EASTHAM — When Madeline Schnitzer was six years old, she participated in her first regional Irish step dance competition.
“I had no idea what to expect and no idea how hard it was going to be,” she says. But Madeline and her mother, Dawn Schnitzer, both recall her asking one question before the competition: “If I win, do I get to go to Ireland?”
Six-year-old Madeline thought that was an automatic part of practicing Irish dance. She couldn’t have known then that, at age 14, she would be competing in the 50th anniversary edition of the Irish Dance World Championships in Belfast, Ireland. The competition begins April 11.
“I’m excited to really see Ireland,” says Madeline, who lives in Eastham. But while she looks forward to exploring and sightseeing there, she is also excited about the competition itself and the chance “to be standing on the world stage.”
Last November, Madeline competed against 80 champion dancers from across New England and earned third place. That qualified her for “a chance to dance with the most talented dancers across the globe,” says her mother. She will be competing at the Under-15 level in Belfast.
Madeline’s first experiences with step dancing were at the Kanaley School of Irish Dance in Hyannis, where Colleen Kanaley is the instructor.
“She was waiting for her ballet class to start and peered in the window to see girls practicing Irish dance,” says Dawn. “She begged me for months to let her try it and finally I decided to sign her up for a four-week session. The rest is history.”
This isn’t Madeline’s first world championship competition. She qualified for the worlds at the New England Region Oireachtas — a competition organized by the New England Irish Dance Teachers — in November 2017 at age nine. The following year she again qualified and earned seventh place among girls under 11. Madeline has also attended the national championships in New Orleans, Orlando, Fla., and Vancouver, Canada. She placed in the top third of her age group in both Orlando and Vancouver.
This year is special not only because the competition will be held in the dance form’s home country but because the world championships were canceled for two years in a row due to the pandemic.
Madeline won’t be the only competitor from Cape Cod at the event in Belfast. Thirteen-year-old Annabelle Chown of Orleans, who also trains at the Kanaley School, will be competing in the Under-14 group. This will be her first world competition after finishing sixth in the nation for her age group at the 2021 national competition in Phoenix.
“Madeline is one of my best friends and I’m excited to be on this journey with her,” Annabelle says.
Like Madeline, Annabelle started as a ballet dancer. She was seven when she first tried Irish dance.
“She went for her first lesson and just loved it,” says Sarah Chown, Annabelle’s mother.
In 2017, when she was eight years old, Annabelle competed at the New England championships, finishing first among 97 dancers in her age group. She says she’s always loved the dance form and Irish music but when she won her first competition it changed her mindset.
“I realized I’m really good at this,” she says. “I wanted to compete.”
Madeline and Annabelle have formed a friendship dancing together. They did not miss a beat during the pandemic. They kept practicing from home on their own time, and both attended Zoom classes offered by the Kanaley School.
Both girls say the pandemic only made them work harder. “I had a schedule,” Schnitzer says. “I’d wake up, do schoolwork, get some lunch, practice, and then later go to the Zoom class that my teacher set up.”
During those many months of remote learning, Sarah Chown put a board down in the living room so Annabelle could practice the heel clicking, stamping, and tapping of hard shoes without ruining the floor.
Students and parents were relieved when, in the summer of 2020, Colleen Kanaley opened her school again for some in-person classes. “We were fortunate that Colleen has a small school and she was able to safely keep lessons going,” Sarah said.
The run-up to St. Patrick’s Day is a busy one for the two dancers. They traveled with three other Kanaley dancers to Martha’s Vineyard last weekend to perform at the Town Bar in Edgartown.
On March 17, Madeline and Annabelle will be among several groups bringing Irish dancing to audiences around the Cape. Dancers will be performing at the Sandwich Council on Aging at 1:30 p.m., at Windsor Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Yarmouth at 2:30 p.m., at Jake Rooney’s in Harwich Port at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., at the Irish Village in Yarmouth at 7 p.m., and at Mahoney’s on Main Street in Buzzards Bay at 7:30 p.m.