Seven dancers from Academy of Performing Arts McCafferty Academy of Irish Dance have learned a valuable lesson of perseverance amidst the pandemic, according to their instructor, Lena Gladkova-Huffman.
After making adjustments to safely continue dancing, the group will leave for the Southern Region Oireachtas Irish dance competition in Florida next week.
When March 2020 robbed them of a St. Patrick's Day performance, regular practices and dance competitions, and opportunities for feedback from judges, Gladkova-Huffman made it a mission to show her dancers that nothing can stop a person who has passion and a plan.
Of the seven, three have taken Irish dance lessons since Gladkova-Huffman began offering them nine years ago: Reece Cowart, 14, Shiloh Christian School; Mackenzi Harlen, 16, Tahlequah High School; and Lauren Mendenhall, 18, Connors State College. One is Huffman's 10-year-old son, Nikolai, who has been Irish dancing half of his life. The others making the trip have committed years to the art, as well: Katelyn Hughes, 9, Shiloh Christian School, 2-1/2 years; Julianne Burns, 11, Tahlequah Middle School, four years; and Ella Whisenhunt, 11, Greenwood Elementary School, five years.
Competitive Irish dancing has a tiered system of progress for each dancer. Gladkova-Huffman is a TCRG, which is the abbreviation for the Gaelic Teagascóir Choimisiúin le Rinci Gaelacha. This means she is a certified Irish dance teacher affiliated with An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha.
"You start as a beginner, progress to novice, prizewinner, championship level. At some point, you become skilled enough to try out for major events: North American National Championships and Worlds - the Olympics of Irish dance," said Gladkova-Huffman.
"This is where you join a group of Irish dancers from Tahlequah. They are attempting to compete amongst the best in the Southern Region of the USA for a chance to qualify to participate in a major competition."
Based on the results of these three days, dancers are hoping to place or qualify for national and international contests.
"Some dream of taking the podium place amongst the best in the region," said Gladkova-Huffman.
Most of the local dancers have enjoyed numerous competitions, as well as the traveling and the people they have met over the years.
"I'm going to do this for as long as I can," said Julianne. "I like making friends. You're basically like a family."
Many of the dancers thrive on the social and bonding aspect.
Lauren said she struggled through a time of not moving up in the dance levels, so she considered quitting. She talked with her fellow dancers, and they encouraged her to continue.
Ella said that when she gets stressed about improving, she'll call a friend who understands.
"When you go to feis [competition], you get to learn how to be happy for your friends if they place higher than you," said Ella. "Irish has made me a lot more confident."
When the studio was closed, Gladkova-Huffman came up with the option of continuing practices on Zoom videoconferencing; kept dancers inspired with workout challenges and bike rides; and researched options to bring them back to the studio safely.
Along with designing a cleaning plan, equipment was purchased for the studio. New rules were implemented to limit attendance numbers and control who entered the studio. Masks are a standard part of dance attire now. They may be removed for some competitions and rehearsals.
Huffman said they have continued to give the dancers what they have always had: a safe and fun second home. The hard work and financial investments have paid off, she said.
The dancers went back to the studio in May and began practicing for the Southern Region Oireachtas event.
"The event itself was in question because in May, no one knew what could happen in December. The event changed home from South Carolina to Florida, and has changed the way it always looks from being a huge gathering of friends and family to a masked dancer and one parent with strict social-distancing requirements, but it was on. And so the dancers worked tirelessly with their teacher for their dreams," said Huffman.
The dancers practiced in regular classes, cross-trained with coach Kevin Burns on Saturday mornings, took private lessons, and used opportunities with virtual teachers around the world. They returned to socially distanced and masked competitions in September, and are now on a home stretch to depart for Orlando on Dec. 2.
Mackenzi said having lessons again has been relaxing.
"It gives me something normal. It gives me something to look forward to," she said. "I just love it. I love the environment and the people, and I love the dance."