FRUIT HEIGHTS -- As the first dancer from Utah to place in the top 10 at the World Irish Dancing Championships, seventh-grader Payton Womack, of Fruit Heights, was shocked that he was even competing at the event.
Only a small percentage of American Irish dancers earn the privilege to compete in the world championship, which was held earlier this spring in Boston. Payton earned seventh place and his brother, Dallin, 14, earned 19th place out of nearly 100 boys in their age categories. Payton and Dallin got the chance to compete when they qualified in the Western U.S. Regional competition last fall.
"When I got seventh at worlds, I was really shocked, because it was my first world competition, so I never thought I would get in the top 10," Payton said. When asked how he achieved such a feat, Payton said, "just practicing all the time and remembering to keep your feet pointed and turned out, and making sure not to move your upper body."
The Womack brothers spend several hours each day practicing. They attend class four times a week for several hours and then put in as much time as they can practicing on their own.
While at the competition, Payton said it was a bit overwhelming, especially with so many people from all over the world. Thousands of people compete at the event, which is held in a different country every year.
"As I watched the competitions, it was obvious everyone was so good, and I didn't think I could do that good," Payton said.
His mom, Varalyn, said her boys wouldn't have succeeded without the training of their instructors at the Scariff-Hardiman School.
Kieran Hardiman and Alan Scariff, co-directors of the studio, who are both from Ireland, bought the studio two years ago after spending many years dancing professionally in the "Riverdance" show.
Irish dancing is characterized by a dancer's rapid leg and foot movements, while the upper body stays relatively still
"Irish dance, like a lot of forms of dance, is not that difficult to learn from the start, but as soon as you are out of the beginner level, it gets harder and harder," Scariff said. "It requires a lot of strength for your legs and core, but it's something dancers build up through dancing."
The boys recently competed and earned top awards in the North American Irish Dance competition this summer in California, and are now qualified to compete in the World Irish Dancing Championships in London in spring 2014.
Scariff said they are the biggest competitions of his students' Irish dancing career.
"Students spend months perfecting the steps, so they are flawless. They have drill classes each week to make sure their fitness is up to scratch and make sure their core is strengthened, so it's a tough year building up to these competitions, but luckily our kids are hungry for it, so they don't mind this kind of hard work."
Girls competing in Irish dancing face stiffer, competition because there more female dancers than their male counterparts. McKenna Cleverly, 15, of Layton, has been Irish dancing since she was 8 years old, and recently placed 37th in the North American Irish Dance Championships this summer. She said being able to compete is what allows her to continually progress in the sport.
McKenna's biggest battle at such big competitions is dealing with her own confidence.
"We go to these major competitions at huge venues, so it is easy to feel really small and not very good, because you see lots of amazing girls. But the more I practice and place, the more I can relax and learn to be confident and not compare myself to others," McKenna said.
The sport can be expensive for girls, as the cost of their competition dresses can run in the thousands of dollars. Considering that several of McKenna's sisters also attend competitions, it can get pricey for their family. To save money, their mom sews their dresses, then later sells them.
For more information about Irish dance and the Scariff-Hardiman School, visit www.irishdanceinutah.com.