Bethesda's Irish Dancer

At 21, Samantha Durbin is headed to the World Irish Dancing Championships for the seventh time

Samantha Durbin will compete at the World Irish Dancing Championships in Dublin, Ireland, 
in April. Photo by Michel Ventura 

When Samantha Durbin was 3 years old, the Irish dancers of Riverdance would appear on PBS right after she watched Sesame Street. “I told my mom I wanted to do that,” she says. “I really liked how fast their feet moved—it was crazy. And I loved the sparkly outfits.”

Durbin’s mother, Kathie, signed her up for ballet and tap, but she didn’t like the classes. When Durbin was in second grade, her mom enrolled her in the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance in Bethesda. At first, Durbin couldn’t get the timing and didn’t want to perform. By third grade she thought it was “the coolest thing ever.”

“I was completely hooked, and I’ve been competing ever since,” says Durbin, 21, who grew up in Silver Spring.

After excelling in local and regional competitions, Durbin started performing in national and international events. She’s made it to the North American Irish Dance Championships every year since eighth grade and has gone to the world championships six times. Some years she’s part of a team, other times she goes solo. “The little girls look up to her as a model of how you should dance,” says Kia Ramarui, 21, who trains with Durbin at the Culkin School. Durbin was one of 35 performers from the U.S. to compete in her age group at the World Irish Dancing Championships in Scotland last March, and she’ll travel to Dublin, Ireland, in April for this year’s event. “I joke every single year that I’m going to retire. Then it’s like, ‘just one more competition,’ ” she says.

A senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, majoring in environmental science, Durbin commutes three days a week from her apartment in Catonsville to the Culkin School’s Silver Spring location for classes. She also practices at a studio on campus and on a piece of plywood in front of a mirror at home, and cross-trains for an hour or two a day. Durbin hasn’t told a lot of her college friends that she’s an Irish dancer. “I like that it’s different and not many people do it,” she says. “It’s kind of like a second identity I have.”

When Durbin was in high school at The Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, she trained six days a week and worked as an assistant dance teacher. “I did have to make some sacrifices, but they didn’t feel like sacrifices,” says Durbin, who started an Irish dance club at the school. “I had to leave homecomings early and make other tough choices. I couldn’t do it all, but I think that helped me learn about myself and how to handle a busy schedule.”

Irish dancing requires athleticism and artistry. While many Irish dancers are short, Durbin is 5 feet 9 inches tall. “I stand out as a taller dancer. My style is definitely more graceful, and I do more extensions with my legs,” she says. During competitions, she does both a soft-shoe and a hard-shoe dance. Dancers wear ornately embroidered dresses—which can run upwards of $2,000—and wigs with curly hair or bun hairpieces. “It definitely can be overwhelming sometimes, but it adds another aspect to the competition,” Durbin says. “You need to look like a champion so the judges want to watch you, [but] in the end it’s more about the dancing.”

Durbin’s mom gets nervous watching her daughter perform. When she’s waiting for results, she says a lot of Hail Mary prayers. “I can’t imagine putting myself out there like that, but I’m very proud,” says Kathie, division chief of licensure, regulation and education at the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control. Her husband, Chuck, owns a catering company. The couple’s youngest daughter, Katie, 16, is also an Irish dancer; their daughter Lizzie, 18, is involved in athletics and other activities.

Samantha Durbin calls Sean Culkin, her longtime teacher and owner of the Culkin School, her “second dad.” Even as a kid, Culkin says, Durbin was accomplished and—in terms of shows—is the best dancer he’s ever had. “She has a great stage presence,” he says.

After competing against other dancers her age for years, Durbin recently moved into the “over 21” category. But she says she won’t compete forever. Her joints and toes ache more after performances than they did when she was younger. With her eye on graduate school this fall—she wants to study meteorology—Durbin doesn’t know how much time she’ll have to dance. Once she gets her master’s degree, she says, she may audition to travel with Riverdance or a performance troupe for a year before looking for a job.

Durbin says she’ll think about the future after she goes to Dublin. With the North American competition taking place in New Orleans this summer, she’s tempted to continue. “Wherever it is, my mom says, ‘Ooh, let’s go—it will be so much fun,’ ” Durbin says. “So we’ll see.”


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