Ireland calling: dancer strives for top of competition circuit
When sophomore Hannah Vaca envisions her goals, she imagines a mountain. She imagines herself, day after day, scaling the mountain inch by inch.
“I just have to take it chunk by chunk, and I’ll get to the top,” Vaca said. “I guess it’s hard to explain. Have you ever had a dream that you’ve wanted so badly that you’ll do almost anything to see it happen? That’s how it feels to me.”
The mountain she envisions is in Dublin, Ireland, where she dreams of competing at the World Championships of Irish dance.
Vaca is full-time teacher and student at Sioux Falls’ Celtic Steps, the only Irish dance school in South Dakota. In five years of dancing, she earned the title of Preliminary Champion—the highest rank in Irish dance competition—and has participated in almost 100 recitals.
In short, in five years dance has become a cornerstone of Vaca’s life.
Everything from the Celtic-inspired trim on her license plates to the physical therapy major she’s pursuing at Augustana is in devotion to the sport.
At school, while eating lunch, studying and standing in line, Vaca will unknowingly flick her hands and feet to beats ingrained in her subconscious. It isn’t a nervous tic as her mother suggests, rather it’s the culmination of a life steeped in the technical and regimented sport of Irish dance.
“It’s all part of being a dancer,” Vaca said.
She said, if she wants to, her experience as a teacher and her planned physical therapy degree may help her open a dance studio in the future.
But for now, Dublin remains the goal.
“I just want to walk around Dublin and be in that atmosphere,” Vaca said. “I look at pictures of Ireland and it’s just so beautiful. It could use a little less rain, but it’s still gorgeous.”
And she almost made it last year at regionals when she placed ninth, only one place away from qualifying for the World Championship. It was devastating, but she said she had to approach it with grace and good sportsmanship.
“I always tell my students, ‘hopes have a way of going the other way,’” Vaca said. “At that point, if I wanted to set a good example for my students, I had to brush myself off and keep working towards my goal, and that’s what I did.”
Andrea McIntyre has two daughters enrolled in Vaca’s class. McIntyre said her daughters look up to Vaca almost like a big sister.
“She’s such an inspiration to these kids; they adore her,” McIntyre said.
Irish dance is a highly technical sport based on imitation, not creation. Though there are various styles of dance, they are all formal and regimented, with little upper body movement and precise, quick foot movements.
“Irish dance is very technical,” said Scott Swain, father of two of Vaca’s students. “There’s not a whole lot of creativity involved because there are certain things that need to be done in a certain way. There aren’t multiple ways of doing a move, there’s one.”
Every year, dancers travel across the nation to compete in Irish dance competitions called Feis. Earlier this year Vaca traveled to Chicago to perform a solo.
To grab the judges’ attention, dancers have to stand out, requiring custom-made dresses, which can often get expensive.
“Fortunately, I’ve been blessed to have parents who insist on investing in my passion,” Vaca said.
With each dancer expected to meet the judge’s standard for appearance, girls brandish a tightly curled wig and a dress decorated in Celtic-inspired designs, along with a pair of tall white wool socks. To help make dance attire more affordable, Celtic Steps keeps a collection of used shoes, wigs, socks and dresses that students can buy for cheaper prices.
“If we see a student who needs something, we’re going to make sure they can get it some way or another,” Vaca’s mother and studio owner Carol Vaca said.
But Carol said the most important thing she wants Celtic Steps to give students, is passion—something Hannah struggled to find.
At a young age, Carol had Hannah try all kinds of sports, from basketball and ballet to volleyball and soccer. Then she tried dance.
“I was very hesitant to start it in the beginning,” Vaca said. “My mom just pushed me to give it one lesson and if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have to continue. So I look a lesson.”
Swain said he’s seen his childrens’ passions grow since taking lessons from Hannah.
“Its great watching your kid do something they love. They’re here seven to eight hours a week and practice at home for three to four hours a week. It’s great to see them compete and even better to see them do well.”
Vaca said although she still has her sights set on Dublin, she’s happy being a teacher.
“If I had to describe maybe one thing that I feel, it’s probably joy,” Vaca said. “I really love what I do. I love being a teacher to these girls, being a mentor and, to some people, being a big sister.