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By Maureen Quinlan
Globe Correspondent / May 6, 2012
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Outside the Harney Academy, an Irish dance school in Walpole, a sign in the front window congratulates Melissa McCarthy on her victory in the World Irish Dancing Championship. Inside, the 15-year-old from Norfolk giggles with her friends and eats a quick dinner before getting back on the floor for practice.

While her passion for Irish step dancing has earned her a world championship, she wears the crown modestly.

Returning from Belfast a month ago, McCarthy was embarrassed to carry her 2-foot-tall, globe-shaped, 39-pound trophy on the plane, said her mother, Mary .

And when asked recently to dance a solo for visitors at the Harney Academy, she fussed with her costume, argued over the choice of music, and gossiped with her friends to buy time before reluctantly taking the floor.

But once she began dancing, with her tiara sparkling, the pink and orange details standing out on her black velvet dress, and her eyes full of fierce concentration, it was clear why she brought home the monster trophy and the matching sash and crown.

An Irish tune blared from the speaker as McCarthy leapt around the room. Her spins matched the perfect pirouettes of a ballerina, her jumps and hops reached dizzying heights, and all footwork was completed on high toes at a speed that, if you looked away for a couple of seconds, would take her halfway around the room by the time you looked back.

It was a spectacular performance that has been a lifetime in the making.

Her mother likes to tell the story that while she was pregnant, Melissa would kick and kick all night long. The family used to joke that she would come out as an Irish step dancer.

By age 2, she was jumping up and down trying to emulate her step dancing cousins.

When Melissa was 4, Mary entered herself and Melissa in Harney’s “Mommy and Me” class. After a few classes, Melissa refused to go back because she was bored. Sally Harney, mother of the academy founder, Liam, moved Melissa up to a higher level class and she never left.

Dance would soon consume Melissa’s life. She would dance down the soccer field during her time as a recreational player, and her teachers complained to her parents that her feet would be tapping and step dancing beneath her desk throughout classes. Before long, McCarthy was devoting her life to competitions.

At age 7, she was in a dance class with high school students, and she began winning the top prizes in local feisanna. (“Feis” is the Irish word for festival and refers to competition in Irish step dancing.)

She has appeared at the world competition six times, starting at age 10. Over the years, she steadily rose from 11th place to first place in the Under 16 age group last month. (At the same competition, Melissa’s sister, Colleen, 13, placed 33d in the Under 14 group.)

“Irish dance is strict,” said Melissa, a sophomore at Montrose School in Medfield. “To be the best, you have to perfect everything. There is a lot expected of you, and you have to live up to that expectation.”

In the past few years, she and Paige Turilli of New York have been taking first or second place at the major US and international competitions in their age group.

This year, the top three winners in the Under 16 group at the world competition were from North America, with McCarthy followed by Turilli in second place and Mackenzie Mahler of Canada in third.

Though it’s unusual for North Americans to hold the top three spots in any category in the competition, Sharon Stidham, chairwoman of the Delaware-based North American Irish Dance Federation, noted that “Americans are really coming up in the competitions. The Irish no longer have a stranglehold on winning the competitions.”

In 1975, Michael Flatley of “Riverdance” fame was the first American to win a world championship. Liam Harney, McCarthy’s teacher of 11 years, won the world championship in 1984 and 1987.

To win her title, Melissa danced three rounds on April 3.

It began with a hard-shoe (similar to a tap shoe) round in which McCarthy danced a treble jig on the same stage as two other girls.

The second round was a soft-shoe performance of the slip jig, a girls-only Irish step dance that Harney describes as the ballet of Irish dance.

“The slip jig is smoother and all about rounded corners,” said Harney. “The hard-shoe jigs are peppier.”

The first two rounds are then combined into one score. The top 50 dancers advance to the third round of solo hard-shoe set dancing. (A set is a dancer’s signature program.) For her set, McCarthy performed a hornpipe jig, which Harney calls “swingier” than the style of the earlier rounds.

Irish step dance requires dancers to travel the full space of the stage. McCarthy’s dances are a fusion of several styles that highlight her talents, and spins and twirls are her trademark moves, Harney and she said.

“Melissa is known for her flashy and tricky maneuvers in the soft shoe and very intricate footwork,” Harney said. His choreography for McCarthy blends tap moves and step moves in a way that creates a new technique that stands out to the judges.

From a judge’s point of view, “We look for confidence, stage presence, poise, and beauty that glows from within,” said Stidham, who is also an Irish step dancing judge. “The dancers must be high on their toes with good timing and balance.”

Harney, who judges at worlds, looks for those things as well as the typical appearance of a dancer: arms straight down, legs crossed, and feet turned out. In addition, a dancer must be attuned to the music.

“They can interpret the music and their timing and musicality are brought to a better level,” Harney said.

Melissa also combines the traditional traits of a champion dancer with her humility.

“She is modest and not showy,” said her mother. “She has a calm disposition that is a good role model to the younger kids.”

As for the future, McCarthy plans to go to college, possibly in Ireland, and will dance for as long as she can.

“Dance is literally a part of me,” she said. “I always think about what my life would be like without dance, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Visit to see a video of Melissa McCarthy dancing.

Maureen Quinlan can be reached at

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