An assorted three minutes was all it took for Bridget Stillson to showcase a lifetime of exceptional Irish dancing and clinch her spot at the upcoming 2017 World Irish Dancing Championships to be held this April in Dublin, Ireland. Just before her individual number was called, the entire room fell silent in anticipation before erupting in a din of pure delight. The announcer was forced to pause before he could call out the rest of the qualifiers—a select 13—as the cheers and whoops of members of the Stillson School of Irish Dance, Lenihan School of Irish Dance and Broesler School of Irish Dance could not quash their joy just yet. “I was sobbing so hard I cried my eyelash off,” Bridget remembers.
A senior psychology major with a minor in media studies, Bridget has been dancing since she learned how to walk. “I don’t remember not Irish dancing,” she says.” My mom always tells us, ‘as soon as we learned how to walk, we learned Irish dancing.’ And when your mom is your dance teacher, you don’t really have a choice.”
Bridget juggles a full schedule of six courses, is a member of the Marist Ambassador program, drives to New Jersey three times a week for five hours of training, dances locally, and teaches workshop and private lessons to students at her mother’s Irish dance school in Maine—and has never experienced a more satisfying year in her life.
A native of Gotham, Maine, Bridget is the third of four sisters—each one being highly competitive, successful dancers. Her youngest and oldest sisters are both currently on tour with the Rockin’ Road to Dublin dance troupe, and both older sisters are certified Irish dance teachers. Her mother heads the Stillson School of Irish Dance—the only Irish dance school in the state of Maine—and her aunt is in charge of the Lenihan School of Irish Dance in Connecticut. “It’s a family thing,” she laughs.
Irish dance originated as a form of recreation, as men and women used to dance in the crossroad, donning their Sunday best. Nowadays the flashy dresses, wild curls, eyelashes, tiaras and ghillies, or Irish dance shoes, commemorate past traditions. The Stillson girls started their careers competing in local competitions called “feiseannas” in Gaelic, the plural of “feis” which means a Gaelic arts festival. They compete within the bounds of CLRG, or “An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha” the Irish Dancing Commission.
“CLRG gets a lot of nonsense for seemingly being more focused on the glitz and glamour, but they do that so you get more looks from judges in competitions,” Bridget explains. “The tan on your legs show off your muscles, and even your ornate dress will attract more eyes. When it comes to dance itself, whatever form you feel best in and are most self confident in is best for you.”
Beginning around the age of five, the sisters exhibited in the New England Region, progressing from the local level to national, and even international competitions. Bridget now competes in the senior ladies heat, which includes women ages 20 and older. For every competition, each dancer performs three separate rounds for about a minute per round. The first section is called the “heavy round” where dancers compete in tap shoes, dancing on stage with two to three other dancers. “The point is to show judges that you can coordinate with other dancers—who all have different routines—they want to see how well you move on your feet. Do you have stage presence? Are your feet turned out, are you high up on your toes, legs crossed etc., and then they throw a curveball and ask you to dodge people.”
And yet, Bridget admits she is somewhat of a “late-bloomer” in the family. “I took a backseat,” she says. “I wasn’t interested until later in life.” She recalls her stubborn adolescent years, when she pushed back against the demanding routine set in front of her. Her older sisters were always competing, and Bridget says she rebelled by playing softball and track, as well as playing guitar and writing her own music.
However, this tension disappeared when a serious injury almost took away her ability to dance forever. During her sophomore year in high school Bridget tore a tendon in her ankle, as the strain of such frequent dancing caused the growth of a small, cumbersome sesamoid bone.
“When something you love is taken away from you, it just makes you want to do it ten times more. My injury is what made me fall in love with dance again.” She danced for two years on her damaged ankle, until finally undergoing surgery the year before heading off the Marist. “It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I felt good about my dancing again,” she offers. “That was when I realized, okay, I know what I need to do to achieve my goals.”
“Irish dance is different from any other dance,” she explains. “We are told to keep our legs straight, but there is more strain on the knees and ankles because we don’t bend. Therefore, injuries are more prevalent in Irish dance than any other form of dance.” Both her parents work in the medical field, her mother being a nurse in addition to a dance instructor, so when dancers get hurt in the studio, help is immediate. “[Injury] doesn’t stop me. Nine times out of ten I will find a way out of it.”
As she attends college hours away from her mother’s school, Bridget trains a few times a week with Kevin Broesler of the Broesler School of Irish Dance in Fishkill, N.Y. “At competitions, Kevin usually sits in the front, so when he makes corrections I do them automatically. It makes me less nervous but,” she sighs, “each time I get off stage it’s a blur and it’s like I forgot everything that just happened.”
The daughters of a prominent instructor, Bridget imparts that the Stillson girls have earned a name for themselves. She says that sometimes there are “politics between different schools,” but her mother marches to the beat of her own drum. Bridget has always been given team leader roles growing up, and more responsibilities have fallen into her lap as of late. It wasn’t until her two sisters went away on tour that her mother began to depend on her more, asking her to teach more classes and run workshops. “I never wanted to teach before my mom started asking me to, and now, when I graduate I want to get my CLRG teaching certificate,” she explains. She wants to expand her mother’s school, as out of the current 25 dancers, 23 are regional champions, and 18 of that 23 are off to compete at nationals in July. “I’m a super dedicated person, and Irish dance has taught me priorities and that reaching my goals are attainable. This [teaching] is something I want to do.”
At the moment, Bridget is preparing for Worlds in April. “The top 1% of all Irish dancers get to compete at Worlds. I’ve been dancing my whole life and only this year did I qualify.” She admits that she now feels ready to give up competing, and focus on taking her teachers exam. “This is such an amazing legacy for my mom,” she gushes. “She now has four daughters who have been World qualifiers, and she was a World qualifier herself.”