First published in the Feb. 16 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
A common interest shared between next-door neighbors has cemented a close-knit bond and camaraderie between Jonathan Shirley and Rio Navarro, with Irish dance being the glue that connects them.
The longtime La Cañada Flintridge neighbors recently took home first-place trophies at the 2022 Western U.S. Regional Oireachtas. They’ve each won the top prize at this competition more than once, eight times for Shirley, 17, and three for Navarro, 13. This competition qualified them for the World Irish Dancing Championships later this year — a feat that has become familiar to the pair.
Shirley introduced Navarro to this niche genre of dance, oftentimes taking him under his wing to show him the ropes in an environment that is largely female-dominated.
“I was so excited when he started dancing,” said Shirley, who is a senior at La Cañada High School. “A lot of the kids come from an hour or two away, so the fact that we were living next door and doing the same extracurricular activity where boys were so uncommon was kind of exciting, because I knew I would be able to see him more and hopefully become close friends.
“Over the years, I’ve been able to teach him what I know and give him corrections, be there for him during competitions — help him warm up, give him pep talks and wish him good luck,” he added.
Though Shirley grew into the dance without having other male colleagues to emulate, his mother Deborah Shirley said her son has become a mentor for other boys to look up to.
“There are not as many boys in Irish dance as there are girls, but Jonathan is an only child and so with Irish dance, he has a lot of sisters,” Deborah Shirley said, laughing.
“It’s harder, I think, for some male dancers to find role models,” she added. “Jonathan was the only boy dancer in class for some stretches of time, with other boys coming and going through the years. So, as he’s gotten older, he really appreciates the fact there are younger boys now and is mindful that he could have used a role model during those times.”
Navarro said Shirley has played a significant role in his development as a dancer, and without him he may not have discovered his love for the sport at all.
“Without Jonathan, I probably would have not discovered Irish dance as a sport,” said Navarro, who is a 7th-grader at La Cañada 7/8 middle school. “I looked up to him, hoping I could someday be as good as him. I felt very lucky and special to have an inspiring person going to the same dance school who was also my next-door neighbor.”
Shirley said the friends he has developed from Irish dance are some of his closest.
“They feel like a second family,” he said. “The girl dancers are like my sisters, Rio is like my brother, and I also have a lot of different moms I can talk to, if I ever need them.
“I’ve been dancing for 12 years, and we’ve all grown up together, traveled to a lot for competitions, and I go through a lot of my stress as well as victories with them,” Shirley continued. “They are also there for me when things don’t go my way. They’re really my best friends.”
A VHS tape of “Riverdance” sparked a 5-year-old Shirley’s interest in Irish dancing — it was a video he rewatched incessantly. As the young boy connected to the music and the movement of the dancers on the TV screen, he found himself not only captivated by the art form but also by his innate desire and determination to try it for himself.
Soon after, his mother enrolled him at the Cleary Irish Dance studio — starting with one class a week, which would soon increase to six. It became the boy’s main focus, eventually taking over his other routine ballet, jazz and tap classes.
One of his earliest moments, Shirley recalls, of learning Irish dance was practicing a front flick and kicking so high that his knee hit him in his face, resulting in a bloody nose. The little dancer wasn’t upset at all by the misstep, but instead was thrilled by his ability to get his leg so high.
With each lesson along the way, his fondness for the frenetic dance style solidified as he honed his craft and began performing and competing.
Observing her son perform Irish dance from early on, Deborah Shirley said she recalls admiring the pride that he carried while on stage. It is the same exuberant expression she continues to observe in him today at 17.
“It’s always wonderful to see your child madly in love with something,” Deborah Shirley said. “It’s the greatest feeling, so we’ve been supportive of him the whole time.
“As the dancers get older, the more sophisticated the dances become, so every time I see Jonathan on stage, I’m even more wowed,” she added. “Even if I’ve seen him practice, it’s still so amazing to me. It never gets old. We are so incredibly proud of him for the work that he puts in, the effort, the commitment and trying to balance the life of school and friendships. The sport is a lot, especially as he gets older, but he makes all of these things work and goes out there and dances beautifully.”
Similarly, Navarro embraced Irish dance at a young age. He was just 6 years old when he joined the same studio Shirley attends, nearly a year after he moved in next door.
Since the start of his dance journey, Navarro, has grown as a dancer and a competitor, mastering his steps and paving his own path.
His mother, Wanching Navarro, said following her son’s dance evolution has been a highlight for the whole family.
“My favorite moment while watching him perform is seeing his confidence on stage and showing the audience his joy for dancing,” she said. “We feel very proud and happy he has found something he loves and is enthusiastic about.”
The boy’s father, Alexis Navarro, added: “It’s been really fun to watch him be more confident and really be passionate about dancing, and overtime, competing locally, statewide, nationally and then at the world championships.”
Navarro has grown as a dancer, as well as an athlete — with the sport providing him with life lessons every step of the way.
“Irish dance has taught me to work hard, to never give up, to set up goals, to have team spirit and to have fun,” he said. “I have grown mentally and physically tremendously through years of dancing, and I also grew to better understand how to prepare myself for performances and competitions — to eat well, to get good rest and to take care of my health.”
The upbeat, fast-paced nature of Irish dance requires more than just skill, but also a strong lower body.
“The dance is very energetic, there’s a lot of footwork involved and technique,” he said. “It’s a good sport, with a lot of training involved, separate from the dancing itself, in order to do well — to increase stamina and strengthen your legs.”
Despite falling in love with Irish dance for its movement, Navarro forged a connection with its culture as well, sharing that he has felt welcome by those he encountered from the very beginning.
“Apart from performing, I really love the Irish dance community,” Navarro said. “Everyone has been really nice. When you go to a competition you can make a lot of friends, and since there’s live music at the performances, I also enjoy talking to the musicians.”
Navarro is also an avid musician, playing the piano, piano accordion, button accordion, Irish tin whistle and cello.
“When I went to my first feis [competition] after 8 months of dancing, we were surprised and delighted to learn that the music is actually played by live musicians,” Navarro said. “My parents felt this was a very special experience for me to be surrounded by true musicians and real live music.”
His father added that learning about Irish culture along the way has been enlightening.
“For us, as a family, with no Irish background whatsoever, Irish dance has really provided us with an opportunity to become familiar with and appreciate Irish culture and music. It was a completely new world that opened up to us,” Alexis Navarro said. “Fortunately, it has been a great experience for all of us.”
Navarro and Shirley are next set to compete in the World Irish Dancing Championships in Montreal, Canada, in April.