'All about the drive': Irish dancers learn from international champ

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Dearbhla Fay comes from a family with very fancy footwork.

The 13-time All-Ireland and International Irish Dance Champion holds the record to date for wins, beating out her older brother’s record of 10, who took the title from their mother, whose record was 8. Fay hangs on to the title, but welcomes contenders.

“No one’s beaten me yet, and I’m 36,” she said.

By way of Dublin, Fay has been around the world and back competing and performing Irish dance, grabbing her first competition win at the age of 8 and later joining the world-renowned Riverdance.

She retired from competition at 23 and took her teacher’s exam in order to train others in her craft.

“Once you take your teacher’s exam you can no longer compete, so it’s a decision you have to be passionate about,” Fay said.

She now spends her days teaching traditional Irish dance at the McCormack Fay Academy of Irish Dance under the Woodstock Ballet Company. The academy’s title is a combination of her mother’s maiden name and her surname, typical of Irish tradition.

There are locations in Woodstock, Crystal Lake and Oak Forest, with students ranging in age from 3 to 20 years old. Her troop participates in many competitions, and the 2013 Midwest champion, 16-year-old Lily Kunzie, is a student of the academy.

Fay, who lives in Tinley Park to be close to Chicago because it reminds her of Dublin’s “big city” atmosphere, said she loves the feel and the people in the Midwest.

Fay said she gets a lot of satisfaction from teaching and enjoys seeing her students do well, but misses certain aspects of her life in Riverdance.

“There’s good and bad in everything,” said Fay.

“I love teaching and it’s nice to have a solid home, but I miss touring sometimes and just the show lifestyle, the buzz of it all.”

Fay joined Riverdance in 1996 and credits the international Irish dance show for giving young professionals an outlet to display their talent while making a living doing what they love.

She continued to perform full-time through 2003, before settling down in the Chicagoland area to teach others what had become her lifelong fervor.

“The traveling and show lifestyle was great, but there comes a point where you want to settle somewhere and have a life, a home,” she said.

Fay’s father Martin, a musician in the Irish Chieftains, often brought his family to the United States for a few months in the summer for vacation, planting the seed for her growing love of the US.

“I couldn’t wait to get back here after the European tour. I love it here. I’m comfortable here,” said Fay.

Fay appeases her performance drive by jumping in with her brother’s dance company in Dublin to dance in shows now and again.

What came to be her lifelong passion started as more of a nuisance than anything, she admitted.

“In Ireland, dancing is more forced upon you, mandatory like playing a sport after school. When I was younger it was very uncool because it wasn’t really a choice,” she said.

She likes teaching in the US because her students do it willingly, and they have a different passion for it, she said.

It takes dedication, and she sees that in her students.

Though the art of Irish dancing has lost some of its momentum from the initial launch of the Riverdance phenomena, Fay said she sees it making a rise again.

“It seems to be getting new legs. The traveling shows are bringing new life to it and it’s building up again,” Fay said.

It doesn’t take Irish blood to become a successful Irish dancer either. It’s all about drive, she said.

“Students with drive can often surpass those with natural talent because they want it more. The passion is there and they work hard,” she said.

“Anyone can be molded into the best dancer they can be. Natural talent or not, they can do it.”

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