March 17, 2010

Stepping up to dance

Sisters celebrate their Irish heritage all year long.

By Emma Bouthillette
Staff Writer

CUMBERLAND -- Today, whether you're of Irish descent or not, is a day to wear green, drink a pint of Guinness and join in celebrating Irish heritage. But for the three Fitzpatrick sisters, they celebrate their heritage 365 days a year with Irish step dancing. Shannon, 15, Molly, 14, and Emma, 9, Fitzpatrick have all grown up with Irish dancing shoes on. The older sisters started when they were 7 and 8 years old, with Emma joining in before she turned 3, all because of their father's heritage.

click image to enlarge

Molly, Emma and Shannon Fitzpatrick model their traditional Irish step dancing costumes. From the curly wig down, the outfits were designed specifically for each girl by a designer in London with the aid of their step-dancing instructor, Carlene Stillson.

The Associated Press


IF YOU’RE In downtown Portland celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today, stop by Brian Boru’s around 3:30 p.m. to see a group of Irish step dancers performing.

"My dad grew up with music and a love of dance," Molly said. "We immediately fell in love with it too."

Joe Fitzpatrick said that when he introduced his daughters to Irish step dancing, he was not sure if they would make the commitment. He can remember the first lesson they had at Stillson School of Irish Dance when instructor and owner Carlene Stillson emphasized she expected 100 percent commitment from her students all the time.

"It was a big decision," he said, and for all the girls it stuck.

Now they compete at the regional and national level, with aspirations to compete against Irish step dancers all over the world. In the recent New England competition, all girls were in the top 20, with Emma placing first in her division. She is the first Irish step dancer from Maine to place first in the regionals.

"I'm glad we decided to because I can't imagine my life without Irish step dance," Shannon said.

Their son Joseph, 13, opted out of Irish step dance, but has become supportive of their efforts.

"He goes to a lot of these practices and competitions and never complains," their father said.

The girls balance their time between school, homework, other sports and dance. With a wood floor and mirrors in the basement, they often put homework on hold to practice after dinner. They learn the techniques and dance material at class and then practice at home, often with two sisters watching one doing the dancing and giving feedback.

Admittedly, after a long day of school they sometimes argue over the criticism, Shannon said. But in the long run, they realize it is helpful.

"It's taught me to have confidence in myself. There's a lot of discipline," Emma said, adding that she's learned to trust that her family and instructor will be there when needed for support.

"Carlene has pushed them beyond what they can do. Even when they're exhausted and she pushes further," the girls' mother, Patti, said.

"We find we have no limits," Molly said.

A lot of their friends in school do not understand the devotion they have developed to Irish step dancing, or what a difficult sport it can be. All it took was one class for their father to gain a whole new respect for what they do day in and out.

"After one class I gave the girls credit and praise," and then hobbled to bed, Joe said.

Whether their classmates understand or not has not been an issue.

"It's emotional and hard to handle," especially if they make a mistake during competitions, Molly said. "But we appreciate it more. We all love it and wouldn't trade it for anything."

"It's part of us," Shannon said, reiterating it has given all of them a higher level of confidence in themselves.


Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:


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