When Julia O’Rourke was just five years old, her school hosted a show and tell session where several young girls demonstrated Irish step dancing to the class. “I fell in love with it and immediately signed up for the nearest school available,” said Julia.
Eleven years later, the 16-year-old Malvernite, a sophomore at the Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead, has recently won her third world championship title at the Irish Dance World Championships in Montreal. It’s an accomplishment, she says, that never gets old. “It’s the most amazing feeling being crowned. I never go into a competition expecting to win — I just try to do my best,” she said.
Julia, who has studied Irish step at the Doherty Petri school of Irish Dance in Franklin Square since she was five, said she competes primarily in European and Canadian competitions, and spends several weeks away from school because of them. “I usually go overseas three to five times a year,” said Julia. “There are competitions in England and Ireland in October — so I have to stay there for two weeks sometimes. I always tell my teachers a week before time and they let me do it. They are very supportive,” she said.
In addition to those competitions, Julia competes in a Scotland competition in February and then the annual world championship in Montreal at the end of March.
In addition to the hours spent practicing for the competition, Julia spends more hours getting costumed and made-up for the events. “The heavy dresses, the curly hair, all the make-up and stuff — it takes a long time to put on,” said Julia. She estimates about 45 minutes for make-up; a half hour for the wig and then tanning. Tanning?
According to several websites that discuss Irish step dance, the practice of spray tanning prior to a performance, in addition to the wigs worn by the dancers and their ornate costumes, have nothing to do with Irish culture — and everything to do with cosmetic appeal. Spray tanning became popular only in the last 15 years due to the white light conditions on stage. Wigs of cascading ringlets gained popularity in the 1980s because girls didn’t want to go through the arduous task of curling their hair. The contemporary costumes are fashion creations that assist in making the dancer appear as if she is floating on air. One of Julia’s teachers, Lisa Petri, commented, “Costuming is rooted in history in Irish dancing,” said Petri. “But like any clothing form, it continues to evolve over time, and the people who make costumes are artists themselves, and are looking at fabric and fashion.” The heightened focus on fashion and beauty are attributable to the heightened intensity of global competition.
Another one of Julia’s teacher, Gavin Doherty, has a tanning business and is also a dressmaker who helps her prepare for the competitions. “My teacher makes the most amazing dresses in the world,” said Julia. “He makes thousands of dresses for each competition and they’re all handmade.”
So after multiple competition wins at only 16 years of age, what does Julia want to do next? “After I finish competing, I hope to go off and do some shows — like a Riverdance. Hopefully that works out and then I’ll try to become a teacher like Gavin and all my other teachers.”
That sure seems like a logical next step for Julia. “She’s quite well known by the younger dancers,” said Petri. “At 16, she is so poised and so generous. She’s a great ambassador.”