Webster student Anika Wagner places third at National Irish Dance Competition


Anika Wagner noticed an Irish dancing school when she was just 7 years old. Now, she is setting her sights on placing in the top third at the world championship. 

Twelve years ago, 7-year-old Anika Wagner spotted an Irish dancing school in the Crestwood mall. Her friend spontaneously convinced her to join, unwittingly changing Wagner’s life.

After her first lesson, Wagner came home and casually told her mom, “Eh. I guess I’ll go to the next practice.”

This July, Wagner won third place at the U.S. National Irish Dance Championship.

“It was a big shock to go from 35th to third in the nation,” Wagner said. “That was something I’d never even really dreamed of.”

Wagner has found her passion and become a leader in Irish dance. Adding in stress management techniques led her to success at nationals – and hopefully the world championship in 2022.

“I’ve always truly believed in her and I’ve always seen something in her that was special,” Wagner’s long-time dance teacher Mary Jo Cange said. “There was something in her scope that was all encompassing of what makes a top Irish dancer.”

Anika Wagner (right) stands next to her dance teacher of 12 years, Mary
Jo Cange (left). Photo contributed by Anika Wagner.

When Wagner was younger, anxiety bubbled to the surface every time she had to get on a competition stage. She said she felt a lot of pressure to succeed and that this pressure caused her to mess up onstage.

Wagner began stress management techniques in recent years to combat this. She meditates every night in the weeks leading up to a competition. On the day of the competition, she focuses on being positive and spending time with her friends to make her feel more comfortable.

“Trying to get that good day is helpful for me to take the pressure off when I get up to the stage,” Wagner said. “It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna go dance because I love it.’”

Wagner definitely looks Irish – she’s got curly red hair and said she can “fake it all day long.” But Wagner found that she had no trace of Irish heritage through a DNA test.

“It does feel kind of random sometimes, but it’s where I ended up and I love it,” Wagner said. “I just love to dance and feel like you’re really connected with your body and your mind. You can express yourself in a different way.”

Wagner has stayed with the same dance studio, The Clark Academy of Irish Dance, for the whole time she’s been dancing. She said she credits a lot of her growth in Irish dance to Cange, who is also the founder of the studio and a 2004 Webster alum.

“Anika is open-minded and takes correction so well,” Cange said. “She’s the type of student that’s nodding and just like taking it in and then asking to do it again.”

Advisor for Webster LEADS Jennifer Stewart agrees that Wagner is a great student and a great leader. Wagner became a part of Webster LEADS as a freshman in 2020.

Stewart said Wagner’s experience with Irish dance has a lot of impact on her leadership skills.

“Much like any kind of athlete, the discipline and the kind of commitment required to do dance will really play into your leadership and your ability to be a leader,” Stewart said.

Wagner is now a leader at her dance studio by teaching younger classes.

Wagner said that being a leader for them is important to her after looking up to older students and teachers like Cange.

“It makes me want to be the leader that can help them figure out those things – like getting my mental health to a better place,” Wagner said. “I want to be able to help them find that in themselves. I can’t find it for them. But I can help them and get them there.”

Wagner continues to dance and compete while training for the world championship in Belfast, Ireland. Although Wagner has qualified for the world championship a few times before, she said she’s excited because this will be her first time performing Irish dance in Ireland.

After getting third at nationals, Wagner said she’s hopeful to place in the top third at the world championship – a feat she hasn’t achieved yet.

“I don’t want to put that pressure on myself,” Wagner said. “I’m going to train, and I’m just gonna see what happens. I’m gonna go. I’m gonna dance. I’m gonna smile because I’m having the time of my life up there.”

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