Misneach – from Irish, pronounced “MISH-nah” – means courage. Hopefulness. Strength; a feeling of well-being. When they took WV Fest by storm in Charles Town last June, the intrepid Irish dancers from the Misneach Irish Dance Academy (http://misneachirishdance.com/index.html) displayed all of those qualities plus camaraderie, patience, professionalism, extraordinary timing and a sprinkling of pure joy.
Ariel Raguso captains the academy which offers classes for both kids and adults from her studios in Ashburn and Purcellville. She began Irish dance when she was eight years old and loved it enough to weave her life around it. She’s won local open championship competitions and achieved multiple top-10 titles at regional events. At the top of her competitive career, she was qualified to compete in national and world level events and performed everywhere from Irish weddings to Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center. She passed her TCRG exam at her first sitting, a certification that allows her to enter students in competitions in the largest Irish dance organizations in the world. She opened Misneach in 2019 and boasts more than 80 students, ranging from toddlers all the way up to adult beginners.
Her younger dancers’ zeal and proficiency already are making her proud. At this year’s North American Irish Dance Championships (https://www.naidc2023.com/) July 4-8 in Nashville, Tennessee, Misneach will be represented by Peyton Willingham (in the Solo Championship category) and Emma Stiles (in the Traditional Set Championship). Another past champion who is sitting out the competition this year is Eliza McCarthy, all three of whom performed in Charles Town. Also competing: Erin Tumulty, Caitlyn Pelkey, Alexis Leach, Madeline Briskey, Aislinn O'Connor, Mary Botros and Karen Nalls. Together the troupe forms a Championship team made up of Emma, Caitlyn, Madeline, and Aislinn.
A competitive spirit and the urge to excel at something unique forms part of the mystique that drew 16-year-old Peyton to the art form. She explains, “I used to be a ballerina but it was always just too slow and boring for me. My friend, who was also a ballerina, joined an Irish dance class. One day I went to her performance and immediately decided, that is what I want to do.”
Only the top 25 percent of regional dance competitors go on to compete at the national level, and our region is huge, stretching from Maryland, south to Florida and west to Texas. Judges look for musicality – making sure dancers are in time with the music and that their posture and techniques are precise. Each performs with a live musician who can play a wide variety or reels and other Irish dances. Though her niche is “solo,” at the championships large groups of competitors take the stage all at once and the best rise to the top. Dancers must demonstrate sportsmanship all while trying to stand out above the rest. To stay on top of her game she’s in the studio for two hours a day and practicing at home after that.
None of that really mattered to the crowd in Charles Town, but all were stopped in their tracks by the dancers’ boldness, as they strode out into the street dancing to Irish music on Ariel’s boombox that fought for attention with the tortured strains of a rock band down the street. Heedless to the din, dancers captured the crowd drawing a semicircle of onlookers four and five deep, all clapping to the rhythm and cheering each performance.
Many onlookers stayed to watch them mount the main stage for a late afternoon performance. As the sun waned and the crowd thinned, neither spirits nor energy lagged and each and every member of Misneach held true to the name on their tee shirts, giant smiles on their faces, feet flying.