Reels and Feels: A Conversation with Kaitlyn Sardin
If you follow Irish dance on social media, chances are you’ve caught a glimpse of Kaitlyn Sardin, also known as @kaitrock. In the past few years, Sardin has been lighting up TikTok and Instagram feeds with short, joy-packed solos that knit together hard-shoe Irish dance with styles like hip-hop, dancehall, and vogue. Often filmed in the sunny suburban outdoors of her neighborhood in Orlando, Florida, her rhythmically satisfying mashups routinely get thousands of views. Just as popular are the clips she posts from her days as a competitive Irish dancer, tearing across the studio with a soft-shoe reel or drilling her favorite set, “The Vanishing Lake.” Whether grooving to Beyoncé, Shakira, Kaytranada, or traditional Irish music, her impeccable timing and spunky energy infuse just about everything she does.
Sardin, 25, grew up in Orlando, training from the age of 7 with Myra Watters at the nearby Watters School of Irish Dancing. She first encountered Irish dance at one of her ballet recitals — she took classes at the Orlando Ballet School as a kid — when a group of local step dancers performed during intermission. The rhythm of the hard shoes piqued her interest, and within a few weeks, she was signed up for lessons at the Watters School.
As a college student at the University of South Florida and then New York’s Hofstra University, Sardin continued her Irish dance training at the Drake School and the Doherty Petri School. She competed in regional, national, and world championships until 2019, when she took a break from Irish dance, turning her focus to other styles that she was learning through a student group at Hofstra. She has toured with the Chicago-based Trinity Irish Dance Company and was invited to audition for So You Think You Can Dance. (While she didn’t make the top 20 on the show, you can spot her in the Season 17 commercial.)
On the internet, where her audience includes 43,000 Instagram followers, Sardin has captured the attention of celebrities like Missy Elliott, Tinashe, Willow Smith, and Cookiee Kawaii, who have followed or reposted her after seeing her dance to their songs. But her fusions have reached live audiences, too, and they date back at least a decade. A video from 2013 (which she posted in 2019) shows her at a Watters class feis, in full competition regalia, studding her treble reel steps with Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” moves. In a video recorded at Hofstra in 2019, she and her friend Martin Bradshaw perform an explosive Irish-dance-meets-hip-hop routine to Elliott’s “Pass That Dutch,” as the crowd goes wild.
Born two years after the debut of Riverdance, Sardin belongs to a generation of dancers who have come of age since the show’s mid-1990s rise, which expanded the reach of Irish dance to practitioners of many cultural backgrounds. Still, as a Black dancer in Irish dance’s mostly white spaces — and as a young artist navigating the highs and lows of social media — she has dealt with instances of racism, even while largely feeling accepted, she said.
On a recent morning when she was off from work — a former biology major, she has a day job in corporate pharmacy — we spoke over Zoom about her path within and beyond Irish dance. What follows are excerpts from a 90-minute conversation, which has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
You were a competitive Irish dancer for a while, which can be all-consuming. How does dance fit into your life these days?
Dance for me is an escape. I use it to show my emotions — and not just Irish dance, but any dance style. Whenever I’m feeling something, I’m like, I should dance this out or write it out, so I’ll find time to dance throughout the day. I love expressing the joy I have for dance, and showing people how much I love a song. The songs I share are important to me.
I haven’t been to Irish dance class in a long time, but I’ll take my board out at home for 30 minutes and practice rhythm and stuff. With other styles, I’ll go to classes around Orlando when I can, usually at these two studios DGBEK and Dance by Drea.
When you first saw Irish dance, at your ballet recital, why were you drawn to it?
The noise. I was like, this is so cool, I want to make noise! It was loud compared to ballet. Even now, I love the rhythm of hard shoe. It’s one of my favorite things about Irish dancing.
Tell me about your early Irish dance training and how you got into competing.
I went to the Watters School, which was super awesome. I love Miss Myra and still talk to her. She’s the one who really got me wanting to fuse things, because we did a lot of dance dramas at our school [a kind of team competition in which the choreography tells a story].
I was in dance class for about two years before I really started competing. I enjoyed being at the competitions, but it wasn’t until my first Oireachtas [regional championship] that I started to really love it. At that same time, Miss Myra asked us if we wanted to do the dance drama for the upcoming Philadelphia Worlds. Seeing all those dancers at Worlds was a big push for me to continue practicing. I did my first Nationals the next year, in 2010, and then my first solo Worlds in 2011, and from there it was just non-stop.
What did your parents think about you doing Irish dance?
They were super supportive. My mom loved it. She was the one to be like, “OK, there’s a competition next weekend and the weekend after. Do you want to do both of them?” And I’d be like, “OK, let’s do it!” And she would either drive me or we’d fly together.
You kept competing even when you went to college. Why did you eventually stop?
When I transferred to Hofstra, I started doing this dance club called transcenDANCE, in 2018. That’s what got me into learning other styles. We’d do a different style every week — hip-hop, contemporary, dancehall, tap — and we’d all either teach or learn. That was a big introduction to moving my arms, and it was super fun. With Irish dancing I had injuries, and it was getting to be too much, the intense training on top of everything in college.
Can you say more about that transition into other styles? Was it challenging?
I used to watch So You Think You Can Dance when I was younger, and I would always try at home to figure out how to dance like they did on the show. But it was so awesome actually being in a class to learn the basics. It was super awkward at first. After those practices I would go back to my dorm and see if I could figure out the positioning of my body, because it was completely different from Irish dancing. With Irish dancing you’re all pulled up, but with hip-hop you have to be more down in the knee, you have to sink lower. Trying to find the balance between those was a bit jarring, especially when I was still competing in Irish dance. The easiest part for me was the rhythm, because I had all the timing from hard shoe.
