Caiti Ward has the ideal makings of an Irish dancer: long legs, big smile, boundless energy and rigorous self-discipline.
In many ways, it’s easy to forget she’s a teenager.
Perhaps it’s because by the time Ward was in first grade, she was dancing with her feet turned-out and crossed at the same time, her arms glued to her side, her gaze fixed straight ahead and her hair piled on top of her head in a fountain of corkscrew curls, which she attained by sitting for hours in hot rollers.
Ward has the presence of a veteran performer because she earned it.
Dressed head-to-toe in black, save for the sliver of ivory ruffles poking out of her leather biker jacket, Ward, 17, is the image of cool.
Even her hair is jet-black. A natural blonde, she dyed it three years ago because she was bored — or perhaps because she was hoping to add some edge to her Celtic good girl image.
Irish dancing isn’t exactly a radical hobby.
“It’s very sophisticated,” Ward says. “It’s very precise, and it’s less lenient than other types of dancing.”
It’s a Tuesday afternoon at Sarasota High School, where Ward, a junior, is enrolled in honors classes and AP art — her second love.
“My work appeared in an Irish dance magazine,” she says. “I forget which one. It’s one of the big magazines.”
She reaches for her cell phone and pulls up an image rendered in bright colored pencil. The graphic could easily be marketed to a skateboard company, a potential pitch of which Ward seems to be aware.
“I’ve been asked to make posters,” she says. “I would love to do that.”
There are a lot of things the teen would love to do, starting with opening an art gallery that would double as a bakery; an Irish dance school that would double as a gym; and a non-profit organization that would provide volunteer opportunities for high school students.
Add to that the Ph.D. in business she’d like to get, or the culinary school she’d like to attend, or the art education degree she plans to pursue.
Coincidentally, Ward is seated in her guidance counselor’s office, where in one corner of the room she’s tossed her books and a blue duffel bag with the words “Irish Dance” screen-printed on the side.
A beep comes over the school loudspeaker to signal the start of a new period.
“I have friends who have no idea what they want to do after high school,” she says. “I like that I have a plan, even if it keeps changing.”
One thing that has never changed: Ward’s passion for Irish dancing.
In 2008, she placed 55th in the nation among Irish dancers. She’s since qualified twice for the Irish Dance World Championships, in Glasgow, Scotland.
Ward spent much of her childhood traveling across the country for dance competitions. Last year, she estimates she traveled to 25 different cities for dance engagements alone.
“I was a super hyper kid,” Ward says. “I had ADHD to the extreme. I remember my aunt bought me a ‘Riverdance’ video, and I was so amazed watching it for the first time, my mom spent weeks looking for an Irish dance school.”
At 6, Ward enrolled in classes at the Drake School of Irish Dance, at which she studied under Gillian McCormack-Aeppli.
Eleven years later, she’s still dancing with McCormack-Aeppli, who several years ago opened her own school — the Irish Dance Academy of Sarasota.
“I was bouncing off the walls when I started with Gillian,” Ward says. “She taught me manners and discipline and how to work with people. She taught me how to skip! That’s how long I’ve been with her.”
Nonetheless, after years of blending in with an ensemble of identically Bo Peep-coiffed dancers, Ward says she’s ready to break out of the stiff-armed mold.
Cast as the lead bad girl in former “Lord of the Dance” performer Justin Boros’ “Rhythm in the Night” troupe, Ward will take center stage this Friday in the company’s “Irish Dance Spectacular,” at Sahib Shrine Auditorium.
Boros, who debuted his Michael Flatley-inspired dance act earlier this fall at Gulf Gate’s Irish Rover Pub, was so taken with Ward’s dancing that he reworked his 90-minute production to include a lead bad guy (played by Boros) and a lead bad girl (played by Ward).
“I’ve seen dozens of lead dancers,” Boros says. “And I’ve never seen anybody do it like Caiti. It’s not just her dancing. It’s her energy and the way she captures an audience. She doesn’t come across as your typical 17-year-old. She has aspirations most people in their 30s don’t have.”
No one is more aware of this than Ward.
When it becomes apparent that she’s missed most of her afternoon math class, she scoots off to obtain a late pass but not before answering one last question: Is it more fun to play the good girl or the bad girl?
“Bad girl,” Ward replies without hesitation. “In real life I’m not the bad girl. I don’t cause trouble. I don’t get detention. I get good grades, and I treat people well. But I’m a teenager, and sometimes I just want to be rebellious.”
Ward shares the top-five tenets of Irish dancing.
“They banned dancing at one point in Irish history, so the people protested by dancing without using their arms.”
Rock a perma-grin
“Smiling is a show for the judges. It shows them that you’re enjoying what you’re doing and grateful to be competing.”
Think tippy toes
“You’re up on your toes at all times in soft-shoe dancing. You must maintain your feet. I’m always clipping my toe nails short.”
Look straight ahead
“It shows confidence. My teacher always says, ‘Look up. The floor’s not going anywhere.’”
Be a copy cat
“Lift your legs high with your shoulders back. You always want to make sure you’re doing the same thing as the person in front of you.”
IF YOU GO
“Rhythm in the Night” will present its “Irish Dance Spectacular” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11, at Sahib Shrine Auditorium, 600 N. Beneva Road. For tickets, call 366-4449 or visit www.twostepproductions.com.