Team NI will never forget their Dance World Cup memories

Not many of us can say they have trod the same stage as legendary Hollywood actors Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn and Robert De Niro.

By David Rankin in San Sebastian
Thursday, 14th July 2022, 6:00 am

But thirty five young elite Northern Ireland dancers can.

San Sebastian’s Zinemalda International Film Festival, held each September, is one of the most important film festivals in the world, staged in the basque city’s Kursaal Congress Centre, designed by the revered Spanish architect Rafael Moneo.

It has hosted many important events in the history of cinema down the years, including the international premieres of Vertigo (attended by Alfred Hitchcock himself) and even the blockbuster Star Wars.

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Jessica Birnie on stage for Team NI

The Team NI youngsters will forever remember their own stellar moment in Kursaal’s famous auditorium as they competed in Dance World Cup 2022.

They were already among the world’s elite dancers even before they touched down in Spain’s culinary capital situated on the exotic Bay of Biscay.

Every year more than 120,000 dancers aged 4 to 25 attempt to qualify to represent their country at DWC, dubbed the ‘Olympics of dancing’.

So the 5,850 dancers from 37 countries who headlined at last month’s world finals arrived in Spain’s beautiful Donostia region as national champions.

Poppi Anderson, Emma-Louise Shirlow, Sorcha Rankin, Darcie Mulholland, Grace Elliott representing Team NI in Spain

During the nine-day championships the Northern Ireland team competed against the very best international dancers from around the globe.

It’s not an exaggeration to state that the talent, standard and performances on show were nothing short of stratospheric.

Many of the finalists already attend professional dancing academies across the world, working with leading choreographers and instructors on a daily basis with an eye on a career in the performing arts and future stardom.

Team NI’s young ambassadors – watched by their coaches and devoted parents – were a credit to their country with some stunning performances.

Team NI's Poppi Anderson, Darcie Mulholland, Emma-Louise Shirlow achieved fifth place in their trio

And 20-year-old Lauren McCormick, competing for Newtownards’ Excel Dance Company, won a fantastic bronze in the Senior Solo Song and Dance category topped by Chloe Louisa Hughes from England’s Prompt Corner Academy of Dance.

Lauren, who studies primary education at Stranmillis College and teaches performing arts at Excel, told The News Letter: “Being part of Team NI was the most amazing opportunity.”

She added: “I was astounded by the other competitors in my section. The talent was unbelievable. So when I heard my name called out to come and receive a bronze medal I was in complete shock.

“I am extremely honoured to have collected it for this solo. I am still on cloud nine.

Team NI dancers Lola Nicoll and Holly Magee at the opening ceremony in downtown San Sebastian

“I met lots of amazing dancers from the other competing teams and have made friends for life. The opportunity to fly to San Sebastián and compete at the Dance World Cup would not have been possible without the support of my two dance teachers, Lynda and Brooke. Thank you to both of you for all your dedication and support, it will never be forgotten.”

England – a superpower in global dance – once again topped the rankings with a huge haul of 227 medals (77 gold, 78 silver and 72 bronze) with host nation Spain coming next with a distant 85.

Following the spectacular burning of ash trees in locations around the Basque city to mark St John’s Eve, the opening ceremony of DWC 22 took place the following evening in downtown San Sebastian.

Cheered on by thousands lining the streets, Team NI’s dancers, instructors and parents, many draped in NI flags, danced and sang their way to the verdant Alderadi Eder gardens at city hall.

The parade, led by youngsters from Ukraine, brought the city to a standstill as teams from the participating countries came together for the world’s greatest all-genre dance event.

John Grimshaw, chairman of the DWC, welcomed nations from as far away as Canada, Australia and Taiwan as each country filed into the city hall grounds to rapturous applause and spectators bearing posters bearing the Basque message ‘ongi etorri!’ - ‘welcome’!

Holly Magee, Claudia McLaughlin-Hunt, Georgia Gardiner, Millie Colhoun, Paige Kerr, Kira Barnett, Evie Willmott perform their group dance at DWC 2022

Speaking of the city’s pride in hosting the first DWC since the Covid pandemic, councillor Cristina Lage said it was “a demonstration that San Sebastián loves dance and art for the values they transmit”.

Of course San Sebastian is most famous for its food – the city boasts 19 Michelin stars within a 25 kilometre radius. The restaurants of Arzak, Akelarre and Martin Berasategui all have three coveted stars.

