At Teelin Irish Dance in Columbia, young girls ages four and up dance in a row to a prerecorded jig. Their backs are ramrod straight, as they stare at themselves in the studio mirror, arms straight and feet flying; the number of redheads seems statistically significant.
They’re dressed nearly identically in black shorts and black tank tops, some bearing the school’s name in rhinestones or (of course) Maryland flag letters. The girls’ training is evident, their soft leather shoes (called ghillies) tracing elaborate patterns in the air and falling back to the bouncy floor in near-unison despite differences in ages, heights, shapes and sizes.
But even among the Rockette-precise row, one pair of pale legs stands out — kicking higher, landing more softly, seemingly detached from the barely moving torso above it.
Those legs belong to Saoirse Rose DeBoy, 19, a Mount Airy native and a world Irish dancing champion. To DeBoy, whose first name is pronounced Seer-shuh, Teelin is something of a second home. She’s been training with owners Maureen Berry and Kathleen Young since she was 6 years old, culminating with her 2016 title at the World Irish Dancing Championships in Glasgow (also known by its formal Gaelic name, Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne). There, DeBoy was crowned best in the world among 16- to 17-year-old dancers from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, Australia and throughout the United States.
Though the 2017 world title eluded her — back-to-back championships aren’t unheard of but are certainly no easy feat — when we meet earlier this year, her sights are set on the 2018 competition. A recent graduate of Mount de Sales Academy, DeBoy has taken a gap year to “give it everything [she’s] got” before beginning nursing school at The Catholic University of America this fall.
That, as it turns out, is a lot.
Six out of seven mornings a week, DeBoy wakes up with her eyes on the prize or, at the very least, the prize winners: her legs. Mornings begin with a series of exercises to stretch out her calf muscles and Achilles’ tendons. Even at 18, she’s often stiff, the result of countless hours spent on the tips of her toes.
(Fun fact: When it comes time to compete, DeBoy’s normally pale legs will be sprayed five shades darker with a fake tan. It’s become convention in recent years, though she doesn’t really know why. The Irish, after all, aren’t known for their sun-kissed skin.)
After stretching, she’s off to her daily workout: an hour and a half of non-dance bodywork. “You have to be a well-rounded athlete,” she says, “so that includes core work, yoga — Maureen is a certified yoga teacher — weightlifting, cross-training with weights and cardio interval training with plyometrics.”
A strong core increases whole body stamina, including the posterior chain, or back, glutes and hamstrings. After the morning sweat session, DeBoy breaks for a while, doing normal-teenager things like cooking, checking her phone or watching Netflix, before returning to Teelin for two hours of dance classes five out of seven nights a week.
Shockingly, DeBoy says this routine is actually a bit less intense than that of previous years. Having graduated, she’s no longer “getting up, going to school, going to dance and repeating the process the next day.”
As she says, “I feel like I can breathe and just appreciate what I’m doing.”
That’s not to say that she’s completely rid of her high school challenges, however. Growing up, DeBoy admits she didn’t have much of a social life outside of school, unable to attend sleepovers because of the early hours she kept or to skip practices to just hang out. Though she has more free time now, most of her friends have gone away to college, and she confesses it’s not easy to see all of their party pictures on social media.
“I’ve definitely made a lot of sacrifices to get where I am,” she says. “But I had a different goal. What I’m working toward is very important to me. I’m glad I made the decision to take the year off.”
Since her high school graduation, DeBoy has nabbed first-place titles in all of the major competitions she’s entered: All Scotland Champion, Great Britain Champion and, most recently, Southern Region Oireachtas Champion.
When she slips into her competition dress and hard shoes (one of eight total pairs of Irish dance footwear in her closet: five hard, three soft) for a demonstration of her talents, it’s easy to see why. The black velvet-and-lace garment is a vision, bursting with impossibly detailed beading and bright-colored embroidery. Its stiff upper half remains unmoved as the pleated skirt below darts and flutters, mimicking DeBoy’s movements.
After she’s finished her dance, she smooths her hands over the dress lovingly. “My parents call it my car,” she laughs, referencing its $2,500 price tag.
It’s the dress’s first trip to Glasgow (and, in fact, any World Championship), and DeBoy hopes it’ll help her shine as she fights to regain her title — and the trophy that comes with it. Unlike other major sports trophies, the Championship Globe has to be returned each year to be presented to the next champion. DeBoy took fifth last year and had to cede the trophy to the 2017 winner.
“I definitely cried a little bit,” she says, laughing, “but it keeps me working hard. I’m going back to get it again this year.”
Photos by David Stuck
Editor’s note: Ultimately, DeBoy wasn’t able to nab first place, but she did win third place, and along with it, a trophy to hold onto until the competition commences stateside in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2019.