By Lisa Zola-DeLibero
For Justin Kotelnicki, to be able to pass his lifelong passion for Irish dance on to children of his community is a dream come true.
Once ranked second in the world in Irish dance, the 32-year old Kotelnicki—with his sister Erinn—has brought his talents back to his hometown of Hamilton to teach local kids, age 3 to 18, a style of dance that has been a tradition in the Kotelnicki family. He has started a school named Rince o’ Chroi, Gaelic for “dance from the heart.”
The story starts when Kotelnicki’s mom, Maria, moved to the United States from Ireland when she was 20. She and Erinn would often practice Irish dance in their home, and Kotelnicki would watch them, follow along and pick up the moves.
The practice paid off. At a dance competition years ago, Erinn’s instructor needed another dancer for the competition. Knowing that Kotelnicki had some moves himself, the instructor gave the 9-year-old a pair of black pants, and told him to go out and compete. Kotelnicki ended up winning several first places and a second.
“After my first ever competition, they saw that I had some talent, and I started taking lessons at the Ryan School of Irish Dance, run by my now dear friend Christina Ryan,” said Kotelnicki, who works for the state during the day. “I really loved it, so right before high school, I got very serious about my dance training. In fact, from my junior year of high school to now, I have dance shoes on my feet every day except for Christmas and Easter.”
Kotelnicki attended St. Raphael’s Catholic School from Kindergarten to eighth grade, and then attended Hamilton High West, where he was a part of the soccer, swimming and baseball teams. He enjoyed playing those sports in addition to his dancing. After high school, he went to Rider University.
At 20, he received a phone call, and was asked to join Michael Flatley and Lord of the Dance. He did.
“It was a complete honor to be part of such a great company,” Kotelnicki said.
After dancing in every state in the country, as well as 30 other countries from the age of 20 to 29, Kotelnicki knew that it was time to do something different. He decided that he wanted to teach what he knew to kids.
“I always wanted to teach since a young age, and I knew that it had become the time to take the opportunity,” Kotelnicki said. “Being on tour and doing eight shows a week helped me to learn so much, and I wanted to carry this knowledge over to a new level, to kids.”
Coming up with a name for the school was easy for Kotelnicki, who started it 3 years ago in the basements of local churches. The school moved to the present location, 4 Tennis Court, last September.
“I wanted the name of the school to have meaning, ” Kotelnicki said. “The name Rince o’ Chroi in Gaelic means ‘dance from the heart.’”
The school, which is open Monday through Saturday, has three instructors, and each class consists of new ideas so that the students have fun.
“What we do is provide a fantastic environment for the kids that is family oriented, healthy, and where kids learn positive family values,” Kotelnicki said. “We recently had our annual performance at Notre Dame High School, and the kids really loved it. The show, which used a blend of traditional Irish music along with some popular songs that kids like, and was amazing, and all of the dancers did a great job.”
To keep up with the world of Irish dance, the school invites one of the craft’s top teachers, Sylvan Kelly, as a guest instructor. Kotelnicki said this gives students an overseas experience right in Hamilton.
It seemingly has benefitted the students, who competed recently in the North American Irish Dance Championships in Montreal. Two students placed in the top 60, one placed 24th overall and a another placed in the top 10.
At the end of the day, though, what’s important to the Kotelnickis is for their students to have a positive experience at their school.
“We really want the kids to learn how to dance and have fun,” Kotelnicki said. “It’s all about the children and the community. The kids are the future.”
For more information on Rince o’ Chroi, call (609) 902-8530.