From plumbing shop to world stage: meet Australia’s Irish dance boy wonder | Dance

TRipple world champions are few and far between. teenagers even less often. One of them works every Saturday morning when he’s not training, or six days a week in the off-season, at his parents’ plumbing store in suburban Sydney.

Liam Costello, 19, the slim and immaculately groomed young man who cleans the shop and takes orders for customers, is the reigning three-time world champion in Irish dancing. He also has multiple All Ireland, North American and Australian Championships under his belt. In April he won his third Irish Dance World Championship in Belfast.

“I answer the phone and get all the parts for the plumbers, like pipes and faucets and stuff,” Costello says with a smile. “Personally, I don’t want to get involved with it, but it’s nice to be with family and have some stability.”

When he’s not advising clients on fittings, Costello is preparing for the Australian Championships in Perth in late September and gearing up for a role in a new Irish dance extravaganza. Ireland, who embarks on a national tour in Melbourne at the end of July.

Liam Costello stretching
Costello trains nine hours a day to prepare for the World Championships. Photo: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“I guess five hours [of training] per day,” says Costello. “If I’m going into something like the World Championships, I have to increase that to eight or nine hours a day. It’s intense being like an Olympic athlete.”

Meticulous by nature, Costello describes himself as a perfectionist (“I love precision”). His blue eyes light up as he carefully answers each question, sometimes touching a silver ring on his index finger or a silver necklace so delicate it’s barely noticeable. His hair is perfectly gelled like a young Elvis Presley and his sneakers are immaculately white.

He shows Guardian Australia his world’s best trophy. It’s as big as the Wimbledon men’s trophy, but Costello is keen on the finer prizes like a pair of gold cufflinks. “You’re so cute,” he says.

For our photo shoot he slips into shorts and the black hard pumps he wears for Irish dancing. The toe boxes are rock solid and make a hell of a sound when it hits the ground with tiny, precise foot movements. His high kicks are amazing and he doesn’t break a sweat. When he’s done, he offers a modest shrug and a big smile while bending his ankles.

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In Australia, Irish dancing has a social side, with community groups holding ceilis on a regular basis. But the signature rigid-torso step dance form that Costello specializes in is the stuff of hard-fought competitions, with kids and adults dancing for honors in the hardshoe and softshoe categories.

By winning regional and national competitions, the dancers can then compete at the world championships against hopefuls from more than 30 countries.

Before Michael Flatley’s Riverdance, the Broadway phenomenon that emerged as an intermission piece in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, Irish dance competition was largely confined to Ireland and countries with large Irish immigrant populations. As riverdance went global, so did Irish dance. Studios have opened in Mexico City, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Dubai.

The stakes are made even higher by the fact that successful competitors are often won by Riverdance (which continues to tour worldwide) and the many other shows that have come after it such as Gaelforce, Heartbeat of Home, Celtic Legends and ProdiJIG.

The intricate footwork and ensemble precision that are a hallmark of such productions can only come from years of competition, Costello says. “You have to break down every step and make it as perfect as possible because you’re being judged on footwork, turnout, posture, everything. Training is about building the stamina to complete a full lap perfectly without anything falling out of line.”

Liam Costello in the dance studio
Costello says his perfectionist nature lends itself well to the precision Irish dancing requires. Photo: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Raised in Sydney’s Hills District, Costello claims to have little contact with his distant Irish heritage. “I think it was my paternal great-great-great-grandparents who came to Australia from County Cork around 1860, but that’s all I know about my ancestors,” he says.

His first encounter with Irish dance was at a school concert at the end of the year. “I remember liking the music, but what I really loved was the steps and how precise they were. I really loved that. I love it when everything is perfect and I like it when everything goes smoothly. If there is a bump in the road I go back and make it perfect.”

Costello, then six years old, taught himself the basics of Irish dancing by watching videos over the summer holidays. “As soon as I could get into a class, I jumped into it.”

He got a bit of flak at school, he says. “Yeah, a lot of teasing because I’m the guy that dances and I don’t do football or soccer or the ‘male’ sports. Little kids can be brutal and all those harsh words kinda get stuck in my brain,” he says quietly. He pauses before shrugging and smiling again. “But over time you become more comfortable with what you do and you surround yourself with supportive people.”

Costello competed in his first Irish Dance World Championships at age 11 (“I came 16.”). In 2016 he won the All Ireland Championships and was runner-up in Dublin 2017. He led the competition in 2018 and has done so twice more since then.

Dancers compete in front of the judges with one or two others on the same stage at the same time, Costello says. Each performs their own routine and hopes to outshine the others on stage. “You have people who take completely different steps. They go one way, you go the other. It can be like bumper cars sometimes.”

It’s also pretty hard on the body. “I had shin splints – that’s very common because the feet hit the ground so hard. I had knee and ankle problems. I used to have a bad hip injury from the high kicks.” He speaks matter-of-factly, as if the injuries weren’t a big deal.

“Irish dance is both a sport and an art form,” he says. “It’s like any sport with high impact and intense activity,” he says. “If something bothers me, I’ll do it, but I know where my limits are”

Liam Costello is sitting on the floor
Costello is also looking forward to breaking into other dance forms. Photo: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Costello says he was close to leaving the competitive circuit during the pandemic. Travel became impossible. Competitions were postponed and then cancelled. He is driven by the competition. It was difficult for him to “strive for nothing” without competitions.

“Looking back, I’m so glad I was able to push through and move on,” he says, adding that he plans to train for another world championship but also wants to expand into other dance styles. (His Instagram account is teeming with hip-hop dance videos.) “My life has been so Irish, Irish, Irish…I’d like to go and do everything else.”

For the moment at least, a stint with Eireborne could offer him the change of pace he craves.

“All the music is Irish rock stars like U2 and the Cranberries, bands like that. It’s still the whole Irish thing, but with a twist,” he says. “It’s pushing the envelope.” He laughs in a cute, goofy way. He’s looking forward to the performance, but he’s also not sure what’s going to happen next. He’s at an Irish dance juggernaut right now.

We end the conversation and Costello carefully packs his shoes, costume, and medals. He puts his delicate silver chain back on and walks out of the dance studio into the timid sunshine.

  • Eireborne plays at Melbourne’s Palais Theater on July 29 before embarking on a national tour until August 22.

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