” Her favorite city is Dublin, although most competitions are held in Belfast or Kilarney. Her first time in Ireland, she was too young to compete in the World Championships, but she was back in 2004 to try her feet at it.
Corrigan said she mostly wins when she’s doing softshoe, but she loves hardshoe as well.
Corrigan said she likes Irish dancing in particular, because it’s mostly about your feet and legs. “Hardshoe is about the noise you make with your feet,” she said, while softshoe is about “being up on your toes. You also have to watch your upper body, though, because you can’t move it at all.”
There are different stories explaining the absolute stillness of the Irish dancer’s upper body. One of the more popular is that when Ireland was fighting England, the English didn’t want any of the Irishmen to have fun, Corrigan said, so the Irish would dance in the windows, moving just their legs so it looked like they weren’t dancing, but she doesn’t know if that’s true.
Corrigan isn’t fond of how political the judging has become. “It’s hard being in Ireland, or even on the East Coast. They have an advantage, because there are so many more schools. Some of the better-known schools get the benefit of the doubt.”
It’s galling to Corrigan, who travels three to four times a week to Burnaby to dance. She studies at the Penk O’Donnell school under Deidre O’Donnell, a champion herself.
Irish dancing is Corrigan’s life-long passion. “I like competing,” Corrigan said. “I’m very competitive. Irish dancing takes a lot of muscle and hard work.”
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