PORTLAND – This is a busy weekend for Irish step dancers.

Multiple shows Friday. More shows today. And a St. Patrick’s Day parade to boot.

For a handful of dancers, the best is yet to come. Four girls from Maine will compete in the World Championships of Irish Dancing in Belfast at the end of March.

That’s the Belfast in Northern Ireland, not the one up the coast of Maine.

“I’ve been working really hard for it,” said Emma Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth, a fifth-grader who recently turned 11. “I’m just really excited to be going. It’s a great opportunity.”

This will be the first trip to the world championships for Emma, who followed her older sisters into jigs and reels and hornpipes when she was only 3.

She takes lessons at the Stillson School of Irish Dance on Warren Avenue in Portland, where Carlene Stillson teaches more than 100 students the intricate and disciplined maneuvers passed down through generations and celebrated more recently in productions such as “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance.”

Three of Stillson’s daughters will compete in Belfast. All have world championship experience.

“The championship is considered to be so serious that they don’t allow younger children to go,” Stillson said. “It requires a tremendous amount of training.”

This is the first year in which Emma Fitzpatrick is eligible. It will be the third championship event for Ciara Stillson, who’s 13, and her sister Mairead, who’s 20.

Deireann Stillson, a 17-year-old senior at Gorham High School, will be making her second trip.

Mairead Stillson is a junior at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., where she plays a lead role in the Irish step dance show at nearby Busch Gardens.

More than 3,000 dancers — male and female — are expected at the world championships, from Great Britain and North America, Europe, Africa, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Dancers qualify through regional and national competitions.

Emma placed 15th in a national competition last summer in Tennessee and fourth in New England in November. When she was 7, she was a New England champion in the under-8 age group and third in the country.

“She was good right out of the chute,” Stillson said of Emma, who used to sit on her mother’s lap while her older sisters Molly and Shannon took lessons. “The youngest of the family, they pick up a lot by watching. I think that’s true of any sport. But she was also a very stylish dancer at a young age.”

With their arms at their sides and their upper bodies rigid, dancers perform intricate steps while hopping, stamping their feet and clicking their heels. William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, described it as body of ice and feet of fire, Stillson said.

Dancers perform solo or within a group. A competition calls for a hard-shoe routine and a soft-shoe routine, each before a different panel of three judges. The top dancers are called back for a third routine, with hard shoes, before three other judges.

“It’s very difficult,” said Emma, who also plays soccer and said the skills translate between disciplines. “During the week, we practice Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and the weekends. We go over all of our routines and work really hard on all the bits and pieces and try and perfect everything along the way.

“It’s very hard to get everything, but we work so hard on it that it comes eventually,” she said.

The practices last 90 minutes to two hours, she said.

Carlene Stillson, who also is a judge, grew up in Connecticut with Irish grandparents and an aunt who taught step dancing.

“I like to get the kids out at St. Patrick’s time and get them to dance for their schools, because they’re instant heroes,” Stillson said. “You give me any athlete, and I’ll have them in a full-blown sweat in about five minutes flat.”

She said Irish dancers lift their body weight hundreds of times per minute.

“My students,” she said, “are unbelievably fit.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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