The College of William and Mary has more than 175 active clubs and organizations on campus, ranging from interests in cheese to distance running. In a school known for its prolific student activities, it should come as no surprise that the College has an active dance community. One member of the dance community, however, has taken their talents far beyond the College: Chiara Luepke ‘25, who will be competing in the Irish Dance World Championships in March.
A dancer can qualify for the World Championships through either the regional championships or the national championships. In both competitions, the competitor must be in the top half to be “recalled,” and then be in the top five or within a certain percent thereafter to qualify for the World Championships. In her most recent attempt at regionals in December 2023, Leupke placed fifth in the region, which covers the southern United States.
Luepke first began dancing at five years old, and she described how that early experience turned into a lifelong passion.
“I did a summer camp and just really loved it and wanted to keep dancing,” Luepke said. “But I did it very casually, until I was 12 or 13. And then I decided to start competing and also doing performances, which was really fun. We would go all around the D.C. area for Saint Patrick’s Day and do performances at schools and dance in parades and restaurants. We danced at the Harlem Globetrotters halftime show, which was fun.”
Luepke’s journey to the international stage has had its fair share of roadblocks. She has qualified multiple times before, for the 2020 and 2021 championships, only for the championships to be canceled.
Upon arriving at the College, Luepke decided to take a step back from competing while still dancing for enjoyment with the Irish and Ballroom dance clubs.
Even though she was no longer competing, difficulties still presented themselves, as the dance community required some rebuilding after the pandemic. Luepke recalled the state of the existing Irish Dance Club when she joined as a freshman.
“It had been here,” Luepke said. “It had kind of dwindled during COVID, so we had to work to build back the membership.”
Dancing in the Celtic Fyre show at Busch Gardens this past summer convinced Luepke enough to return to competition.
“I didn’t decide to start competing until the end of August,” Luepke said. “I loved being in Celtic Fyre. That was an awesome experience, to be in a professional show.”
With her renewed enthusiasm to give her competitive career another chance, Luepke got to work quickly, joining a new dance school in Richmond and making the roughly hour-long drive regularly.
The comeback story, however, was not without its setbacks. Luepke faced a stress injury during her time rehearsing for Celtic Fyre, which led to her having to take a month off. Later, during her training to return to competition, Luepke developed chronic blistering on her foot, which she had to work through, as she didn’t have much time to spare.
Luepke’s time last semester was mostly spent training and drilling to prepare for regionals while also entering her first competitions in years. Despite her absence, she found she was able to gain her confidence back, as well as a renewed appreciation for her craft.
“The stamina of getting through the dances actually went better than I was expecting,” Luepke said about her first competition back. “And I think one thing that helped is that I was just so grateful to have the opportunity to be competing again and be back on the stage. I was in a really good mindset going into that competition, and rather than overthinking any parts of my dance, I just got up, did what I had learned and enjoyed it, and I think that helped.”
For Luepke, confidence and preparedness are key to managing nerves in a competition where two minutes can make or break a performance.
“That’s part of it, having a plan,” Luepke said. “I really focused on that before the regionals, because I had been out of it for a couple of years and had trained a lot to get back. So a lot of it was just focusing on the mindset and being ready the day-of and confident, because that’s a big part of it.”
Despite her success, Luepke continues to engage with dance at the College, as she currently serves as the co-president of the Irish Dance Club. There, she continues to promote dance through weekly meetings on Wednesdays, and the club offers lessons for beginners on Tuesdays.
“It’s never too late to start,” Luepke said. “If you’re interested, come to our beginner lessons. It’s a great way to meet people. It’s great exercise too, and we do a lot of group dancing, which is really fun.”
For their next on-campus performance, the club has been in talks with local Irish bands to put on a Celtic festival later this semester.
Dance remains a passion for Luepke, and she hasn’t ruled out dancing professionally before she settles down in a career.
“There are a lot of other touring shows, so I’m definitely going to apply to some next year and just see what happens,” Luepke said. “I would love to go on a tour for a few months before I start an office job.”
Whatever happens in Glasgow this March, Luepke can hold her head high knowing the College community remains ready to welcome her home.