• Mon. Jun 27th, 2022

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A 15-year-old Black dancer has become a rising star in the competitive world of Irish dancing

ATLANTA — In kindergarten, Imani Johnson’s friends would show off their dance moves on the playground: nimble steps and taps that made a pleasant patter on the ground. This was Johnson’s introduction to Irish dance.

At home, Johnson watched YouTube videos of dancers and imitated their stiff arms and light-footed hops. She was so enthusiastic and persistent that in third grade her mother signed her up for lessons. The YouTube practice paid off: “Everyone told me I was a natural,” Johnson said.

Now 15, Johnson, an Atlanta resident, is one of the best Irish dancers in the country. She placed second in her age group at the U.S. nationals in 2021, won her group in the Southern regionals in 2018 and 2019, and has won more local competitions than her mother can count.

Imani Johnson poses with some of her trophies.
Johnson poses with some of her trophies. Arvin Temkar for NBC News

Johnson is used to being one of the few Black dancers at Irish dance competitions, but it was a bit challenging at first. “I would want to see someone like me, so I could have someone to relate to,” she said. But as she got more involved in the scene, she found a few other dancers of color who shared her passion.

A mostly white world of big, curly haired wigs, sparkly costumes, “Riverdance” leaps and monster calves, competitive Irish dance has become more diverse over the decades. When Lisa Petri started the Doherty Petri School of Irish Dance on Long Island in 1991, people would call and ask, “Do you have to be Irish to do Irish dancing?” 

It’s an understandable question, given the dance’s name. But stage shows like “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance” popularized the form around the world, said Petri, who is the president of Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America. There are now Irish dance schools from China to Mexico. In the U.S., people of color are making a name for themselves in the sport — Julia O’Rourke, who is half-Filipino and half-Irish, has won four Irish dance world championships.