NAUGATUCK – Four hundred dancers from 14 states and two Canadian provinces jigged their way to the Continental Room earlier this month for the Horgan Academy of Irish Dance Spring Feis.
The competition, now in its 18th year, has attracted more and more participants each year as its reputation spreads throughout the states and internationally.
“We really do run a very friendly competition, and I think that’s what people are really looking for,” said Irene Horgan, the academy’s director.
She said the hospitality of Naugatuck’s students and parents keeps dancers coming back each year and spreading the word.
Horgan described the feis as more of a family-oriented social event than competition.
“They made friends, and that was what was really special about the day,” Horgan said.
All the local hotels, including the Comfort Inn in Naugatuck and several in Waterbury and New Haven were booked that weekend, according to Horgan.
“It’s good for the economy to bring in 400 outsiders to really see Naugatuck and see what Naugatuck has to offer,” Horgan said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to create our own little economic boom for our local businesses.”
Dancers are judged on poise, timing, execution of steps and overall stage presence, according to Horgan, who also judges competitions in other states.
Horgan’s students compete all over the country as well, and one of her students is going to Dublin to compete against 6,000 other dancers at the world championship.
About 100 Horgan Academy students participated in the event April 9. Horgan said her students did well in the competition.
“I’m really proud of my (students),” Horgan said. “They walked away with a ton of awards.”
Many members of the public stopped by to watch part of the all-day competition, including a group of people from the senior center, Horgan said.
“It was a really, really fun time,” she said.
The competition was so popular this year that Horgan agreed to hold another one in September.
“Hopefully, it will be even bigger and better,” Horgan said.
Although a lot of people in Naugatuck like to celebrate their Irish heritage by learning the dance, it’s not just for the Irish any more, Horgan said.
“You don’t have to be Irish to enjoy the dance,” Horgan said. “It’s exciting…That’s what attracts so many children to Irish dance.”
Horgan’s students start young, with a preschool program for 2 to 4-year-olds.
Most of her students are from Naugatuck and the greater Waterbury area, but some come from as far away as Milford and Duram.
Students will start preparing for the next competition starting in June.
“It takes a few months to really prepare, even beginners, to really compete,” Horgan said.
Horgan holds a special competition class to teach children the rhythm and timing of Irish dance as well as stage presence. It’s important for a child to have the confidence to get up on stage to be able to dance their best, Horgan said.
“It builds their self confidence. That’s something they can take with them in life, not only in the dance world but in the outside world as well,” Horgan said.
Irish music is very lively and fast, according to Horgan. Students usually start out learning the light jig, one of the most popular dances. They go on to learn the reel.
“When you hear Irish music, you’re most likely listening to a reel,” Horgan said. More advanced students learn other dances, like the heavy jig and slipjig, and hornpipe.
Students compete at different levels, from pre-beginner to champion.
“It’s a process in which children build their self confidence as a dancer,” Horgan said.