Drew Lovejoy proves that you don’t need to be Irish to excel at Irish dancing. Lovejoy, a 17-year-old American biracial Jew, recently won his third consecutive All Irish Dance Championship, the oldest competition in the Irish dance world. He was also the 2010 Irish dance world champion in his age group.
Growing up the only Jewish youngster in Greenville, Ohio, Lovejoy had an unconventional childhood. A profile of Lovejoy in The New York Times published in March brought him a lot of attention, but he said that the piece misrepresented what it’s like to be a Jew, and particularly a Jew of color, in the Irish dance world. He set the record straight and shared more about himself in a recent phone conversation with The Arty Semite.
Renee Ghert-Zand: Can you tell us about your family and your Jewish identity?
Drew Lovejoy: I’m an only child. My parents divorced when I was very young. My mom is white and Jewish (she converted when I was 4, and I also was converted to Judaism), and my dad is black and Baptist. My mom married my stepfather, my Abba, when I was 9. I’ve always grown up Jewish, so I consider myself Jewish.
We celebrate all the holidays, and we try to do Shabbat every Friday, but unfortunately my dancing sometimes conflicts with Shabbat. We’re Reform Jews. There’s no temple in our town. We go to synagogue in Cincinnati, which is about two hours away. We keep kosher for Passover and try to eat kosher style when possible. There are no other young Jewish people in my town — there are other Jewish families, but their kids are all in college or older.
I understand that you have been Irish dancing since age 6. How did you get into it?
My mom got tired of the Disney films when I was about 2 or 3, so she started me on all the classics with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire — all the old musicals. I would stand in front of the TV and dance. We had a friend at our synagogue, a 10-year-old girl, who was an Irish dancer and she invited us to a competition in Indianapolis. Right when we walked in, I saw the boys dancing and I said, “Mom, that’s what I want to do.”
What is your training regimen like, and how do you handle it together with school?
I travel to Cincinnati four or five days a week, which is a seven to eight hour commitment each time. I dance with the McGing Irish Dancers and my teachers names are Mary McGing Duckworth and Terry Gillan. If it’s bad weather or I can’t make it there, I go to my podiatrist’s office and I practice in the basement studio there. I have a personal trainer here in Greenville that I go to two days a week, and he helps me out.
I’ve been doing online school since second grade. I’ve kept straight As and I’m being inducted into the National Honor Society.
Why did you not go to a regular school?
Where I live, I was the Jewish and the biracial kid, so I got called the N-word. They weren’t so open to my religion, so it wasn’t a good fit. And at that point I was so engrossed with my dancing, that it turned out to be better to stick with the online thing and do my schooling at my own pace.
Do you have any Jewish friends your age?
Because I spend so much time dancing, that’s where most of my friends are. I do have some Jewish friends that Irish dance as well, and we’re close, since there aren’t a lot of Jews in the Irish dance world. Most of them are from the East Coast, and we all met at a dance camp in New York. We call ourselves The Jew Crew — there are four of us. I haven’t met any Jewish Irish dancers from outside the U.S. They might be out there, but I haven’t met them.
The New York Times article gave the impression that it is uncomfortable to be a Jewish Irish dancer, that you have to be circumspect about your Jewish identity. Is that really the case?
What I said got misconstrued. I was trying to say that the Irish would be so excited to know of all the diversity in Irish dance today. I don’t have to hide my Jewishness in the Irish dance world at all. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m Jewish. I don’t hide it at all. A lot of people are like, “Your Jewish? Dude, that’s so cool.” And in terms of my being a black Jew, they’re so surprised. They think I’m adopted because they haven’t met my dad. They see my Abba and my mom, and they think I’m adopted, until I explain things to them.
In the Irish dance world I’m just looked at as Drew Lovejoy. That’s why I’m so comfortable with it — because they’ve all made me comfortable about it, and I haven’t had to feel self-conscious.
Do you have any advice for Jewish kids who want to Irish dance?
Irish dance is still pretty Irish, but diversity is breaking in. There are some Asian and black dancers, and as I’ve said, also Jewish dancers. It’s a great community. It’s so much fun. They’ve embraced me. It’s great, so I’d tell those kids to just go for it.
Watch Drew Lovejoy dance in 2011:
Q&A: Drew Lovejoy on Irish Dancing