Freshman Josephine Cotton pauses, adjusting her poised right foot. Her arms fold behind her back, and she breathes in. The beat she was waiting for sounds, and Cotton’s off. Her hard black shoes twist and tap, almost too quickly to even notice, across the worn gray stage, accentuating the fast-paced Irish music. She bounces in the air, moving with the grace only a trained dancer has.
Her face contrasts the sharp action of her feet – it’s eerily calm. Cotton stares straight ahead, relaxed but focused. Her cheeks are flushed red, but other than that there’s no indication she’s straining herself. After years of practice, her feet know what to do.
Irish dancing is challenging, Cotton recognizes that. But it’s become such an intrinsic, crucial part of her life because of the way it’s taught her dedication and the benefits of hard work. Not to mention the good memories that come with it.
Already Cotton has seen her hard work pay off. In 2013, she traveled to Boston for the World Irish Dancing Championship; her team placed 13th in her U13 age category.
She also moved up from the Prizewinner level to Preliminary Championships (PC) when she was 11 years old. PC is the second highest level for Irish dancing – the cream of the crop, according to Cotton’s instructor Joseph Manning. The time it takes a dancer to progress to the next level depends on their skill, and some dancers can take up to seven years; for Cotton it took about four years.
To qualify for PC, dancers have to place first in each dance they perform at a competition. Cotton did so for one of her dances, but kept receiving second place for the other. In any other situation second place would have been amazing, but getting it four years straight was frustrating, she said.
“She never gives up and never quits trying,” Manning said. “Even when she doesn’t get good results, she’s still trying her hardest to get [better]. [She] never gets discouraged and never really becomes a negative person. Maybe inside she does, but she never shows it outwardly.”
Cotton was five years old when she saw Irish dancers for the first time. Her family was at an Irish music festival, and once the dancers came on the stage, she was captivated.
“She didn’t give us much of a choice [on whether she should receive lessons],” Cotton’s mother Amy said. “[At the festival] Josephine rushed the stage and stood there, at the foot of all the girls, staring up at them watching. Ever since then she would try and emulate them, so we figured we should at least give her a shot.”
Cotton watches herself in the mirror as she practices her routine.
Once she was old enough for lessons, Cotton dropped her tap, ballet and other dance classes to pick up Irish dance.
“I went through a lot of different activities trying to find my thing, and I’m so glad I found this,” Cotton said. “I’m really not sure where I’d be without it.”
The satisfaction dance gives Cotton is so gratifying she has to share it. Every Wednesday, from 5-7 p.m., Cotton is in the practice room, this time in charge. She teaches beginner dancers with several other girls her age; together they drill steps into the squirming students, teaching them those same skills of motivation and hard work Cotton has perfected.
“When you work with a student [and you] see them compete and see their results, once you know they did really well, it always feels like a sense of accomplishment because you helped them get there,” Cotton said.
When it’s not Cotton’s turn to instruct, she hops off the stage and over to her blue backpack to pull out a 70-sheet spiral. She says she has to bring homework because she spends so much time here at the studio – lessons, whether teaching or learning, are five out of the seven days.
But bring up Irish dancing around Cotton and she doesn’t think of monotony. Rather, what comes to mind is dancing on the field at a Sporting KC soccer game or in a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Or the small moments in class where Cotton can look across the stage, see a classmate and know exactly what they’re thinking: that bond between fellow teammates is inexplicable in all sports, and Irish dance is no different. The shared look can be one of joy, or one of frustration. Irish dance is not always easy.
Two years ago it wasn’t easy – she tore the arch of her foot, and it still bothers her today. In class, sometimes she’ll finish her routine with a grimace, immediately going to stretch her leg muscles.
“When you get hurt it’s kind of hard to remember why you want to continue,” Cotton said.
But then she remembers the moments, the victorious ones, like finally qualifying for PC. Manning also talks of that moment, even though it came with a lesson too.
“[Irish dancing has] shown me that winning isn’t everything,” Cotton said. “It’s really how hard you work above what you place, because you could’ve danced the best you’ve ever danced and gotten last, or you could’ve not done well, and somehow managed to get first.”
And that’s where she learned how to be dedicated and committed, how to love Irish dancing.
“[There are] no words for how much I enjoy [dancing],” Cotton said.