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The crowd gathers around the central stage at the Peter Smith Feis in Edison, New Jersey to watch a young girl with a green-and-orange tiara and brown curls, whose feet in their light shoes cross back and forth carefully. She stops, and the audience cheers.

Tara Sanders, 15, is the only one in her competition. She wins a huge trophy, and pauses while cameras flash.

Tara has Down syndrome and her contest is for people with special needs. She has been dancing for four or five years.

“A lot of feiseanna have special needs competitions, and they’re open to boys and girls of any disability,” her mother, Pat Sanders, explains. “It’s nice because it gives her an opportunity to join in an activity that’s not traditionally open for disabled people.”

Deirdre Garie, a teacher at the Peter Smith School and volunteer at the school's annual feis, says that many feiseanna offer this level. “If we do have a competitor, we get a good crowd around and we bring Peter out to give them a special trophy,” she says. The problem, she adds, is that these competitors are rare.

Tara is friendly and entirely unfazed by the crowds and cheers. It is clear, as well, that she loves to Irish step-dance.

“It’s fun, I like being in dance classes,” she says, cradling her prize.  

It was her brother, Sean, who inspired her to learn. Sean dances at championship level, and when she saw him performing, she wanted to try it too.

“When I first mentioned it to her she asked if she could get the dress and the hair,” her mother laughs, “And I said she could.” Tara now attends a beginners’ class, and goes to competitions about once a month.

Pat’s son, Sean, is competing in the championship competition, his legs whirling and kicking high in the air. Looking on at him, Pat adds, “Some people might think Tara just does basic stuff, but she really loves it. She gets a lot out of it.

“And she’ll keep going. She’s always enthusiastic about the classes and the feiseanna.”

Pat and Terry Sanders with their daughter, Tara, an Irish dancer