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Week of 14 May 1999

Vol. II, No. 34

Feature Article

Big step for womankind

SAR star is world's best step dancer

By David J. Craig

If there is more to life than Irish step dancing, do not tell Noelle Curran (SAR'00). The 21-year-old New Jersey native has eaten, breathed, and slept the quick tempo and highly theatrical dance form, popularized recently in the United States by Riverdance, since she was five years old.

And while Curran's longtime dedication earned her Irish step dancing's highest honor April 4, when she became only the second American ever to win the world championship of Irish step dancing for women over 21, she has handled it with the grace one would expect of a world-class dancer.

"My close friends know what I do," says Curran, "and they're impressed because of how much work I put into it, but I'm sure most people don't know about my winning, which is fine. But for me and my teachers, it's absolutely everything."

Winning the world championship fulfilled a lifetime of dreams and hard work for Curran, who admits that her 25-hour-a-week dance schedule made her miss out on a lot as a teenager. And Curran's Irish-born parents, Frank and Kate -- whose love of Irish music and dance inspired their daughter -- remember too many school nights during her childhood when they returned home from a dance studio at 11:30 p.m.

An Easter rising
Curran's payoff came on Easter Day, when she competed in Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, against 70 of the best Irish step dancers in the world, including many who perform in productions such as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance.

Noelle Curran

Noelle Curran (SAR'00) performs at Culture Fest '99 on March 27 at Marsh Plaza. Eight days later she won the world championship of Irish step dancing for women over 21. Photo by Kal Zabarsky

Step dancing is known for its foot percussion, called battering, which is used for rhythmic emphasis. The early step dance style involved a close form and posture -- legs kept together, no high kicks, little or no turning --because competitions were held on tabletops or tiny stages. In the 1950s and '60s, step dancing was performed on larger stages, and the style changed to include "traveling" steps, circular lead-ins, and turns.

The soft-spoken Curran insists that winning step dancing's highest honor came as a shock, despite the fact that last year she won the world championship for women under 21.

"I really was surprised to win it," she says. "A lot of people told me I should have quit last year because my heart wasn't in the All-Ireland competition this year, and I came in only fourth. I think that allowed me to just relax and have fun."

What is truly surprising, however, is how little Curran's life has changed since she won. She recently refused several offers of professional dance work, she says, in order to finish her five-year physical therapy program. And while her name is well-known in Irish dance circles, in the United States her championship is a well-kept secret.

"It's the greatest thing since sliced bread for an American woman to win the world championship, and we'll have a party for Noelle when she comes home," says Peter Smith, a dance instructor in Elizabeth, N.J., who has taught Curran since she began dancing. "But there hasn't been a lot of press coverage, so hardly anyone knows about it."

Curran has always kept her involvement in step dancing low-key, so that suits her just fine. In fact, she says that before the international success of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance popularized step dancing in the United States, she often felt apprehensive about telling anyone of her passion.

"In high school, it was sort of a burden," she says. "I didn't want to tell anybody about it because I thought people would think I was weird. I was embarrassed."

While Curran's peers at BU may know little more about her dancing career than her high school classmates, she is on course toward success in the step dancing world.

"Probably the biggest benefit of winning the world championship is that it catches the attention of people who produce the biggest shows," Curran explains. "I've already been offered jobs on Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, and I hope the offers will still be there when I graduate."

Magnificent obsession
Curran says that she fell in love with step dancing when as young girls she and her sister, Sinead (SED'01), accompanied their parents to Irish festivals in New Jersey.

"What I remember is the dancers wearing really beautiful, colorful costumes," Curran says. "My sister and I started taking dancing lessons when we were very young, and we always thought it was fun. At first it was just a hobby, but pretty soon it became more an obsession."

Curran's success didn't come easily. "I sacrificed a lot for it," she says. "I've hardly ever been involved in anything else, especially in high school. I pretty much did just the dancing. But I never found anything else as interesting or fun, and it's been such a big part of my life for so long that I can't imagine not being involved in it."

Frank Curran recalls that Sinead, who recently retired from competitive step dancing, initially was more successful in competitions than her older sister.

"Noelle always had a beautiful style, very graceful," he says. "But when she first was competing, she'd get nervous. Once, during a regional championship, she forgot a step and actually ran off the stage.

"But Noelle set winning the world championship as her goal a long time ago," he continues. "In her college application she wrote that as her ambition. And she does seem to love it."

What Curran loves about step dancing, she says, is its athleticism and the Irish heritage it evokes.

"In a way, it's like a sport," she explains. "It's really fast, and you're not moving your arms the whole time so it takes a lot of endurance. I think people involved in other dancing, like ballet, downplay step dancing." Step dancers hold their arms motionless, she explains, to represent the suppression of Irish culture under English rule. "But I think there is a lot to it. The music and the dancing go along with the whole Irish personality, so you're representing a lot of emotion."

Curran says she too has retired from competition, but her hope is that step dancing, which has enjoyed renewed popularity around the world because of Riverdance, can sustain her as a performer for a few years before she embarks on a career in physical therapy.

A world apart
"Step dancing is really its own little world, and everyone knows each other," she says. "I met many of my friends through it. I've been lucky to remain in it this long because it gets to be too much physically for a lot of dancers in their 20s."

Smith, who cofounded the North American Irish Dancing Educators, which had 6 members in 1964 and today serves 500 educators, thinks Curran's passion for step dancing gives her a shot at long-term success in the field as either a performer or as a teacher.

"What makes her unique is that she's expressed the same desire her entire life -- that is, to be where she is now," he says. "She's won practically every competition she's ever been in. She'll be a champion in anything she takes on."