In many ways Zachary Warshaw is like any other 17-year-old. He does impressions of his teachers, liberally sprinkles his speech with “like,” and gossips. A lot. But spend a little time with the South Burlington High School junior, and you soon discover that one thing moves faster than his mouth: his feet.
Warshaw is an Irish Step dancer, and he takes that very seriously. Even as a child, he didn’t just participate in activities; he threw himself into them with remarkable dedication. That helps explain why the tall, lean teen now holds a fourth-place title in Irish dancing for his age group in all of New England. And this March in Belfast, Ireland, Warshaw will be one of 4000 competitors at the World Irish Dancing Championship — commonly called “the Worlds.”
“I started dancing when I was 2 and a half, and I’ve pretty much done everything,” Warshaw reveals. “Everything” meant ballet, tap, jazz, gymnastics and hip-hop — until he discovered Irish Step through a show that propelled the ancient art into a pop-culture phenomenon. “My dad had seen a video of Riverdance and kept going on about how the dancers moved so fast you couldn’t even see their feet,” he recalls. “I thought that sounded pretty cool.”
Irish Step descended from ancient Celtic tradition and is distinguished by its fast tempo, side steps and ankle-rocking motion, not common in other European dances. Irish Step dancers also keep their arms by their sides, a style some believe started with the power struggle between the Irish and the English, when many Irish traditions were suppressed. In an effort to preserve their culture, Irish dancers adopted the habit of limiting movement to their lower legs, making the dancing less obvious to those passing by their windows.
Traditional Ceili dancing is done in groups of four, eight or even 16, and looks similar to contra or square dancing. Solo dances, on the other hand, allow performers to exhibit more modern choreographies in a short spurt of just 48 bars of music, or two to three minutes. The dancers are judged on foot placement, timing and, of course, stamina.
And Irish dancing is a sport, Warshaw assures, suggesting anyone who doesn’t believe that should attend a feis, or Irish dance competition. “The people running around and the girls practicing in the hallway and the people, like, passing out and vomiting as a result of the dancing,” he itemizes . . . “I’d say it’s a pretty aerobic sport.”
That athleticism and the fame of Riverdance’s Michael Flatly may be why Warshaw doesn’t get much flak for his pastime. “My friends got used to me when I was in first grade,” he says with a shrug, “and then, beyond that, they just don’t question anything I do.”
Warshaw was only 9 when a quick taste of Irish Step dancing at a non-certified school in Vermont convinced him to drop his other classes and concentrate on Irish. About three years later, his instructor Alice McNeish knew he was ready for competition. That required switching schools.
In order to be eligible for solo competition, a student must be a current pupil of a Teasgicoir Coímísíun le Rinci Gaelacha, or Gaelic Commission Dancing Teacher. The coveted certification is earned through a series of oral, written and practical exams given three times a year in Ireland and twice a year in the United States. With McNeish’s blessing, Warshaw began a new chapter of his dance career under the instruction of Montréal-based Bernadette Short, a teacher he describes as “highly regarded.”
“I danced for about three years before I ever entered a competition,” Warshaw says. “But once I started, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I love performances, of course, but competition is what keeps me going.”
This attitude is reflected in the time and money Warshaw, his father Dave and his mother Trish invest in traveling and keeping up with classes. Every week the young dancer attends one class in Montréal and another at Short’s satellite studio in Plattsburgh, New York.
“[My parents] have been going along with it without much question for the past nine or 10 years, so I’d say they’ve been as supportive as parents can get!” Warshaw says. “I mean, hauling ass up to Montréal just for a 1-and-a-half-hour dance class is a pretty significant sacrifice.” And it’s not as if he’s an only child. Warshaw’s parents also support his younger sister Alex in her more traditional athletic activities, particularly soccer.
It surely helps that the family’s dedication has shown results. For his first few years of competition, Warshaw, one of few males involved in Irish dance in his region, often simply competed against his own record. Then, at age 14, he entered the Ottawa Capital Feis, where rules of participation determined that his group combine with a parallel age group of girls. Warshaw swept the contest with three first-place medals, and things took off from there.
Success in Irish Step inspired him to explore other types of Celtic dance, particularly Scottish Highland, a form similar in origin but now very different in style. Its most visible departure from the Irish version is the use of arms in choreography. A more subtle difference is that all Highland dances are traditional and done by the book, with no new steps allowed. Currently, Warshaw competes in both.
“If you have the enthusiasm,” he states simply, “the work isn’t really work in the end.”
In that spirit, Warshaw avidly strives for the goal he set years ago. “Within the first year or two of me dancing, before I’d even done a regular feis, I said that my ultimate goal was to get top five at Worlds,” he notes. “It hasn’t happened yet, but . . . I do have a chance to do it!”
That chance came with a recent stroke of luck: The first-place dancer at the New England Regional Competition in Connecticut had already won a free ticket to Worlds 2008 for his performance the previous year. “They normally send just the top three to Worlds, but he was already a World Medal holder,” Warshaw explains. In that circumstance, the Irish Dance Commission adds an additional spot; since Warshaw ranked fourth, he was suddenly qualified. “I gave [the first-place dancer] a big hug!” he gushes.
