Chicago Irish dancing world champ celebrates heritage, community

Sofia and her fellow dancer, Emily, teach children the "TriniJig" dance during the Trinity Open House at the Athenaeum Theatre in Lake View on March 7. (Megan Kramer/Medill)

By Megan Kramer

Sofia Kennedy’s career in Irish dance started with a flier.

Now nearly 13 years old, Sofia is a member of the World Championship team at the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance. Her parents brought home a flier with information about Trinity, which has locations throughout Chicago, when she was just a toddler, and it’s been an unexpected passion for her ever since.

“I was, like, 3 or 4 when I started, so I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” Sofia said. “But growing up I didn’t want to do anything else.”

Sofia and fellow dancer, Emily, teach and perform the “TriniJig” to parents at the Trinity Open House in Lake View on March 7. (Megan Kramer/Medill)

Sofia’s team comprises 18 dancers, all between the ages of 10 and 14. In April 2014, they joined 5, 000 dancers from 31 other countries for the Irish Dancing World Championships in London. The team won first place against six other teams in the 13-and-under girls choreography division, securing Trinity’s 17th World Championship.

Founded in 1985, Trinity is internationally recognized for having more World Championship titles than any other Irish dance school in the U.S. and has appeared on such TV shows as “The Tonight Show,” “CONAN,” “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America.” Sofia’s team also performs in live shows throughout Illinois and Wisconsin each year.

While Sofia enjoys performing and competing, her favorite part of Trinity is developing new friendships.

“It’s not just Irish dance, it’s a whole community,” she said. “So I really do enjoy that.”

Sofia helping a young girl
Sofia helps a young girl with her footwork while learning the “TriniJig” dance at the Trinity Open House in Lake View on March 7. (Megan Kramer/Medill)

“They started as 18 girls from the same school … and came out of it as 18 of the best friends,” said Anne McCarthy, Sofia’s coach. “Their dedication was unbelievable, and I just really saw them come together over those months in training.”

McCarthy has been with Trinity for 25 years, as both a dancer and a coach. She says Sofia’s strong work ethic influences the other girls and has played a role in the team’s success.

“Sofia is one of those dancers that never gives up,” McCarthy said. “She brings a strength to the team that is every coach’s dream. When you ask her to fix something, she’ll work until it’s fixed, so you feel like you can put her in any spot anywhere in the dance and … she’ll do what you need her to do.”

Trinity’s philosophy is about teaching students poise and resilience and encouraging them to dance beautifully, rather than focusing on competition.

“We never stress throughout the journey, ‘You’re going to beat these other countries, you’re going to beat these other schools.’ It’s about beating themselves,” McCarthy said. “The goal that day is, ‘Go up and give the best performance that you’ve ever done,’ and from there, whatever happens, happens. And that’s led us to great success.”

Trinity also has a company of 16- to 26-year-old dancers that tours nationally and internationally. Thanks to her involvement with Trinity, Sofia has developed a fondness for travel. One of her goals is to stick with Irish dance so she can tour when she’s old enough.

“We have great experiences and we learn a lot,” Sofia said. “It’s a cool journey to be on, to be going to shows and then one day getting to go to, like, Japan.”

Sofia has two sisters, 11 and 4 years old, who are also Irish dancers. Sofia’s mother, Yvette “Eva” Kennedy, believes Trinity has had a positive impact on each of her daughters.

“A lot of the things you hear about athletes going through – confidence and strength building, focus and endurance – is completely applicable, not just to Irish dance, but to all dance forms,” Eva said. “Even the team dynamics; trusting your team and getting to know the girls. It’s just been wonderful as a mom to see an organization have such a positive influence on women and girls.”

Sofia and her family
Sofia (right) talks with her mother and sisters during the Trinity Open House at the Athenaeum Theatre in Lake View on March 7. (Megan Kramer/Medill)

The Kennedys’ family heritage plays a role in Sofia’s involvement with Trinity as well.

“We like to say she’s exactly half-Irish, because I’m 100 percent Polish and her dad is 100 percent Irish,” Eva said with a laugh.

Eva grew up in Chicago, not far from the Irish American Heritage Center in Albany Park, which houses one of Trinity’s many locations and where Sofia took her first Irish dance lessons. The family now lives in Evanston, where Sofia is an Honor Roll student at Nichols Middle School, favoring reading and writing.

Sofia doesn’t foresee herself pursuing Irish dance forever (“I probably won’t do it when I go to college or anything,” she said). But her dancing has certainly left its mark.

“I feel like it’s helped me in life,” Sofia said. “It’s shaped me to be who I am today and encouraged me to do new things and make new friends. You really do learn a lot from being able to go up on stage and pushing yourself to do things and not just giving up.”

Sofia recently performed with six other dancers on WGN News as part of their St. Patrick’s Day broadcast and was in the Northwest Irish Parade on March 15. She will be dancing at several local schools, nursing homes and at Tommy Nevin’s Pub in Evanston on March 17.

Photo at Top: Sofia and her fellow dancer, Emily, teach children the “TriniJig” dance during the Trinity Open House at the Athenaeum Theatre in Lake View on March 7. (Megan Kramer/Medill)