When Tess Monks qualified for the Irish dancing world championships early last month, she achieved a goal that has motivated her through years of mastering the sport.

The freshman became eligible for Worlds after placing 21st in her division in the All Ireland Dance Championship in Belfast during the first weekend of November. She said the prestige of the event and the fact that it was her first competition outside of the United States had made her high placement unexpected.

“I literally cried when they put the results up on the board, and they called my name, and I just screamed and was crying because I was so happy,” Monks said. “It went a lot better than I had planned.”

Monks’s qualification for Worlds marks one of many milestones in a dancing career that began over a decade ago. She first became involved in Irish dancing when she was in first grade, although she did not start dancing competitively until she was 12.

While this was a late start in a sport that allows children as young as 10 to compete in Worlds, Monks has nonetheless been successful in various levels of competition. Last year, she placed 25th in the North American Championships and narrowly missed qualifying for Worlds at Oireachtas, the regional competition.

“I just barely missed it, literally by 11 points out of 900 possible points,” Monks said. “I was so mad, but it’s the best I’d ever placed, so I was pretty happy with that.”

To do well in competition, Monks has had to dedicate large amounts of time and energy to Irish dancing. She has two- to three-hour dance classes five days a week and cross-trains outside of class.

Before a major competition like the All Ireland Dance Championship, Monks' dance classes focus on developing stamina.

“People just imagine [Irish dancing] as a leprechaun bouncing around," Monks said. "It’s a lot harder than that. [Before a major competition] we do our dance probably five times through with very short breaks in between, lots of drill lines where we just break things down, and by the end of class, you’re just literally down on the floor.”

Monks has sacrificed more than physical energy for her dance classes. The time commitment associated with dancing has caused her to miss out on various social and family events.

“I gave up my life, basically, to be at the level that I am,” Monks said. “That’s definitely been the biggest challenge, just how much of a time commitment and a life commitment it is.”

Irish dancing even played a role in Monks’ decision to attend University of Richmond, as she wanted to go to a college that was close to her current dance school, the Baffa Academy.

Monks said balancing dance with her other commitments had been easier in college than it had been in high school so far. In addition to having fewer classes and less homework, she said she had found that professors were more accommodating of her schedule. 

“I think people here just understand how serious I am about it, versus in high school where school is life,” Monks said.

But Monks still faced challenges leading up to her most recent competition. A few weeks before the All Ireland Dance Championship, she developed a stress fracture in her big toe.

While Monks said the injury had been painful she did not allow it to hinder her, according to freshman Maddie Shea.

“The thing about Tess is she is such a hard worker, and she didn’t let it stop her from dancing," Shea said. "I think she kind of worked through the injury. She had been preparing so long for Belfast that she wasn’t going to let an injury stop her.”

Monks’ perseverance, which payed off with her 21st-place finish at All Irelands, has given her a new event to prepare for: the world championships, which will be held in Dublin, Ireland, in April.

One of Monks’ dance teachers, Emma Cross, said the championships would be a good experience regardless of Monks’ final score.

“Tess is someone who, when she walks onstage, we don’t really feel nervous about, because we know she’s practiced, and she’s smart enough to know what she’s doing,” Cross said. “I think it’s going to be an amazing moment.”

While Monks said qualifying for Worlds was one of the primary reasons she started dancing competitively, she had no intention of stopping after the competition in April. She plans to continue competing in the future and said she had thought about performing in an Irish dance show at some point. She has also started working toward becoming certified as an Irish dancing instructor, although she cannot take the certification exam until she turns 21.

Monks will compete in a regional Irish dancing competition in Baltimore on Dec. 3 and though she hopes to place within the top five or 10 in her division, this competition comes with less pressure than it typically would because of her qualification for Worlds.

Although practicing and competing in major events has required significant commitment, Monks said dancing still brings her joy.

“It’s so worth it because I couldn’t imagine my life without dance,” Monks said. “And what’s the point of dancing if you’re not going to get to be the highest level you can be?”

Contact reporter Savannah Wilson at savannah.wilson@richmond.edu

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