But for the nine days of DWC, the world’s best young dancers were the stars who shone brightest, competing in ballet, modern, contemporary, lyrical, jazz, tap, song and dance, street/hip hop and national dance.

The Team NI girls also took part in a number of fantastic masterclasses with some of the finest instructors in the world including the hugely popular hip hop and commercial choreographer, Juliano Alcântara.

Victoria Lagan, who runs Victoria Lagan Dance and Drama in Coleraine, had 27 dancers representing Team NI.

“Dance World Cup was an incredible experience for all our local dancers,” she said. “Many of our pupils had never left the country before so to go on a plane and represent Northern Ireland in the World Cup was sensational.

“Experiencing what the dance world truly has to offer was a huge eye opener to any of our dancers considering a career in this industry.

“Not only was the standard of raw talent very high, but speaking to other dancers and coaches from different countries about their training was so interesting. We were competing against kids from Russia and South Africa who were home schooled and dance trained 35 hours a week. These were dancers who really devote their childhood and teenage years to dance training.

“I was so proud of our girls who made the most of the opportunity and participated in the masterclasses. Learning from the top coaches in the industry is something I hope has enriched their dance education forever.

“We had seven of our dances place in the top 15 in the world and we couldn’t have been more proud. Hearing our country’s name called out in the top six in the world was an unforgettable moment.”

Victoria said the spectacular opening ceremony was “one of the biggest highlights” of all. “Seeing thousands of dancers walking proudly through the streets of Spain in their country’s tracksuits is a memory that will last a lifetime.

“Dance World Cup really highlighted the art of dance through the barrier of language and cultural differences.

“Being backstage - a dressing area the size of the SSE Arena - and hearing all the dancers chat and coaches give their pep talks in their own languages really signified the bond all these countries had through the love of dance.

“Going to workshops where the instructors and pupils didn’t speak the same language but could use their bodies and musicality to create something so beautiful without using any words - that is truly art.”

Matthew Watson, an instuctor with Beats in Bangor, had five dancers on the Northern Ireland team - Katie Bradley, Sophie Bradley, Megan Haire, Jasmine Gray and Katie Rose Rodgers - all of whom won medals at DWC 2021 in Telford, England.

“The standard of performance at the Dance World Cup is second to none and for the dancers to even qualify to compete at this level is outstanding,” Matthew said.

“With some sections consisting of up to 85 dancers competing it’s a hard battle to even make the top 20 and our Northern Irish talent managed to consistently hold their own and make their country, family and teachers proud.

“I am so proud of their achievements this year and can’t wait to get the dancers back into the studio to continue their training.”

Coalisland-based Lynda Wright, who was thrilled to see two of her dancers – Emma McHugh and Jessica Birnie - compete in Spain said: “We loved the experience.

“The standard of dance was phenomenal. The event was so well organised and very enjoyable.

“The girls loved the experience and the chance to see dancers from all over the world. Team Northern Ireland did us proud.”

Victoria Lagan added: “I hope in a few years we will get the opportunity to represent our country again at the Dance World Cup, but for now, it’s back to training and we’re ready to show Northern Ireland what we learnt from this amazing experience.”

DWC 2023 will be held in Braga, Portugal, from June 30 to July 8 next year.

Team NI at DWC 2022:

Grace Elliott, Emma-Louise Shirlow, Poppi Anderson, Sorcha Rankin, Darcie Mulholland, Claudia McLaughlin-Hunt, Paige Kerr, Ellen Knox, Hannah Mullan, Holly Magee, Millie Colhoun, Halle Ramsey, Daisy Deal, Ffion Clements, Molly Moore, Rosabelle Hemphil, Zoey Hopkins, Zurzanna Urbanek, Evie Willmott, Georgia Gardiner, Karina Szczepkowska, Kira Barnett, Mollie Arthur, Mia Gaston, Amy Moore, Lola Nicholl Olivia Boyd (Instructor, Victoria Lagan, Victoria Lagan Dance and Drama); Katie Bradley, Sophie Bradley, Megan Haire, Katie Rose Rodgers, Jasmine Gray (Instuctor Matthew Watson (Beats); Lauren McCormick (Excel Newtownards); Emma McHugh, Jessica Birnie(Instuctor Lynda Wright, Lynda Wright School of Dance).

VLDD dancers from Coleraine who represented Team NI at the Dance World Cup at San Sebastian, Spain
Sorcha Rankin on stage at DWC 2022
Team NI girls Megan Haire and Jasmine Gray
Bronze medallist Lauren McCormick