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Trio to compete for Irish dance title

Posted: March 17, 2008 2:27 a.m.
Updated: May 18, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Emily Stewart, 14, and Daryl Goldes (right), 20, attend the O'Connor School of Irish Dancing. Next week they will be competing at the 2008 World Irish Dancing Championship in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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Clutching her mother's leg for security, 5-year-old Emily Stewart was in no mood to start her dance lesson after instructor Bella Yerina looked down at her and said, in an Irish accent, that she should either practice dance moves or sit at the side of the room and watch.

When the intimidated young girl did not respond, her mother, Robin Stewart, was told by Yerina that parents were not allowed to watch, only participate. For her daughter's sake, participate she did. For over two years, Robin and Emily Stewart practiced dance moves at the O'Connor School of Irish Dancing in Thousand Oaks.

Almost nine years later, Emily Stewart did not need to clutch her mother's leg for security when she performed at the Oireachtas Competition in Arizona. But Emily Stewart, now 14, did grab her own leg - she had sprained an ankle during her performance.

With a berth in the world championships at stake, judges at the Oireachtas Competition generally do not allow dancers to move forward once they have stopped in mid-performance. Yet the judges allowed her to re-do her second-round dance attempt. More than two hours later, she mustered the strength to overcome the pain of her ankle sprain and give the performance of her life.

"Luckily a doctor was there who examined it, wrapped it up and said it was not a severe sprain," said Stewart. "I did dance again."

Dance she did. With a lot of heart and dash of that proverbial Irish luck, Emily Stewart qualified for the 2008 World Irish Dancing Championship in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The world competition takes place March 23 through March 30 at the Waterfront Hall, where more than 4,000 Irish dancers from throughout the world will compete for the privilege to be the world's best.

Stewart, from Valencia, will be joining three of her closest friends in Belfast - Daryl Goldes, 20, of Canyon Country; Megan Kirk, 23, of Santa Clarita; and Shannon Colvin, 13, of Simi Valley. Goldes, who is of Irish descent, celebrates her 20th birthday today.

The young women will be performing solo. They met nine years ago at Bella Yerina's O'Connor School of Irish Dancing, where all were trained.

"When I heard my number called, I didn't believe it," Goldes said of finding out she had placed during the November qualifier in Arizona.

None of the young women has competed at the world championship before. To get there, each had to place in the top 15 at the Oireachtas (Gaelic for "gathering") qualifier. Kirk placed sixth, Goldes placed 10th and Stewart placed 11th.

The week-long championship consists of two rounds. In the first round, participants dance in hard shoes; they compete in soft shoes for the second round. Dancers, some as young as 10 years old, are separated into age groups. Each group consists of 150 dancers, both male and female. After the first round, 50 dancers will be invited back to perform in front of judges for the soft shoe round. Once the second round is complete, approximately 17 dancers will receive medals.

Training for the competition has been rigorous; each dancer has practiced every day since finding out she qualified. Through intense training and competition and hard-nosed teaching by Yerina, the young women have been stellar on stage. Each has consistently ranked at several competitions on the state and national level.

Yerina, labeled by Emily Stewart's mother as "old school," has pushed her dancers hard over the past nine years and expected perfection at all times.

"She demands respect," said Robin Stewart. "Compliments are not easy to come by, but when she does compliment them, the girls absolutely appreciate it. It's definitely earned."

As the dancers prepare to leave for Belfast later this week, compliments are the last thing they are looking for. Instead, they say the experience is all that matters.

"The fact that we got there is all that matters," Goldes said. "It's not necessarily about winning."

Emily Stewart, who has since recovered from her ankle injury and is ready to compete again, concurred.
"We learned that it doesn't matter how you place," she said. "All that matters is how you feel when you finish. The rest is out of our hands."

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