For the first time ever, Butte will have a traditional Irish dancer representative in the World Championship of Irish Dance come next spring.
It marks only the second time a Montanan has qualified for Worlds.
Connor Ford, 16, made the cut for the toughest competition of its genre next March 20 through 27 in Glasgow, Scotland, by placing second at the Western U.S. Regional Oireachtas in Salt Lake City recently. He dances for the Butte Tiernan Irish Dancers.
"It's like making the Olympics," said his dad, Dan Ford. "It's pretty neat. A lot of people don't consider it a sport. It's pretty much River Dance style."
The last Montanan to compete at Worlds was Anna Hill of Helena in 2010 — also in Glasgow. She was 17 at the time. She competed in the first two rounds but didn't advance to the individual final, or recall, round. She trained for 12 years with Helena's Tiernan Irish Dancers, sister club to Butte's dance group of the same name, to reach the big dance.
Maybe Connor will eventually be the new Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance creator who helped popularize Irish step-dancing — and who danced his latest performance on the Dec. 4 Late Night with Stephen Colbert show.
"Dancing is my passion," said Connor. "I like to learn about the cultural diversity and the cultural influence that my family on my mom's side had when they moved over here."
Ford's mother Mary Pat Ford said her dedicated son has worn out several plywood floors in their home.
"He's got his own dance floor in the basement that he and his dad built so he could practice, 'cause he was ruining our floor upstairs," said Mary Pat. "He just beats up the plywood all the time, so we have to replace it.
"It's nothing fancy and not sound-proof; I hear him all the time," she added, chuckling.
A parent's patience knows no bounds when their child appears to be a prodigy driven by his own ambition. And neither does Connor's parents' willingness to travel regionally so he can compete, prepare and improve.
Connor got his start dancing with his grandmother Pat Peterson in her kitchen in Anaconda. As a toddler, he jigged alongside her before joining the Tiernan Irish Dancers at the ripe old age of 3.
He typically practices about four hours a day, either at home or in the basement of the Butte Public Library, dance club headquarters.
It's not like pulling teeth for his mom to get him there, especially since Connor recently earned his driver's license.
"It's not really practice, because I never have to say, 'Connor, it's time to practice,'" added Mary Pat. "I used to give him a ride every Tuesday night to dance practice at the library for 13 years. Now he drives himself. I never have to remind him."
Connor has danced in the local An Ri Ra Festival, Butte's ever-growing celebration of all things Irish, since its inception.
He's not a one-note wonder, though. He also excels in piano, choir, drama and expository speaking at Butte Central High School. Last year, his academics took him to the University of Notre Dame for a summer scholars program.
He's already toured Scotland and Ireland with People-to-People, plus, like many of his generation, he knows how to market himself.
"He is so bright," said Cindy Powers, Tiernan club founder, long-time instructor and elementary teacher "He's just one of those all-around kids."
Dad Dan added: "He's good at whatever he touches."
Guiding Connor are instructors Ellen Waller and Kerry Powers, Cindy Powers' daughter. Waller, a Trinity Irish Dancers instructor who lives in Chicago, visits Butte regularly to instruct at the local club, which models itself after the parent club.
"His skills are kept sharp by Cindy and Kerry for sure," said Natalie Howard, whose husband Mark Howard founded the Chicago-based Trinity Irish Dancers in 1982. Natalie won the World championship in 1998 then coached at the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Worlds.
"The hours Connor puts in at home and away from dance class will pay off," added Natalie Howard. "It will be the best of the best from the entire world at Worlds. It's absolutely what needs to be done at that level."
Paying it forward is also on Connor's radar, as he volunteers to coach younger dancers, in keeping with the club's mission.
"It's part of our service mission for Tiernan," added Powers. "We run it very much like a family. The older ones come back for the younger kids."
As for the level Connor must compete at for Worlds, it takes extra effort and extraordinary focus.
"It's a big deal," she said. "He'll have some new material. He'll need to play hard."
YEARS OF TRAVEL
Taking second at the Western Regionals Oirechatas was the culmination of years of constant travel to a series of regional competitions. Connor has jigged, reeled and hornpiped in Denver, Texas, Oregon and Utah to prepare for a chance to qualify for Worlds.
"It is a big commitment, especially for parents, because of all the travel involved," said Powers. "And for us in Montana, where we're so far away from everywhere."
While the Helena club is more focused on competition, the Butte chapter is primarily a performance school.
"But Connor really wanted to compete on a higher level," Powers added.
Anna Hill, now studying for her doctorate in English literature at Yale University, follows Ford, who could eclipse her performance at Worlds if he makes it to the final round next March.
"I don't know him, but I'm so proud," Hill said. "It's really exciting — it's a fun trip, being on that stage."
The Fords and extended family plan to attend Worlds en masse in Scotland, said Dan Ford.
"We're proud of him. It's good stuff, I guess," added mom Mary Pat.
"I'm very excited," said Connor, who plans to keep dancing as long as he can. "I'm ready for the journey it will take me."
Whatever the outcome, his high-stepping ways have already shined a light on his home town.
"No matter how it goes, he has single-handedly taken our little dance school further than I have ever envisioned," said Powers.