Luck of the Irish (Dance)

"My mom always told me I could do whatever sport I wanted to do. I was always moving, so she got me into dancing," says Elizabeth Florentine, a competitive Irish dancer and junior at Daniel Hand High School who has been dancing for 13 years.
"My mom always told me I could do whatever sport I wanted to do. I was always moving, so she got me into dancing," says Elizabeth Florentine, a competitive Irish dancer and junior at Daniel Hand High School who has been dancing for 13 years. Photo by Janice Florentine

If you hear Elizabeth Florentine is "getting her Irish up," she's probably just kicking up her heels in an Irish dance.

The Daniel Hand High School junior is a competitive Irish step dancer who's been dancing since she was just three years old.

The Madison 16 year old estimates she'll perform in at least 15 shows in honor of the St. Patrick's Day holiday on Saturday, March 17.

Elizabeth, who's been dancing for 13 years, also performs jazz, tap, ballet, and lyrical dance, but says Irish dance is her favorite.

"Of all of them, I would rather be Irish step dancing," Elizabeth says. "And March is my favorite time of year because of all the St. Patrick's Day shows."

Elizabeth dances with the Emerald Dancers through the Mulkerin School of Irish Dancing in West Haven with instructor Kathy Carew, her teacher since Elizabeth began Irish dance at age 7. She also takes classes in jazz, tap, ballet, and lyrical at The Dance Corner in Killingworth.

During the weeks before and after St. Patrick's Day, "our teacher [Carew] does more than 50 shows," says Elizabeth, who will dance at senior and community centers, schools, and Irish clubs in Branford, Killingworth, and other shore towns this month, even traveling beyond New Haven and farther to perform.

"We danced last week. It was our first of the year, at the Milford Irish Club. It was great," she says, adding that the show consisted of several Irish dances, both hard and soft shoe dances.

Soft shoes, or ghillies, are lace-up shoes that tie around the ankle and make a quieter sound when the dancer's feet hit the ground. Ghillies are worn to dance the slip jig, Elizabeth's favorite dance.

"It's quiet, but it's fast and light on your feet," Elizabeth says. "My brother always told me I defy gravity I'm so light on my feet, so the dance sticks out for me. Also because the music is so pretty. It's quiet and pretty, but still Irish dancing."

The Madison resident is indeed light on her feet. She's taken prizes at several dance competitions (called "feis" in the world of Irish dance) over the last two years. At the Gold Crown in the Novice category, she won third place overall two years in a row, with two second and two third prizes at the North American Feis 2010, and a first overall in the Novice category at the American Association of Irish Dance Teachers Feis 2010.

A member of the Daniel Hand High School dance team since freshman year, Elizabeth also dances competitively in jazz and tap with The Dance Corner, but says Irish step is her first love because "there are so many different pieces and steps to learn, so there's always something to look forward to."

She says that when first getting involved as a young child, "I really didn't know what I was getting into. It was just something fast and something fun and I started moving ahead pretty quickly. I loved to dance fast," says Elizabeth, adding that she'd like to make dance, preferably teaching dance, her career.

She's off to a good start.

Elizabeth started the Registered Teacher's Assistant (RTA) program when she turned 15 and recently completed it, making her a certified Irish step dance teacher who can teach other young people.

As part of the RTA program, during the last two years, Elizabeth has registered more than 200 hours working with other students as young as four, in addition to competing and directing, exceeding the requirements for the program.

She has also volunteered at feis and organized Irish dance shows at local nursing homes and schools, including at the Juvenile Diabetes Fair in Madison.

"I like to perform and it's fun, but I think it's more fun to teach the little kids and have them become inspired the way I was inspired, and share my knowledge with them," says Elizabeth, who plans to apply to college next year at Wheaton, Marist, and Leslie College, at which brother James is a sophomore.

In June, Elizabeth was selected to travel to Ireland with a group of other young dancers, performing several shows during the two-week trip.

"We practiced every Sunday or a few Sundays a month for two years. We danced almost every night, sometimes two times a day.

"It was so much fun," Elizabeth says. "I would love to go back. It was an amazing time."

But for now, Elizabeth has plenty to do right here in Madison.

She'll spend the next few weeks, and of course St. Patrick's Day, on her feet. On Saturday, you'll find her "dancing, probably between five and six shows. I'm pretty busy that day."

To nominate a person of the week, contact Sunny Bosco at s.bosco@shorepublishing.

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