Irish Dancing Helps Gwendolyn Sands ’18 Keep in Step with Academics

July 25, 2016

Gwendolyn Sands '18 kicked up her heels at the North American Irish Dance Championships, held July 1 to 5 in Orlando, Fla., where she competed in the Ladies Under 20 division. This was her first time at the event, which attracts dancers from Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and Mexico.

"I was not sure what to expect going into this competition," said Sands, an architecture major. "My main hope was just to dance well and not place last!"

Sands achieved her goal, coming in 69th overall out of the 99 dancers in her division, and 49th out of 72 dancers from the United States. Though she hopes to place higher next year, she said, the rankings don’t matter as much as the joy dancing gives her.

"Dancing has enriched my life in so many ways. It has taught me to see challenges and failures as learning opportunities that ultimately help me to improve myself and my dancing," she said. "It has given me more self-confidence than anything else in my life. And it has given me an amazing community as well as many of my best friends."

Sands began dancing at age 9, in her hometown of Burlington, Vt., after hearing two of her friends talk about how much fun it was. "Once I started, I found that it came naturally to me, and as a young kid I really enjoyed that," said Sands.

Irish dancing requires a lot of stamina, said Sands, who practices three to four days a week and often competes on weekends, because it emphasizes intricate footwork. Timing and rhythm are crucial. Dancers must stay in time with the music, be loud in hard shoe and quiet in soft shoe, keep their arms in and their upper bodies straight, and look confident.

Balancing dancing and academics can be difficult because both require a lot of focus, Sands said, but the effort is always worthwhile: “I find that the more I dance, the happier and more relaxed I am, which can definitely help my studies go more smoothly.”

At Wellesley, Sands said, she has learned never to give up and not to be afraid to ask for help. She said two courses have been especially helpful: a first-year writing class with Rebecca Bedell, associate professor of art, which taught her important foundational skills, and an environmental history class she took this past semester with James Turner, associate professor of environmental studies.

"Professor Turner made sure to give very specific feedback to each student, and to talk to all of us about our work, so that by the end of the semester I had learned a lot about my own writing style, and common setbacks, and how to work through them efficiently," said Sands.

Building on her strengths and working through challenges applies to her dancing, too. "I keep reminding myself to keep working hard, and eventually the hard work pays off," said Sands, who smiled throughout her routine at the championships. "Each dance is choreographed for me by my [Irish dance] teachers, but I get to put my own energy and style into it, and that is the part I really love."