So, You Think You Can Providance?

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Providence, Rhode Island, may not be where every Floridian teen dreams about spending a weekend in the dead of winter. But it was an easy sell to about 120 elite cheerleaders from Tampa—once they heard they wouldn’t have to step outside after arriving at their hotel. With its insulated infrastructure surrounding Rhode Island Convention Center, Providence is a destination that’s become a hotbed for many youth sports events, particularly in the dance arena. Preparations are underway for two major dance competitions in 2015, the North American Irish Dance Championships in July and Athletic Championships, the elite-level cheerleading meet in late January that sparked the interest of the Tampa teens. The events would be a major presence in any city, but they will take over Providence, and city officials and businesses couldn’t be happier about it. “One thing about these groups is that when they’re here, you know they’re here,” says John Gibbons, executive director of the Rhode Island Sports Commission. The competitors will often walk around the mall and eat at restaurants in their distinct outfits, so businesses can see the economic impact. “When you have a conventioneer in town and they take off their badges, they could be anybody,” says Gibbons. “But with these folks, they are very identifiable.” Planners of both events have similar reasons for choosing Providence, starting with the convenience of having a convention center, hotels, retail and restaurants in close proximity. It’s enough to warm attendees’ spirits, if not the outside temperatures in January. North American Irish Dance Championships The annual North American Irish Dance Championships rotate between seven regions across the United States and Canada, with each territory playing host once every seven years. Providence is New England’s representative as NAIDC returns to one of the country’s most historic regions next summer. Forget the history, though. It’s the city’s modern amenities that won over the site selection committee. Rhode Island Convention Center is already home to the annual regional Irish dance competition in November, which makes planning easier for event co-chairman Thomas Bracken, who is responsible for ensuring everything at the convention center misses is on cue. Despite his familiarity with the venue and service staff, Bracken must envision an event on a much grander scale the regionals. As an example of the show’s glitz and glamour, winners receive crystal made in Ireland in addition to traditional trophies, and competitors’ outfits can cost up to $1,000. [inlinead align="right"]Irish Dance in pop culture “Friends,”, Season 4 “Breaking Bad” – Michael Flatley referenced in Season 3 | “Celebrity Death Match: Bill Gates vs. Michael Flatley” | “Irish Dancing Tweens” - Reality show on TLC | “Jig” - Documentary directed by Sue Bourne[/inlinead] Gibbons estimates the championships will bring in about eight or nine times as many people to Providence as the regionals. When NAIDC booked the convention center in 2006, it signed up for more than 11,000 room nights. As the competition nears, Gibbons is busy preparing to create an overflow block of rooms because the event has grown so much since the initial contract was signed. Adding to the challenge is that this is the first continental championship Bracken has organized. “It’s a little daunting,” says Bracken, who previously helped run the Western regional event when he lived in San Diego. Making up for some of Bracken’s inexperience is the presence of Dr. Sheila Dupuis Green, who organized the North American Championships when they were in San Francisco in 2000. Admittedly, much has changed since the turn of the century. For one thing, Irish dancing has boomed worldwide, buoyed by the popularity of “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance.” It’s so engrained in pop culture that a character in “Breaking Bad” referenced Michael Flatley in an episode, Green notes. Contributing to the sport’s rise is the growing number of veteran dancers, who like Bracken did 20 years ago, moved to other countries and began teaching traditional Irish dancing to children around the world. The result is a much more diverse field than when Bracken, a former runner-up at the world championships, competed more than 30 years ago. Picking out the dancers from Ireland is also far more difficult than it used to be. “There’s a much greater distribution of authentic first-hand teaching,” he says. “It’s a level playing field now.” Bracken and Green expect between 5,000 and 6,000 competitors, ranging from eight years old to dancers well in their 20s, and from as far away as Australia and South Africa. That’s great news for the city, which is filling the July 4 week void left after a two-year contract with a major youth soccer tournament—the U.S. Youth Soccer Region I Championship—expired last year. “We have an event that’s slightly bigger than that monster soccer tournament,” Gibbons says. Unfortunately for Gibbons, that same week in 2016 is still open.   