Junior Sophia Rankin fell in love with dancing when she was five years old. It was the day of her first competition, and Rankin had driven to a venue just outside Philadelphia. One of her competitors had been recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Despite the diagnosis, she came out on stage in crutches and danced her routine to the best of her ability. The judge awarded her with a first place trophy at the end of the competition. In that moment, Rankin found something she still loves about the sport today: the connection between dance and compassion.
Ranking started ballet at age three but switched to Irish dancing within a year. Now, Irish dance isn’t just a hobby for her; it’s a full time job, she said. She goes to class six to seven times a week for three hours or more and is currently ranked eighth in the nation.
When Rankin started taking ballet classes, her short attention span prevented her from standing at the bar patiently and performing her teacher’s tedious exercises, she said.
When Rankin’s parents found an advertisement posted at a local store for an Irish dance class, they thought the fast-paced style of dance would be better suited to Rankin and signed her up immediately.
The athleticism the sport requires has motivated her to consistently practice and put more effort into her dancing to catch up to her peers, who reached a higher level earlier than she did, she said. While the precision and technique remains challenging, she sees it as motivation to better her skills because there is always room for improvement, she said.
“I started becoming competitive when I was 11, at an older age than most people who reach my level of performing right now,” Rankin said. “It was a major realization. I was like ‘oh, I have to put in a ton of extra effort if I want to be really good at this.’”
Rankin currently attends the McGrath Morgan Academy of Irish Dance and is a member of the Irish Dancing Commission in Dublin, which is currently the largest Irish dancing organization within her academy. The commission has a standardized curriculum for both solo and team dance instruction, and all teachers must be certified to train students at such a high level, she said.
McGrath pushes Sophia’s boundaries by blurring the line between dance and drama, she said. Students perform in Dance Drama, a performance that tells a story through dance. It relies heavily on acting and facial expressions to develop students’ whole persona, not just their technique.
Along with her teammates at McGrath, Rankin performed at the 2019 world competition in Ireland and placed first. She recalls the moment of winning as one she will never forget, and sharing it with her teammates and family heightened the experience, she said. The officials of the competition presented Rankin and her teammates with clear crystal globes, a trophy which she described as one of her most prized possessions.
“Only a few people get to say that they are world champions in something, and even though I’m not a solo champion, it’s almost better to say that I did it all with my team,” Rankin said.
Rankin often competes in smaller, local competitions on weekends, where she dances as an “open champion,” part of the highest division and most advanced level of competition. She also performs at “Majors,” regional competitions. Rankin dominated at the regional competition this year, beating all other dancers in her age group. She then advanced to the North American national competition, where she competed amongst the best dancers in the continent. She called the competition excellent practice for next year’s world championship.
Every Irish dance competition consists of three rounds. First, performers dance in the “heavy round” wearing hard shoes, which are comparable to tap shoes but heavier. The second is the “light round,” where dancers wear soft ghillies, similar to ballet slippers. The final round is the “set round,” an event reserved for the top placers only. Dancers perform a heavy solo piece of choice; it’s the only round that is done alone on stage. The set round is designed to show off the individual skills and style of the best dancers of the competition.
“I’ve gotten pretty accustomed to competing over the years,” Rankin said. “But every new piece is different and exciting to perform, so I still get nervous for my scores.”
Rankin has travelled to several countries to compete, including Ireland, Scotland and England. Although her Irish heritage wasn’t what led Rankin to the artform, she has grown to appreciate her Irish roots represented in her dancing, she said. Irish dancing brought Rankin to Ireland, the homeland of several of her family members. Recently, when she dances she feels a deeper connection to her family and her background, knowing it represents her culture, she said.
Rankin attributes her dancing success completely to her parents. Her mom travels with her nationwide, meeting the exhausting schedule that competing at such a high level demands.
A typical competition day is “grueling,” Sophia’s mom Jennifer Reed said. Rankin and her mom wake up at around 5:30 a.m. Her mom prepares her costume and secures Rankin a good warmup spot while she eats breakfast. After breakfast, her mom helps her put on her costume and calms her down before she warms up.
“The rest is in Sophia’s hands,” Reed said. “I’m there for moral support and fetching things for her while she does her thing.”
Dress, hair and makeup are all a part of the performance and contribute to the final score. The aesthetics are extravagant and meant to be eye catching, Rankin said. Her and her mom have to build time into their schedule to perfect the look of her costume before she goes on stage. Usually, Rankin’s costume expresses the style of her dances and her teacher’s choreography. All of Rankin’s choreography is unique to her because her teacher personally choreographs her routines to match her style and strengths as a dancer.
When performing, Rankin remembers why she started dancing in the first place.
“Performing is really unique to me,” Rankin said. “Anyone can take the same piece of choreography and make it their own by performing with different nuances. It’s really an amazing feeling and what makes me want to keep dancing for as long as I can.”
Though Rankin is unsure of what her future holds, she definitely sees Irish dance as part of it, she said. While she is considering a possible gap year to pursue dance, she wants to attend college and explore other opportunities before jumping into professional Irish dancing, which requires constant traveling to perform in shows, she said.
Rankin enjoys her unique daily life outside of school. She found that she was able to form a close circle of friends since they all share an unusual interest that only they can relate to.
“I have made a lot of friends from dance because nobody at Whitman really knows what I do,” Rankin said. “It’s kind of like my own secret world, and I love it.”