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By Elena Ferrin and Kimberly Pohl
Photographs by Mark Black
The Daily Herald
April 25, 2012

Villa Park, Ill. (AP) — Winning the World Irish Dancing Championship is the pinnacle of achievement for an Irish dancer, and 14-year-old Peter Dziak, of Villa Park, did that not just once but twice in a row.

Peter was crowned champion in his age group earlier this month at the world championships in Belfast, Ireland. Peter squared off against 55 boys ages 14 to 15, all top dancers from Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, England, Iceland, Brazil, China, Japan and Russia.

Peter achieved the same feat in 2011, when he competed against 53 kids in his age group from all over the world. He qualified for the worlds by winning the regional competition Mid America Oireachtas in 2011 and 2010.

“I don’t get nervous when I perform in public. What makes me nervous is the kids in my competition — worrying about how much they practice, how much they work. Then when I’m onstage it all goes away,” Peter said.

He takes classes at Trinity Irish Dancers in Elmhurst.

“It’s all about how much you practice up to the day of the competition,” he said. “On that day, you have to have a good day, you can’t mess up, you can’t trip. You have to think about every single note you go through in your entire dance. In Ireland I danced for 5 minutes and 20 seconds. It’s not a lot of dancing for probably a year’s training, but it’s all worth it.”

World Irish Dancing Championship winners are revered within the Irish dance community worldwide, said Seamus O’Se, public relations officer for The Irish Dancing Commission, which organizes the championships. “To achieve a world championship demands skills above the average, in terms of timing, rhythm, posture and general effect. The standard of Irish dancers competing at this level has escalated to great heights, and the intricacy of the steps increases year on year,” O’Se wrote via email. “The number of dancers achieving multiple world championships has always been few.” This year was an anomaly as eight solo dancers were crowned champs for the second time, not necessarily consecutively, he added.

Irish dancing is a staple for the Dziak children — who also include Peter’s siblings Eileen, 21, Anne, 19, Randy, 17, Maryellen, 11, Michelle, 7, and Danny, 4 — all of whom either are taking or have taken classes at Trinity. Anne was part of a Trinity team that won worlds in 2007, and she placed 45th in her age group this year.

The Irish in them comes from mom Joan, whose maiden name is Sullivan. Dad Richard is of Polish heritage and owns a landscaping company.

Joan Dziak said she never Irish-danced as a kid — except for a brief, uninspired try — but her kids really embraced it. “Irish dancing has really kept our family together, from the 21-year-old to the 4-year-old. It’s beautiful music, and we really learned a lot from it,” she said.

Peter joined in the fun when he was about 5 years old. Back then, Joan carted the kids to an Irish dancing school all the way in South Bend, Ind., so the kids could take lessons with their cousins.

“When I was 5 I loved it at first because (my brother) Randy was doing it. As I got older and I started to get better, it became more practice. I was like, ‘Mom, Dad, do I have to dance?’ They would say, ‘Yes.’ I didn’t really like it until we came to Trinity.”

The Dziak children enrolled at Trinity in 2005, and Peter was finally able to join an all-boys’ class, which his previous school didn’t offer. “There were a lot of boys there, and other people that you could get to be friends with. With home schooling, you don’t meet a lot of people,” said Peter, who is being home-schooled by his mother, just like all his siblings. Next year he will attend Willowbrook High School as a freshman.

One of the best parts of being a Trinity dancer is getting to perform onstage at different shows in theaters, parades, nursing homes, Peter said. He even danced at halftime at a Bulls game. This summer, he hopes to go on his first tour abroad to Belgium.

“I like Irish dancing because it’s a way to learn a good work ethic,” Peter said. “Mostly it’s just hard work, dedication to it. To me it comes easier because I have natural talent. My feet are naturally turned out. People would have to think about that, but I don’t have to think about that. I can think about other things like keeping my toes pointed, or keeping my lines in,” he said.

He practices two to three times a week in class, and at home on a wooden stage built in the backyard.

Dance is not a single-minded pursuit for Peter. He plays on a baseball team (Villa Park Vipers), swim team (Villa Park Mariners) and soccer team (through the Amateur Youth Soccer Association in Elmhurst).

He also helps his older brother Randy with a small landscaping business, working on neighbors’ lawns in the summer and shoveling snow in the winter. The money he earns helps out with costumes and travel expenses for his Irish dancing, Peter said.

Peter said he really looks up to Trinity dance’s Tyler Schwartz, 19, who placed second in his age group at the World Championships this year. “Tyler has ridiculous stuff; it’s crazy what he does.” He also admires Michael Flatley, of “Lord of the Dance” fame, whom he emailed last year after he won his first world championship. “I told him who I was, and I invited him to play paintball. He said, ‘I would, but I’m in Europe.'”

Mark Howard, founder and artistic director of Trinity, said Peter definitely could have a future as an Irish dance teacher, or possibly as a dancer with a commercial show like Flatley’s. Irish dancing, however, is not exactly a professional career, he said.

Trinity, which has 13 locations in the Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison areas, has won more than a dozen team dancing world championships in its 30-year history, but Peter was the first to earn a solo title, Howard said.

“To repeat that first world championship is very difficult,” Howard said. “It’s like being the Super Bowl champs, and the year after every Sunday everyone is bringing their A-game to you. It becomes difficult once you’ve attained that (to do it again) because you’re the Irish dancer that is setting the standard.”

Peter has natural talent but has put in a lot of hard work to become a smooth, seemingly effortless dancer, said Trinity’s Whitney Rondeau, who teaches Peter along with instructors Natalie Howard and Laura MacNamara. “He seems to enjoy what he’s doing. It doesn’t look like it takes a lot of effort. I think that’s part of his talent,” Rondeau said. “He’ll watch you do a tricky piece once or twice, and he can mimic it. It might not be the cleanest, but he definitely can pick it up. He’s really good at picking up difficult rhythms,” she said.

Peter shines in competition, Rondeau said. “He does work really hard, you can see he’s thinking and he’s trying it, but it’s almost like he’s saving it for the stage,” she said. “He gets onstage and it’s like, ‘Holy cow, he does retain everything I’m teaching him.'”

Peter isn’t quite sure yet about his future, though he does want to keep dancing for as long as it’s fun. “I could probably dance with a troupe to pay me, maybe work my way up, but I’m not sure at all. I like writing. I would also like to be able to design stuff, kind of like an engineer.”

Whatever he wants to do, his tenacity is a good indicator that he will succeed, Mark Howard said. “When he was 10 or 11, he had a wonderful audacity, an almost misguided enthusiasm that he wanted to win the world championship so he could get back to football (soccer). It was like this thing he had to do to get it out of the way,” Howard said. “He’s an amazing kid. He just visualized that, and made it happen.”

Copyright 2012 The Daily Herald

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