sarah 2

Thirst for First

$100 wig? Check. $100 admission fee? Check. $150 hard and soft shoes? Check. $165 passport? Check. $3,000 handcrafted “stoned” (rhinestoned) dress imported from Northern Ireland? Check. A priceless appetite for success? Check. Sarah Oldam mentally ran through her travel checklist before she voyaged to Montreal, Canada on March 29. When she boards her plane four days from now and heads back to the States, she plans to have to make some extra room in her suitcase for her first place trophy.

Over 6,000 competitors will be hoping for the World title.

“To me, dancing isn’t just life―it’s who I am,” passionately stated Sarah, the current second place Irish Dancing World Champion. After 14 years of practice, the Monmouth University freshman yearns to dance her way to the judge’s hearts while upholding her family’s Irish roots.

 Competing in the ‘Under 20’ group, Sarah’s only goal is to win after she almost tasted victory last year in London, England. She refuses to accept anything less.

The Hunterdon County native began Irish dancing when she was 5 years old and has danced since, never taking any type of extended break. She began learning about her Irish culture through music, following in the footsteps of her mother, Brenda Oldam. 

According to Brenda, both her mother and father were born in Ireland and immigrated to America in the ‘50s. “[My parents] wanted me to dance as it was part of their heritage and they wanted me to experience it,” Brenda explained. Living in Kearny, NJ, which at the time she said was primarily composed of Irish and Scottish immigrants, gave her family the opportunity to socialize. Dancing provided that outlet to meet with friends who were “from the other side.” Intending to pass on the dancing tradition, Brenda enrolled her daughter in dance lessons with the same dancing instructor that she once practiced with – Peter Smith, a founding member of Irish dancing in North America. 

“At first, it (dancing) was just another sport I played… but I have loved it from the start,” Sarah exclaimed. After a few years of practice, she realized that Irish step was her true passion. Because of the taxingly time-consuming schedule and her love for the art, she decided to shift her focus away from basketball, soccer, lacrosse, swimming, track, and cross-country to primarily focus on bettering herself as a dancer. “I was a good dancer in my younger days, but nothing to clearly distinguish myself from others,” she added. 

After dedicating two days a month to establishing a regiment to improve stamina and power with a personal trainer, five days a week at the Peter Smith School of Irish Dance with the help of teachers Pater and Amy Loxley, and seven days a week to practicing at home, Sarah started winning local competitions on a regular basis beginning in 2008. “That just made me work harder and harder to be the best,” Sarah commented. Her first major win was then earned at the North American Nationals in 2009. 

After consistently qualifying in competitions over the years, Sarah has earned the title of “All Ireland Champion,” “All Scotland Champion,” five-time “North American Champion,” and three-time “Oireachtas Champion.” She plans to add “Irish Dancing World Champion” to that list of accomplishments by April 5. 

Sarah will be dancing three rounds in Montreal in front of three judges who will be tallying scores based on criteria including: turned out feet; pointed toes; straight postures; still arms; high jumps; and overall stage presence. The first two rounds―lasting a minute and a half each―are the treble jig (danced in hard shoes) and the slip jig (danced in soft shoes). The third round is a set dance, which is a more creative and free individual hard shoe piece. “My (two and a half minute) set, Planxty Davis, is one of the longest and toughest set dances to do,” the dancer said. “The amount of energy and force you use really takes a toll.”

As stated by Tess Barrett, a 17-year-old dancer who practices with Sarah at the Irish Heritage School of Dance, “Sarah is a very graceful dancer. She’s light on her feet, she can jump through the roof, and she simply seems to glide across the floor. She really makes it look effortless, which as a dancer myself I know is very hard to do… That’s why she’s on top.”

The competition normally starts at 8 am and will end around 3 in the afternoon. “When I perform, I never think about performing for the judges. In my head, I am performing for the crowd. I want my presence to make everyone in the room stop and watch me,” Sarah said. “I want them to enjoy my performance as much as I enjoy performing it for them.”

After the competition is over, the judge’s marks are tabulated, which Sarah said can take another couple of hours. 

Loxley, who has been instructing Sarah for approximately 12 years, feels that Sarah’s determination to win differentiates her from other dancers. “She just will not give up,” Loxley said. “I have seen her work through injuries, as well as disappointments in competition, only to come out stronger mentally and physically.”

The instructor feels that in order to be considered a “champion,” a dancer needs to make it look easy and natural, when in reality, it is “probably one of the most difficult dance forms to master.” Loxley commented, “Sarah’s technique, grace, strength, power, and endurance are all where they need to be in order to win the title.”

Sarah will dedicate her upcoming performance to her late teacher, Peter, who passed away late last year. “To dance under Peter’s name was an honor in itself,” she reflected. Sarah said that wouldn’t want to be part of any other family knowing that she’s dancing with Peter looking down on her – it makes it all better. In addition to Peter, the 19-year-old will dance in honor of her supportive friends and family.

When asked the importance of Irish dancing to the Oldam family, Brenda responded, “It has become our life. We have met many families, made many friends, traveled to so many places, and have had some great times.” Brenda appreciates the deeply rooted connections to Irish tradition, and adores watching her daughter embody these traits as she gracefully moves across the stage.

“Years back, Irish dance was a simple dance [that] people at gatherings would perform – reflecting the times,” Sarah explained. As time has progressed, however, so has the dance in terms of the costumes, shoes, hair, and level of difficulty woven into the routines. “The music is still from the old traditional songs, but this too is being modernized. Irish dance reflects the changing times, but is steeped in tradition,” the health and physical education student added.

“Irish music has a wonderful history,” said Stanton Green, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, who has been traveling to Ireland for 30 years and studying its custom.  “This history is passed onto younger generations through music schools and the mentoring of young musicians by musical masters.” Sarah strives to pass on her knowledge of the art to prospective dancers by eventually becoming a personal trainer and an accredited Irish dance teacher. 

“I have given up so much of my social life to be where I am today,” said Sarah. “If I wasn’t so focused on Irish dance, I would have never been a champion… I can thank dance for so many things,” added Sarah. “It’s difficult to think what my life would be like without it. I know [Irish step] will always be a part of me.”

On accomplishing her dreams, Sarah insisted, “Be confident in yourself no matter what you are going through. Always make sure you are working hard to be the best you can be. Be proud of yourself and your accomplishments. If it is something you want, never give up.”