by MARIANNE WEAVER, for the Sun Gazette
Dancers from the McGrath Morgan Academy of Irish Dance (McMa) took three top honors at the North American Irish Dance Championships, held in Montréal over the Independence Day holiday:
• 14-year-old North American Champ: Aisling Reynolds (who also won in 2019).
• 11-year-old North American Champ: Isabella Renzi.
• Dance Drama Team North American Champs (also reigning world and southern-region champions).
Reynolds and Renzi, along with a dozen top-placing solo dancers, are qualified to compete at the 2023 World Irish Dancing Championships, to be held in Montréal next spring.
Reynolds, of Manassas, reclaimed the title she first won in 2019, before COVID canceled subsequent competitions.
School founder Lauren McGrath Dutton said she always knew Reynolds, who started dancing at age 5, had that special something that captures judges’ attention.
“Aisling has established herself as an outstanding dancer by winning the Southern Region title four consecutive years,” said Dutton. “This national title is very elusive, especially coming out of the pandemic. And now she has won it twice.”
Each dancer in the competition – 120 competitors from Canada, United States and Mexico, as well as Ireland and the United Kingdom – performed a soft-shoe and a hard-shoe dance. The top half of the dancers were recalled for a solo set dance.
“Her first two rounds were clean,” Dutton said of Reynolds’ performance. “But that solo set dance? It was flawless. It took my breath away.”
Reynolds credits her supportive teachers, family and friends for challenging and supporting her in the months leading up to the competition.
“This year was much harder, because there was a lot of pressure to retain my title,” she said.
It all paid off, especially in that final round, where all three judges placed her first, giving her a rare perfect score.
Renzi, of Severna Park in Maryland, began dancing at age 9 after attending a trial class with her sister.
“I wanted to start taking classes right away,” she said. “I loved the style of dance. It seemed like a lot of fun.”
Fun, but also a lot of hard work.
“It’s incredible to think that Izzy only started with us two years ago,” said John Lawrence Morgan of the academy. “Her work ethic is exceptional. Her attention to detail and ability to refine her dances are testament to her success.”
Renzi won the under-11 girls’ title at the Southern Region Oireachtas in December, as well as numerous local competitions, known as feiseanna. Although she felt confident in her training and choreography, she had to beat 80 dancers to claim the North American title.
“The competition was filled with really talented dancers, and I just wanted to go out there and dance my best,” she said. “I have the best teachers in the world, and I’m so thankful to them for helping me prepare for such a huge competition, and for their continuous faith in me. They are always pushing me to achieve my goals, and winning was a dream come true.”
Both Reynolds and Renzi were members of the 20-person drama team that took first place with their performance of “The Belle of Belfast.” Choreographed by Morgan, the drama features a storm that destroys the roof of St. Anselm’s school; a class of feisty school children; divine intervention that leads their teacher, Sister Madonna, to compete in a local beauty pageant; and the shenanigans that ensue with competitors vying for the title (and monetary prize) “Belle of Belfast.”
“I’ve competed in solo and traditional ceili team competitions since I was 10 years old. But that is very different than dancing in a drama with 19 other dancers, where acting is involved,” said 21-year-old Mary Kate Gareau, who dances the lead role of Sister Madonna/Belle of Belfast.
Gareau is a veteran member of the drama team that has established itself with multiple titles: 2018, 2019 Oireachtas champions; 2018, 2022 national champions; and 2019, 2022 world champions.
“I was so happy for this drama team completing its final performance of ‘Belle of Belfast’ in Montréal,” said Morgan. “Now they can say they are regional, world and now national champions. Effectively, once again winning the ‘grand slam’ of titles.”
These McMa dancers qualified to compete at the world championships, which will be held in Montréal in the spring:
• Jessie Welgos 2nd, girls under 16.
• Annabelle Baker, 3rd, girls under 14.
• Meghann Mullarkey, 4th, girls under 18.
• Ciara Foley, 6th, girls under 10.
• Patrick Gareau, 6th, boys under 17.
• Gabrielle Brown, 8th, girls under 11.
• Reilly Savage, 8th, girls under 15.
• Shawn Dongieux, 9th, boys under 19.
• Bridgette Hettinger, 9th, girls under 10.
• Kendall Smith, 14th, girls under 15.
• Rory Kipp, 15th, girls under 15.
• Kate Doherty, 16th, girls under 11.
Lauren McGrath Dutton founded McGrath Academy of Irish Dance in 2004. In 2012, John Lawrence Morgan began working with dancers, then joined the school in 2017. McGrath Morgan was created in March 2019, with studios across the region training dancers from ages 4 to 50.
For information, see the Website at mcgrathirishdance.com.