3 local dancers place at event in Scotland

At the end of March, three local dancers headed to Scotland for the World Competition in Irish Dance.

Cameron Sweeney, Jocelyn Mehle and Bebe Duffus all competed and placed among the best in the world. All three are students of the Burke School of Irish Dance in Youngstown.

“We were started in 1965 by Tessie Burke,” the school’s board President Lauren McNally said. “We have always been located in Youngstown and have become a tradition of Irish heritage for the Valley.”

The school, while technically a nonprofit, is funded through tuition and through fees charged to perform in the community. In March, its dancers took part in more than 30 performances.

McNally said the school’s founder Theresa “Tessie” Burke, 91, has the distinction of being the first American-born Irish dance instructor to receive official certification as an Irish dance instructor and was the second woman in the world to achieve the designation needed to judge competitions.

The World competitions began in 1970 and since that year, the Burke School of Irish Dance has sent 40 dancers to the event. This year three attended and placed. Sweeney danced two rounds at the event and after five rounds of competition, Mehle placed 46th in the world and Duffus 18th in the world.

Sweeney, 20, is the son of Peggy and Walt Sweeney of Canfield. He has been a student at the Burke School since he was 4.

“My grandfather (Francis Murphy) is one of three men that went to Cleveland and asked Tessie Burke to open a school in Youngstown,” Sweeney said. “My entire family has taken (lessons) from Tessie since her first class in Youngstown.”

Sweeney attends Duquesne University, where he is majoring in biology. He said Irish dance has taught him dedication, drive and having a great work ethic. As for his trip to Scotland, he will always cherish the memory.

“The trip to Scotland was so much fun, getting to experience their culture, being able to see the world from a different perspective and meeting new friends and catching up with old ones from all around the world,” he said. “I visited multiple different cities with all different characteristics and backgrounds, along with the different architecture of the buildings, castles and monuments such as the Edinburgh Castle, Sir Walter Scott monument and The National William Wallace monument.”

Sweeney said he plans to return to Scotland someday. He noted the chocolate made in Scotland was great.

Mehle, 17, daughter of Vicki Mehle of Youngstown, also had a great time in Scotland.

“The trip overall was a beautiful experience,” she said. “Seeing all of the older buildings was absolutely gorgeous, and getting to see a bunch of castles was cool. My favorite place we visited was definitely Edinburgh. The best part of it was dancing on the World stage and getting recalled to the fifth round.”

In Edinburgh, she walked the Royal Mile and saw Edinburgh Castle. In Glasgow, she went to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow University and the Glasgow Cathedral. She also went on an Outlanders tour where she saw Blackness Castle and Midhope Castle.

Mehle started Irish dance after she turned 5.

“My older sister Kayla did it, and I always liked to watch her, sit in her classes and watch her competitions,” Mehle said. “She would teach me things in the kitchen like turning my feet out and staying on my toes, and I fell in love with it.”

She said Irish dance has taught her to work hard, stay consistent and dedicated and set goals.

“It’s taught me you can’t always win, but you have to keep working,” she said.

Mehle said she hopes to attend Youngstown State University to major in physical therapy.

Duffus, daughter of Jenny and Doug Duffus of Pittsburgh, said she began Irish dance lessons at age 5. Her sister already was taking dance lessons and she got enrolled in beginner classes.

Now at 23, Duffus took her final trip to the World finals. She said it is time to move on.

“I am unfortunately not coming back to compete next year; this was my final one,” she said. “I am at a point in my dance career where I am ready to move on to a different phase. I am planning on studying so I am able to teach kids how to Irish dance.”

She said Irish dance has been an outlet for her in many ways. She loves the physical and creative challenges it creates.

Duffus graduated from Duquesne in 2022 with a major in digital marketing. She also enjoys fashion and makeup as another creative outlet outside of dancing.

Duffus didn’t return home after the competition but chose to stay a little longer to enjoy Scotland.

“My trip was fantastic,” she said. “This was my third world (competition) in Glasgow, something I am very fortunate to have experienced. This trip was spent with my family and close friends being a fabulous support system for my competition. This time my family and I went to St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh, which was incredible. That was our first time to those cities in Scotland and everything about it was breathtaking. It felt so magical when we were up by Edinburgh castle.”

She also enjoyed one of her favorite snacks that she said is not available in the U.S. That snack is the Monster Munch in the pickles-onion flavor.

All three dancers did well to get to the world finals. According to their dance teacher, 28-year-old Kayla Mehle, it is not an easy road.

“It’s very difficult to make it to the level of the world championships,” she said. “You have to start from a young age and work your way up through five or six levels to be into the open championship division. From there, dancers compete in things such as Oireachtas (regionals) and Nationals, which are only held once a year. In these two competitions, only half of the competition recalls do their final round. From this final round usually only one-third get recalled to the World Championships.”

She said the competitions judge on a wide set of criteria. Dancers are judged on presentation that includes anything from how one looks to how one holds themselves, makeup, wigs, socks and shoes and dance dress. While much of that involves female dancers, both males and females are judged on timing, rhythm, cross and turn, posture, execution and style of steps.

Kayla Mehle added the competition is not just for Irish or Irish Americans.

“Every country is represented in the world championships,” she said. “The Worlds has dancers traveling anywhere from Asia to Russia, Ireland, the UK, Australia, the U.S. and more who come to these competitions. The World Championships also offer the Asling Awards. This award is given to the highest placing dancer from Asia, Continental Europe, Mexico, Nordic countries, South Africa or South America. All in all, you don’t have to be Irish to Irish dance. The sport is extremely inclusive to everyone and anyone.”

Have an interesting story? Email J.T. Whitehouse at jtwhitehouse@vindy.com.


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