Updated: July 11, 2014 6:05AM
Oak Lawn boasts a world champion who recently earned his title at age 12 while a sixth-grader at Simmons Middle School.
Tadgh Spillane — (his first time is pronounced like “tiger” without the “r”) — won the Under 13 Boys World Irish Dance Championship held in London in April.
The Oak Lawn Village Board was so impressed, it invited Tadgh to a recent meeting, where he received an official proclamation saluting his achievement after he danced for a few minutes on two sheets of plywood that were duct-taped together in the board room.
The sound of his rat-a-tat-tat echoed through the board room as village trustees peered over the dais so they could watch him dance.
“I can’t believe it,” he said a few days later as he discussed his world title. “It’s pretty much the Olympics of Irish Dance.”
Dancers do a hard-shoe dance and a soft-shoe dance. They are judged on each, with the top 50 percent of dancers moving to the next round. After that round, scores are tallied and a winner is named.
Judges vote on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the best.
Much like the case with ice skating in the Olympics, scores from judges can vary greatly. Tadgh got three perfect scores, but also received four scores ranging from 75 to 45.
There’s more to it than what the untrained eye would see as just dancing.
“They look at your footwork, posture, how they point, turn out, and arch their feet as well,” said Tadgh’s mother, Martina.
Forty-seven dancers attended the April event, coming from around the world — including America, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Russia and Taiwan.
Tadgh was 5 when he got interested in Irish dancing after he saw “Riverdance,” made popular by Chicagoan Michael Flatley.
Martina and husband Tim both hail from Ireland — she from County Mayor and he from County Kerry — but didn’t meet until each had moved to Chicago.
Tadgh is a student at the Lavin-Cassidy School of Dancing in Worth, which had a promotion for boys to get their first year of lessons for free. Martina wasn’t sure what to expect. Daughter Hannah, 15, had two years of lessons, but Irish dancing wasn’t for her.
“We said, ‘Well, if it’s a year, we’ll know something.’ At that time, Tadgh had not shown interest in anything. He tried T-ball, didn’t like it. Tried gymnastics, didn’t like it,” Martina said.
Irish dancing? He loved it.
“We knew and his teacher knew he was something special,” Martina said. “The very first day he went in, he already moved on to his second step.”
He’s had six years of lessons and has won quite a collection of trophies in that time, taking third in a regional at age 9, followed by fifth place in the nationals. He finished 11th in a competition in Ireland in 2011, and won the U.S. Nationals in Chicago in 2012.
Martina credits her son’s strong work ethic for his success.
“He is driving this whole thing. He practices without being asked. He sacrifices play dates, parties, different functions he can’t attend because of his dance schedule. He gets up at 5:30 to do an hour and a half of practice before he goes to school, and does two to three hours in the afternoon,” she said.
“I’m just amazed that he has this drive, this passion for it. And how relaxed he is with it all. He just takes it into stride,” she said.
Asked for his secret to success, Tadgh had a one-word reply: “Practice.”
Martina said his teachers “know how to push him to achieve.”
Tadgh, who stands 4-foot-10, said it was hard for him to keep his arms still at the start, and to make enough noise with his feet.
“Since I’m a little guy I don’t have as much muscle as some do,” he said.
His mother thinks dancing has helped her son mature.
“People ask what he will get out of this. There’s no scholarships for Irish dancing. I just say we’ve reaped so much out of his dancing,” she said. “He’s very disciplined. He’s 12 years old and I don’t have to stay after him to do his homework. He turns in projects ahead of time. Ever since he’s started dancing, his friends have rallied around him.”
The school, for example, held a rally to welcome Tadgh back after he won the title.
Tadgh looks forward to an encore next year when he plans to “defend my title,” he said, at the world championships, which are set for Montreal.