The George Sweetnam Memorial Trophy, also known as the belt, is for top dancers only, and this year’s winner at the New Haven Feis was Michael Fleck from Indiana.
A small, slim 12-year-old, Fleck wore a purple blazer, a green tie, and gel in his hair. When he danced, he skittered across the floor in supple, athletic movements, and it was a treat to watch.
Fleck, who attends the Richens/Timm Academy of Irish Dance in Indianapolis, has already been dancing for nine years. “I feel good and surprised,” he said after the competition. “I thought there were better people there than me.”
There are three such trophies in the country, one for under 13s (the minor belt), one for 13 to 18 year-olds (the junior belt), and one for dancers 18 and older (the senior belt). The North American Feis Commission allocates the trophies by lot to different feiseanna every year, and this year, New Haven had the minor award. “We were very very luck to get picked,” said Mary Williams, the Feis chair.
To be eligible for the contest, dancers must first have won first prize in an open championship. “All 45 were winners,” said Maura Gray, a teacher at the Gray-Gillan-Owens school of Irish dance, whose daughter, Kaela Gray Milewski, was competing.
There are three rounds, and dancers perform with others on stage, and then solo. For many it is a chance to dance at a top level and get rid of nerves before the national championships, which begin this week in Nashville, Tennessee. For others, it’s an end in itself.
“It’s really special, you have to earn your way into it,” Gray said.
The standard is incredibly high to begin with. “The judging is subjective,” Gray explained. “You get judged on carriage and timing, but the bottom line is whatever appeals to the judge.” At this level, few dancers make errors, and the winner must have something more than mere technical ability.
So how did Michael Fleck feel after winning such a tough contest? “I like doing well in front of big crowds of people,” he said, as onlookers took photos of him and family and even the judges crowded round to wish him well. “It’s like I’m a rockstar.” Then he ran off to get changed.