When Emma Cross participated in the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America's regional competition, Oireachtas, in December, she was running a 103 degree temperature that landed her in the hospital with mononucleosis and pneumonia shortly after. But that did not stop the 15-year-old from taking home second place in a competition that featured around 90 dancers from the region between Maryland and Texas.
"I was sick, but I didn't know it," Emma said.
Emma, a sophomore at Stone Bridge High School, has been Irish step dancing since she was in the second grade, when her aunt sent her a DVD of Riverdance, the famous Irish step dancing company.
"I watched the movie and I thought it was really cool and wanted to try it," she said.
So Emma began taking classes at a local Falls Church dance studio, but soon she wanted something more.
"I remember when I first started, looking at the beginners classes and wondering how I would ever do it," she said. "But now that comes so naturally."
WHAT STARTED OUT as something she wanted to try has turned into an almost full-time commitment for Emma, who travels to Baltimore to attend classes at The Kevin Broesler School of Irish Dance. On the weekends when she is preparing for a large competition, Emma flies to New Jersey to take classes at the Broesler studio there.
"There are up to 70 people in the New Jersey classes," she said. "It is so intense, the mirrors steam up completely."
Emma often finds herself at practice in Baltimore from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. before having to drive back to her home in Belmont Country Club. When she's in New Jersey, it is not unusual for her to be in class that began at 7 p.m. until 1 or 2 in the morning.
Competitive Irish step dancers, like Emma and her classmates, compete in both soft and hard shoe. Each dancer must dance for three minutes when on stage at a competition, doing three different steps for 16 bars of music.
"It is really hard to get through," Emma said. "It takes a lot of stamina."
Stamina and endurance are the hardest aspects of step dancing, Emma said, forcing her to repeat her steps over and over again to train her body.
"Dance classes are really hard," Emma said. "[Broesler] pushes us really hard. But you have to practice harder to make your dancing easier."
THE CLASSES are worth it, Emma said, to get to the stage and competing, which is her favorite part and something she started the first year she was dancing.
"I just thought it was fun," she said. "I really love being on stage."
After the regional competitions each year, comes the national competition, where Emma will compete against almost 150 people. Then after that it is worlds, where Emma faces more than 200 of the best step dancers in her age group. Normally Emma would be preparing now for the All-Ireland competition, which happens in early February, but she is skipping it this year because of her illness.
"All-Irelands is really just the best of the best from all the areas," Alys Cross, Emma's mother, said. "Not anyone could go."
Emma has been to the world competition, which happens over Easter weekend, three times now, placing 62nd in the world for her age group.
"It was a really good experience," Emma said. "Though everyone is so good over there it is intimidating, especially because they don't know who you are."
The competitions have taken Emma all around the country and the world, meeting new people and becoming more immersed in the world of Irish dance.
"I like competing because I like being around everyone and traveling and the friends that you make," she said.
AS THE OLDEST of three girls, Emma's dancing often became a family affair, with her siblings, Marci, 8, and Joseph, 13, accompanying her and her mother to practices in New Jersey and competitions. Between flights to and from practices and competitions, dance classes and with her solo competition dress, made specially for Emma in Ireland, costing around $2,000 and her team dress costing $600, Alys Cross admitted it took a lot to keep Emma dancing at the level she is.
"Everyone does give up a lot for her to do it," Alys Cross said. "But it is worth it because she's a good student and a good kid. When they find something they love I want to support them."
Dancing, especially traveling every weekend has turned Emma into a responsible person, Alys Cross, who calls her daughter "very independent and very organized," said, but it has not hindered her life as a regular teenager. In addition to dancing, Emma is on Stone Bridge's state champion cheerleading squad. She is rarely without her video camera, she said, and she loves to make movies. She also loves photography and her house is decorated with pictures she has taken.
"I think [photography] is so cool," she said. "I love looking at it. I just find a thrill in it."
FOR HER FUTURE in dance, Emma dreams of joining Riverdance, the very company that inspired her to begin dancing, so that she can continue to dance and perform.
"A lot of people from her class go," Alys Cross said. "When they finish a tour they come back and take class."
Even with dreams of Riverdance, Emma still hopes to go to college. She wants to attend the University of Southern California's film school, because she hopes one day to become a movie director.
"I guess I kind of plan ahead a lot," she said, "but there is nothing else I would want to do."