How did you get into making videos where you mix Irish and other dance forms?
Back when I was competing with Watters, Miss Myra would have these class competitions, and she always included a creative category. So even when I was younger, like 11 or 12, I was finding ways to fuse different things. After I quit competing in 2019, I didn’t Irish dance for a long time. But in 2020 I was like: I love this style of dance. Why am I not doing this anymore? It was after I watched Black is King byBeyoncé. This one song [“My Power”] stood out to me, and I thought, this would be really cool if I could do some Irish dancing here, but also, what else can I do with this? I got the idea and decided to keep going with it.
Irish dance is more diverse than it used to be, practiced by people of different backgrounds all over the world. But it’s still the case that most Irish dancers are white. Can you talk a bit about your experience of being Black in Irish dance?
I’m from the Southern Region of Irish dancing [one of seven North American regions for Irish dancing championships], and there’s actually a good amount of Black Irish dancers here, so that was nice for me. But I definitely noticed the differences. There were a few times at competitions where people would say, “She got that because she was Black.” Or, “She can jump so high because she’s Black.” And I was like “No, I just train.” A lot of small comments. But luckily in the competitive world, I never faced any crazy racism. It wasn’t until things started going viral that I started noticing those things. Instagram and TikTok, they filter out those comments pretty quickly, which is nice, but it was just a big wakeup.
What kind of comments?
There’s a lot of, “Why are you doing this style?” Or people will say, “You were colonized,” or, “You’re trying to be white.” And I’m like, “What?! Are you for real?” I’m doing a style that I learned growing up, that I enjoy. I see comments about cultural appropriation, and I think, you guys wouldn’t post this to white dancers who don’t have Irish heritage. Also, I do have Irish heritage. My mom’s family, who are from Dublin, Georgia, have some Irish ancestry.
Another thing I notice is people saying, “She was probably bullied in this class.” I’ll be like, “Nope, that didn’t happen.” I always have to make sure they know that I grew up in very loving dance classes, but it’s a big perception that I was bullied because I was different.
Are there other common misconceptions about what you do?
Everybody thinks I’m a tap dancer. Some people will repost me and say, “Look at this tap dancing!” and I’m like [big sigh]. I do wish more people would realize it’s Irish dancing.
In May 2020, Morgan Bullock, another Black Irish dancer, went viral when Beyoncé’s mom, Tina Knowles, shared one of her videos. What did you think when she started blowing up? Did that inspire you at all to start posting your own Irish dance videos?
I’ve always been about showing people that there are Black Irish dancers, so when that happened, it was very exciting. Morgan and I talk almost every day. We’re both from the Southern region, so we were always around each other at competitions, and we ended up becoming really close. It makes me super happy to see everything she gets to do.
I think the biggest thing that caused me to post, in actuality, was the entire Black Lives Matter movement at the time. I also made a little group chat that summer with a bunch of Black Irish dancers, thinking of ways we could collaborate, or just to have that space to talk with everything going around. It was such an interesting time, 2020.
As you’ve started making more mashups, have you discovered any similarities between Irish dance and the other styles you’re exploring? How are they aligned?
There are a lot of similar dance moves. I’ve learned this recently — in Irish dance we have drumming [a heel-toeing step with twisting ankles], but there are so many African and Latin cultures that have that exact move, or something similar. I’ll go on Instagram and see different recommended reels, and this dance called Hamba Haa popped out at me. I was like, “That’s literally drumming!” When I’m looking at things online, I’m often trying to figure out the footwork, especially with African styles. I’ll see similar movements where I’m like, oh, this is sort of a skip-two-three, I just have to bring it out instead of crossing it. I know the foot placement from Irish dance, so getting out of that is a little bit difficult.
I’m curious about your process of creating a video, especially how you choose the music. Could you take me through that?
I have a bunch of “liked” songs in Spotify, and sometimes I’ll just be going about my day with those on shuffle, and I’ll land on a really good one. I’ll play it a bit, and if I feel like I can do something to it, I’ll start messing around in my sneakers to see what rhythm I can do. Then I’ll figure out a few hip-hop moves or whatever style the song calls for. I go outside, set up a little stand for my phone, put in one of my AirPods or Beats, and then I put down my board and I just go for it. I do a few takes and decide which one’s better. Then I go on this app called CapCut, where I put the music over it, and that’s basically what I do to make a video. I’ll be outside for 20 minutes to an hour depending on how I’m feeling about it.
I definitely feel the most inspiration when I actually find a song I love, instead of hopping on a trend, unless I really love the song that’s on trend. I usually won’t think of anything when I’m trying to force myself to do it. I try to have something come to me instead.
Do you choreograph everything, or is it more improvisational?
Both. Sometimes I’ll have a song where I’m like, I definitely see me doing this here, I want to get this down pat. Other times I’m just like, this is a great song, let me freestyle.
Where do you see yourself going with dance in the future?
I definitely want to perform again, but what I really want is to make a community where a bunch of different dancers can just come together to create, a space for that to happen. I think that’s the biggest thing with me and fusion — I love the creative aspect of it, and I know there are so many other people who love that, too. Getting everybody together is the hardest part, or where that could be. But slowly but surely, I do want to get this going.
Siobhan Burke writes on dance for The New York Times and other publications. A former dancer with Riverdance, she grew up training in Irish dance at the Griffith Academy in Hartford, CT, and the David Rae School in Co. Kerry, Ireland. She teaches at Barnard College.