Economics grad student dances to top spot at world competition in Dublin

It took 17 years, two broken bones and countless torn muscles and inflamed tendons, but York economics grad student Emily Penner clinched the top title in the senior ladies solo category at the 2011 World Irish Dancing Championships in Dublin, Ireland, on none other than Good Friday. It was, she says, the highlight of her career.

“It’s so hard on your body. Injuries get in the way,” says Penner. “Most people retire when they’re in their late teens.” But Penner wasn’t ready to give it up, not until she took home the trophy from the biggest competition – the World Irish Dancing Championships.

Emily Penner poses with her first-place trophy at the World Championships in Dublin. Photo by Patrick AndisonRight: Emily Penner poses with her first-place trophy at the World Championships in Dublin. Photo by Patrick Andison

At the age of 22, she was one of the oldest competitors at the Worlds. She started competing when she was five, spurred on by watching her cousin dance. “I’ve been going to the Worlds every year since I was 11,” she says. Sometimes they were in Glasgow or Belfast; one year it was in Philadelphia – the first time the competition was held in North America. “Every little girl wants to get the title.”

This was Penner’s year. Dancing with the Butler-Fearon-O’Connor School of Irish Dance in Brampton, she won the All Ireland Championship ladies solo in February, even though she had severe tendonitis in her left foot. It speaks to the tenacity of this master’s degree student. Not much will stop her, not even a clean break of the fifth metatarsus bone in her left foot. The first time was four weeks before the Worlds when she was 16. She competed even though the bone hadn’t healed and placed 10th, besting her previous year’s placing by 10 spots.

Then she broke the same bone in a different place three years ago, 10 days before the Worlds. This time she had to sit out. “It was so tough. Not to be able to compete was worse than the break. It’s really awful.” Both times the bone broke because her ankle gave out on landing following a jump.

But Penner says injuries are part of the sport. Everyone suffers them. The hardest part of being injured is stepping back and resting after putting in 25 hours a week in practice, sometimes seven days a week for a month straight.

Emily Penner on the podium at the World Irish Championships with the other winners. Photo by Patrick AndisonLeft: Emily Penner on the podium at the World Irish Championships with the other winners. Photo by Patrick Andison

This year’s world championship was her last shot at the title. She told herself to expect the worst – that she would miss out on the top spot and never have another chance. She took a leave of absence from her studies at York in the winter and focused all her efforts on training. She wanted to give herself the best chance. Each solo competitor has to dance two rounds, the first is a hard shoe horn pipe or treble jig, the second a soft shoe reel or slip jig. The 50 highest performers go on to the third round. At this year’s World Championships that meant 90 dancers were left behind. There were dozens more participants than usual, but Penner in her hand-embroidered dress from Ireland caught the judges’ attention and won.

She has previously won several competitions – the North American Championships, three times; the British Nationals, once; the All Scotlands, once; the Great Britain Championships, twice; and the Eastern Canadian Championships, 12 times, to break the previous record of 10 wins by another dancer – but the Worlds is the biggest.

Now Penner says she can retire happy, although she is still overwhelmed by her win. “It’s been so intense,” she says.

Then she met Jean Chretien at London’s Heathrow Airport on her way home from the Worlds, and her dad took a picture. It just seemed a good way to round off a stunning career as an Irish dancer.

Penner is now back finishing off her master’s degree and looking forward to the future.

One way Penner is taking her dancing in a new direction is by performing in the upcoming play Love Jig, Friday, June 24, and Saturday, June 25, at 7:30pm, and Sunday, June 26, at 2pm, at the Alumnae Theatre Company, 70 Berkeley St., Toronto. Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for youth 15 years and under. For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Love Jig website or call 905-828-0591 or 905-820-3840.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer