By Katie Lovett
---- — As the school day progresses, Ian Reilly tends to be reminded by his teacher to stop tapping his feet.
But, the Newburyport 11-year-old can’t help himself sometimes. It’s a force of habit. Ian, a fifth grader at Immaculate Conception School, is an Irish step dancer after all.
Introduced to the sport as a first grader when he watched several of his classmates give a performance on St. Patrick’s Day, Ian went home that afternoon and told his father, Paul, that he wanted to do the same. His parents enrolled him in a class at The Bracken School of Irish Dance in Salisbury. Soon, he was addicted.
“Once you get started, you’re hooked for life,” Ian said.
In the five years since, Ian has traveled to various venues across Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut and Rhode Island, to participate in close to 15 Irish step dancing competitions or “feises.” He’s earned nearly 20 medals and trophies.
On Monday, he will once again show off his impressive footwork and skill set, but this time it will be on a bigger stage than usual. Ian will compete against more than 70 other boys in his age group at the World Championships of Irish Dance in Boston.
The prominent event draws more than 20,000 visitors to a host city, including competitors. The championship, which runs for a week, has only been held once before in the United States since it began more than 40 years ago.
Ian qualified for the championship by placing among the top five in his division at the New England Oireachtas, or regionals, last November. It was his first time earning a qualifying spot for the Worlds.
Since there were fewer boys than girls at the regionals, the top five males also qualified for the North American Irish Dance Championships in Anaheim, California this summer.
“It was pretty exciting,” Ian said.
Hearing the announcement that he would be going to the World Championships, Ian said he was ready to pack his bags for a far-away destination, such as Ireland. But then his teacher, Thomas Bracken, told him where the event was being held this year.
“I was like, ‘oh, you’re kidding me,’” Ian said, with a grin.
When he takes his spot at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, dressed in black pants and the shiny green and blue vest that he designed himself, Ian will perform three required dances.
In one of the numbers, he will wear his shoes with a hard heel, which make the telltale tapping sound that many associate with step dancing. This dance will show judges his athleticism and crisp moves. In another set, Ian will wear his pair of soft shoes, which will allow judges to see his agility. Each participant is also required to perform a contemporary set dance alone, which has been choreographed by his teacher.
At the feises, there are different levels for each age group — from beginner through open champion — and dancers must earn first place in each of the required dances to move up to the next level, said Paul Reilly. Ian will compete at the preliminary champion level.
For Reilly, who admits he wasn’t very familiar with Irish dance prior to Ian developing an interest, the past five years have been an introduction to a whole other world.
“I just learned with Ian,” said Reilly, an English teacher at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers.
Watching dancers for the first time move through a routine with intense skill and strength, Reilly was mesmerized.
“It looked so athletic,” he said.
The first time he saw Ian perform, he was also stunned, Reilly said. “I was really surprised and moved; I didn’t know he could do as much as he could.”
In his son, Reilly has seen the effects of his step dancing lessons. Ian has gained better foot coordination and athletic skills, learned how to count music, and developed discipline, he said.
“I cannot recommend dance enough for boys,” Reilly added.
One recent afternoon as he watched an Irish dancer in a television documentary, Ian followed along to the moves on the screen, counting out the steps on his fingers. While many of his friends think it’s cool to watch him perform, Ian said he sometimes encounters teasing for being a male Irish step dancer. He brushes those remarks aside without much thought.
Ian hopes to major in dance at college and dreams of opening his own Irish step dance school one day.
“I’ll do it my whole life,” he said.
“This is totally him,” his father added.