By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published March 15, 2007
Fourteen-year-old Catie Foley has accomplished the almost impossible. The St. Brigid’s parishioner has “hop-two-three’d” into the relatively small international pool of Irish dancers preparing to compete in the World Championships. And she’s done it as someone practically foreign to the elite ranks of the Irish dancing world—an American Southerner.
“This little girl is amazing!” said her instructor, Karl Drake, of the Drake School of Irish Dance. A native of Dublin, Ireland, Drake has taught Catie since she began taking classes at 5.
“It’s a huge achievement especially for someone from the United States, first, and secondly, that she’s even from Georgia.”
Considered “the Olympics of Irish dance,” the World Championships will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, the week of April 1-8, the second time the event has been held outside of Ireland. In two years the World Championships will come to Philadelphia, the first time the competition will be held in the United States.
Catie has earned the right to compete on the international level, traveling in early February to Killarney to participate in the distinguished “All-Ireland” competition where she placed third.
In just three months Catie will have logged a good number of air miles traveling to Ireland twice and also to New York to compete.
“I really like traveling,” said the petite blonde middle-schooler. “Once we’re off for somewhere it’s really cool.”
And she doesn’t forget about her friends at home. “Sometimes when I’m overseas I bring home chocolates for them. They’re very supportive.”
Irish dancing has been a family affair from the beginning, she said.
“I got into dancing because my cousins started dancing and none of us lived near each other. It became a way for us to meet.”
In the early years they danced together at competitions, called “feises”, in Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta. While her cousins moved on to other activities Catie stuck with it. “I guess it was just my thing.”
Her favorite dances are the treble jig and the slip jig, performed wearing either “hardshoes” or soft shoes. And then there’s the elaborate dresses, mostly of oranges and pinks to complement Catie’s complexion, and the wigs overflowing with curls.
“I have a million,” she confessed. “For team competitions I wear a smaller wig because I have to go under people’s arms. Lately, the wigs seem to be getting bigger and bigger.”
But she’s also glad to see softer curls, “which are more natural,” she added.
“It takes a long time to get ready. I have to put my wig on and make-up. I do lots of stretches. And there’s a lot of time waiting to go on.”
She listens to music and goes over her routine in her head so that when it’s her turn “I don’t freeze.”
Then she’s next on stage.
“I get the adrenaline rush and just kind of go. It feels great. Sometimes I don’t do my best, but it’s OK because there is more than one dance. I just try to move on and do better.”
Catie experienced “the rush” recently competing at a feis in New York, where she placed first. She enjoys competing with her fellow Americans and the international crowd.
“It feels good to say I’m from the Southern region and that I’ve gotten so far being from a younger region. When they say, ‘from Atlanta,’ I feel like ‘oh, yeah!’ I do get up there with other dancers usually from England, Ireland and others over in Europe. It feels great.”
Most often she is accompanied by her mom, Cappy Foley, who admitted that what she first knew of Irish dancing came from seeing “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance.”
“It’s easy for a mom (to be as involved) when the child is as eager to work as Catie is,” she said.
Catie has been involved in other activities such as swimming during the summer or participating in the school play. “But when you reach the level of dance where Catie is . . . you have to choose.”
She dances three to four times a week and practices at home.
“It’s not a full-fledged practice at home where she puts on music. It’s just that her feet never stop to the point where her dad’s always saying, ‘Please don’t do that here.’ She’s always dancing; it’s definitely her passion.”
She is proud of her daughter’s hard work and what she has accomplished “especially (being) an American from the South.”
Catie is sandwiched between older and younger brothers, and when she travels with her mom they enjoy “girl time.”
“At her level she usually attends the bigger feises. Now the travel is more concentrated.”
They have shared the ups and downs of traveling together: getting food poisoning on their first trip to Ireland, learning to drive on “the wrong side of the road,” bathing suit shopping in Ireland, and, of course, kissing the Blarney Stone.
“We laugh now,” she added. “They’re great memories … Catie has gone so often it’s all so fresh.”
Now older, Catie sometimes travels by herself when going to cities where she has family members who will meet her at the airport. Still, there is nothing like having her mom close by.
“It’s really great to have my mom’s support,” Catie said. “I feel 10 times better. When I see my mom in the crowd, I’m not just looking out and seeing strangers. She always comforts me when I go through hard times, and there’s also a lot of celebrating.”
The next stop before the World Championships is Dublin, where Catie will compete against a more competitive field that will serve as a good warm-up for Glasgow.
The young dancer described how the winner of the World Championships is treated “sort of like Miss America.” She receives a sash, a crystal vase, a trophy and a crown, which she must relinquish at next year’s competition.
Catie danced in the World Championships last year and was ranked eleventh.
“We’re just hoping that she places higher up this time,” Drake said, explaining that dancers have been preparing for this year’s competition “from the day they came home in April (last year).”
Drake has help from his childhood friend and business partner, Elaine Kavanagh of Dublin. Kavanagh travels to Atlanta periodically to help Drake choreograph dances for Catie and others, as well as to take dancers’ measurements that will be used by a Dublin tailor to create lavish dresses.
“You can’t just be a good dancer,” Drake explained when asked what sets Catie apart from the large field of dancers. “It’s a combination of (his and Kavanagh’s) Irish style and influence and (Catie’s) own ability and determination—and most American children have that when they want to do something really well—and definitely her personality. She shines on stage.”
For Drake, the reward comes in understanding his own passion for the sport.
“The biggest thing is that it expresses culture. I grew up with it, and now I’m handing it down.”
Recently his mother in Dublin suffered a stroke.
“My mother was very involved in my career,” he said. “She brought me to all of my practices and took me to competitions all over Ireland … I’m doing this all for her.”
Since he was young he wanted to come to the United States and chose Atlanta because there were not yet certified schools of Irish dance established in the city. He now also has locales in Birmingham, Ala., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“It’s the heritage—I’m passing that on to Southern Americans. I’m very proud of that.”
While Catie tells her parents that she plans to stop dancing when she goes off to college, her mom can’t help but wonder what will happen as she notices how her daughter’s continued zeal for the sport is also demonstrated by her desire to help the younger dancers at the dance studio. “She’s becoming who she’s meant to be.”
Catie may go on to pursue a career in medicine, according to her mom, but for now Irish dancing continues to be her passion.
“One, I really like the travel of it,” Catie said. “I enjoy going different places and going to see family in different regions. Also, I’ve made so many friends from my dance school and different places.”
And then there’s the actual dancing.
“Overall the experience, when I do really well, it feels, like, amazing. Nothing beats knowing that you did really good. When I know I did my best, I feel like a million dollars.”
Results of the World Championships will be posted on the Web site for the Drake School of Irish Dance, www.drakedance.com.