Warshaw’s performance at Worlds will depend on how well he trains in the next two months. “Ideally we’d see Zach five times per week, but realistically it will be more like two or three,” says Marie Short, Bernadette’s daughter and now Warshaw’s primary teacher. “We’re very comfortable with him training at home, though. When he does make it to class, he takes everything in, and only once or twice do I have to repeat a critique.”
During a recent class in Plattsburgh, Short gives her pupil plenty to digest. As he zips around the plywood floor of the studio, the teacher is just one step behind him, shouting commands to “lift!” and “move!” and “bang!” — in other words, to keep his feet high off the floor unless they are striking down with both noise and precision. She keeps her remote control at the ready to pause the music whenever Warshaw needs more instruction.
He and a half-dozen other students of various ages are challenged on every misplaced foot and open knee. In Irish dance, feet must be consistently crossed and knees held tightly together — a feature that distinguishes it from the much wider stance of Scottish Highland.
Once all the students are breathing hard, Short has them run through their steps two and three dancers at a time, just as they will do at competition. Those not dancing chatter in the back of the room like typical teenagers . . . with abnormally muscular legs. One is wearing a shirt that reads, “Mom, Dad, I’m Gaelic.” Another’s says, “What Would Paris Do?”
The dancers on the floor demonstrate quick footwork combined with fast travel. While it’s important to execute the latest trends in choreography, the dancers never linger in one spot for long; rather, they crisscross the studio several times during a single dance. This use of space is as crucial as the intricate footwork that requires them to remain stationary.
The difficult series of kicks and heel clicks is what Warshaw most enjoys. “The new choreography I find to be extremely exciting,” he enthuses. “And I do think it’s a good thing that it’s been taken from the ‘shuffle-fest’ that is the St. Patrick’s Day dance [a traditional set dance] to what it is now.”
He does take issue with some ways Irish dance has evolved. “There’s so many rules that no one follows,” Warshaw complains. “Like, in theory, the dresses aren’t to be more than 4 inches off the knee, but these girls are walking around with them hiking up their butts! The fact that they have become so nontraditional is depressing,” he continues. “I mean, if you look in the rules, it says, ‘Authentic Gaelic dress is desired,’ and when I look at the dresses walking around at competition, I think, that’s not even close!”
He’s OK with the evolution of the Irish dance costume for males, though: “We’re no longer in kilts and socks and velvet jackets, thank God!”
Instead, the guys wear black pants, button-down shirts and vests. Warshaw went with all black for a while, but then conspired with his mother to create an outfit that would really make him stand out to judges. They shopped for supplies together and unveiled his new vest at the next competition.
“You have to see this fabric!” he exclaims, digging for the neon blue and silver swatch in his dance bag.
But while he’s embraced some change, Warshaw admits that he’s attracted to Highland dance because of how well it has stuck to tradition. “You can get disqualified if your sock falls down,” he says. “You can get disqualified at the drop of a hat.”
When it’s Warshaw’s turn to bust his moves for Short, he literally dances circles around the girl he’s paired with. The only way he can accommodate his long legs and the speed at which his body propels itself is to use the entire studio space around his partner.
“We have 10 [competition] qualifiers from our school,” Short says, watching, “but Zach is the only one from this class, and the only one qualified out of New England.”
Until the Worlds, which begins March 23, Warshaw expects he’ll spend 20 hours a week on Irish dancing — about the same as a part-time job. “Just without the pay,” he quips. When he’s not preparing for a big competition, he dedicates a relatively paltry 10 to 12 hours each week to dance. This includes practicing, arranging performances with the United Celtic Dancers of Vermont, and putting on impromptu dances during Irish music concerts at the Lincoln Inn in Essex Junction.
Warshaw is almost as motivated by the social aspect of Irish dance as he is by the drive to compete. “My entire age group is abnormally tight; like, it’s probably unhealthy for a group of people that are competing against each other,” he says of his friends around the region. Facebook and YouTube make it easy to keep abreast of one another’s awards and new choreographies, extending relationships beyond the few times the dancers meet in person each year. And, of course, a shared passion for Irish Step dancing unites them.
So, where does a 17-year-old go after he’s been to the Worlds? Most likely to college. “My thinking now is either UVM, or leave the continent. And no in between,” Warshaw says. His decision will be largely based on the availability of Irish dance: “I wouldn’t find myself in North Dakota for that reason.”
Not that dancing is his only full-throttle activity. Considering a future in medicine, Warshaw has logged more than 700 hours volunteering in pediatrics at Fletcher Allen Health Care. Foreign languages attract him, too — on family vacations, he’s been known to skip the beach and stay in the hotel room polishing his Gaelic.
Whatever his academic path, Warshaw is certain of one thing: When he’s done with college, he says, “I’m going to go for my TCRG. I’d like to run an Irish and Highland dance school. Ultimately, I would like to be a judge for both.”
Just last Saturday, Warshaw passed his exam to teach Highland dancing, earning an Associate Teacher certification from the British Association of Teachers of Dance. While this allows him to instruct students eligible for competition, he figures he’ll just help out his Highland dance instructor — for now.
“It was extremely stressful,” Warshaw confesses of the experience. “And I really can’t say I’m looking forward to three more tests.” On the other hand, “It is one down.” Whatever happens at Worlds, he’s another Irish step closer to his ultimate goal.