Providence’s location should alleviate most travel concerns. Not only is the convention center area a 15-minute drive from T.F. Green Airport, the city is easily accessible from Boston—where many international attendees will be flying in and out of—via car and the T commuter rail system. It is also three-hour train ride from New York. “By planes, trains and automobiles, it works out pretty well here,” Gibbons says. Inside the convention center, NAIDC will be spread over 28,000 square feet and divided into five rooms to avoid cramping the athletes and the audience. “People want to sit in the auditorium and watch the competition in comfort,” says Bracken. Another space consideration is the number of vendors who will be selling “anything related to Irish culture,” notes Green. Bracken acknowledges the convention center’s high ceilings will present a challenge in terms of acoustics. Music is so central to the event that performers from North America and Europe will play live as the dancers compete rather than piping in recorded songs over the sound system. “It’s a must,” Green says of the live music. “That’s one of the important pieces of Irish culture we strive to maintain.” The musicians also add the ambiance outside the arena, as they are known to perform in hotel lobbies after the day’s competition concludes. The Irish crowds have proven to be a good eating and drinking crowd, adds Gibbons. “They like to have a good time at night,” says Gibbons, who has Irish ancestry. It all goes into building a small-town atmosphere while bringing together thousands of dancers with myriad backgrounds. Because hotels, shopping and restaurants are all close to the convention center, there’s no need to catch a cab or ride a train to unwind after a stressful competition. “It makes life easy,” Bracken says of Providence. “It checks the boxes, so to speak.” North American Irish Dance Championships 5,000-6,000 competitors July 2-July 6, 2015 Rhode Island Convention Center naidc.org   Athletic Championships Brian Elza, VP of sales and marketing for Athletic Championships, has seen Providence become a hot spot for cheerleading in the U.S. over the past five years. Since he began running the regional championship, held annually at the end of January, the number of competitors has risen from 3,500 to more than 5,000. “It’s a marquee event,” he says. “The vast majority of all-star cheerleading and dance teams in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic compete there.” Elza says that while it’s not as big as competitions in Southern California and Texas, Providence draws teams throughout the East Coast. The winners move on to the national championships in Orlando in May. The bulk of competitors are 11- to 13-year-old girls, but the age ranges from three years old to older than 18. About 150 of the cheerleaders are males. There is also a special needs division as well. Teams are comprised of 20, 28 or 36 members. Each team performs a 2.5-minute routine. While restrictions are placed on younger teams to help prevent injuries, the event can feel like a rock concert at times with its use of sound and lights. Elza knows it can be a challenge working with preteen and teenage athletes, and says Providence has proven to be a more welcoming host than other cities. “A lot of times when you go to a convention center, you start off with rude security guards,” Elza says. “The admission people aren’t friendly. There’s a bad vibe. That’s a huge issue for us when we’re talking about 3,000 customers who don’t want to come back and not because of anything my staff did.” As the economy has bounced back, the number of competitors has grown. While parents will always put aside funds for their children’s athletic ventures, they appear more willing to travel than during the height of the recession, Elza says. “Five years ago, a group from Washington, D.C., may not have made the trip due to expense,” he says. “Now they are willing to do that.” The convention center’s tall ceilings, sightlines, accessibility for disabled athletes and its ability to accommodate crowds have made it a natural fit for Athletic Championships, as well as other cheerleading competitions that come to Providence. But as the event continues to grow, Elza says 2015 may be the last year that he can rely on the convention center. Instead, he may have to try to book Dunkin’ Donuts Center (which is connected to the convention center), a challenge given that Providence College’s men’s basketball team and the Providence Bruins—the Boston Bruins’ minor league affiliate—will also be using the venue in late January. Changing the date would be difficult for Athletic Championships, as it builds its season toward the big finale at Disney World. Realizing space is becoming limited, Gibbons has discussed using Dunkin’ Donuts Center with building officials. One scenario being floated is for either the Friars or Bruins to play on a Friday night and then convert the building to the cheerleading group’s needs afterward for the weekend competition. “If we could create some more space for that weekend, we would love to do it,” says Gibbons. He adds that the quick turnaround should be feasible because setting up the meet is relatively painless since Athletic Championships installs the necessary spring flooring. By comparison, the building’s crew installs carpeting and more than 100 booths at a typical trade show. A relatively unique aspect to the cheerleading championship is the competitors and their families make it a point to stay as close to the venue as possible, which is not often a priority with sporting events like soccer tournaments. As a result, the hotels surrounding the convention center will be nearly full, whereas they normally might be about half-booked at that time of year, says Gibbons. While Providence has avoided a major snowstorm during past Athletic Championships meets, it’s almost certain that it will be frigid when the cheerleaders arrive. Yet because the convention center is connected via skywalk to hotels, a shopping mall and plenty of restaurants, attendees won’t be left out in the cold. That’s just one of the reasons Elza says the event is an easy sell, even to sun-soaked Floridians. “Even though it’s the dead of winter, they enjoy coming to a city that really opens itself up with open arms,” he says. Athletic Championships 6,000 competitors Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 2015 Rhode Island Convention Center athleticchampionships.varsity.com