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She’s on top of the world

By Lucia Viti

Bankers Hill teen is a force in Scottish Highland dancing

Bankers Hill has its own Scottish Highland dance superstar, 14-year-old Beret Dernbach, who is gearing up for another stellar year of competition.

Touting titles, medals, scholarships and awards that read like a who’s who in the world of one of Scotland’s most popular sports, the diminutive Beret describes her love for Highland dancing as a “passion.” What began as “following in mom’s footsteps” at age 5 evolved into the making of a champion who is affectionately known as “Bear.”

Beret Dernbach (Courtesy of Dernbach family)

Highland dancing (dannsa Gàidhealach in Scottish Gaelic) is a style of competitive solo dancing that originated from the Scottish Highlands circa the 19th century. Performed to bagpipe music, dancers don kilts (some weighing 10 pounds) and Ghillies —  soft-leather laced shoes — to perform a repertoire of technical folk dances. Danced on the balls of one’s feet, combined with sweeping upper body, arm and hand movements, step combinations require extreme skill, stamina and strength.

Traversing the United States, Canada and Scotland, Beret described 2017 as a “whirlwind” year, participating in “one competition after another.” Triumphant wins and top placements have catapulted Beret into “causing a stir, as Americans are not usually perceived as a threat to Canadian or Scottish dancers.” But Beret didn’t just stir the field, she whisked it into a frenzy!

Beret holds the 2017 title as the United States Highland Dancing Champion for ages 14/15. Competing for the coveted title for more than five years, she beat out the top three qualifiers. On a roll, she won the United States Inter-Regional Championship and presently reigns as the Western U.S. Champion in her age group.

“I’m happy to do what I love,” Beret said. “It’s thrilling to combine my adrenaline rush with walking away with big wins. That’s my goal. Winning encourages me to work hard and walk into the next competition with confidence. It’s satisfying to know that I do something that I love that keeps me in very good shape. It’s a thrilling experience for everyone. A lot of hard work but the reward is worth it.”

Additional 2017 titles include the Margo Naismith Memorial Award Winner, City of Edinburgh Medal Winner and Champion in the United States Western Region Closed Championships. Beret received first runner-up status in the United States Western Region Open Premiership, the Sacramento Open Championship and the Phoenix Open Championship.

And Beret danced her way to third runner-up during the Queen Mary Open Championship and the Queen Mary Open Premiership — a truly competitive arena.

Premier Level Highland Dancing rivalries are not for the faint of dancers. Awards achieved are at the highest competitive levels attainable in Scottish Highland dancing. Almost 350 individual dance placings are awarded. Almost 40 elite championships include global competitors. Placing among the top six is described as an “accomplishment and honor, especially at internationally attended championships.” And to no one’s surprise, Beret placed third.

Not only did Beret place third at the Cowal Highland Games World Qualifying Championship in Scotland in August, she received a gold medal for the Sword Dance. As the overall third runner-up in these games, she opened the door for dancing her way through the World Championships the following day.

“Scotland was busy,” she continued. “One weekend, we competed on one side of the country on Friday, then Saturday on the other side, only to turn back where we were on Friday on Sunday! We saw the country by taking trains, buses, ferries, taxis and a whole lot of walking! It rained every single day and was colder than San Diego’s winter, which made it extra challenging, as outdoor competitions are held rain or shine.”

The Scottish Highland Gathering and Games, held in Pleasanton, California, served to challenge the dancer’s heat tolerance with temperatures crawling to 112 degrees. Undaunted, Beret described dancing outside in her heavy wool kilt, wool socks and long-sleeved velvet jacket as “interesting.”

In Nashville, Tennessee, Beret was nominated by the British Association of Teachers of Dance (BATD) and won its North American Senior Scholarship based on her performances and her theoretical knowledge.

Beret ended her season with the Seaside Highland Games in Ventura, California, by “sweeping” her age group, noting that the event “was a good wrap-up to a spectacular year.”

“I love travelling,” she said. “I love meeting people. We met so many really incredible people in Scotland, Australia and Canada. Competitions leave little time for socializing because we focus on the competition. But afterwards we always have great fun.”

The year 2016 was as equally impressive. Last July, she placed second runner-up, age 14, in the Canadian Open Championship held at Prince Edward Island, Canada. Recognized as the world’s largest championship, 900 dancers from five continents competed in a myriad of categories. Beret competed among 30 Premier Championship dancers from the U.S., Canada and Scotland. She ranked as the top American dancer in her age bracket.

And yet, the polished pro drips in humility for a track record that includes over 200 individual dance placings scored between the ages of 5 and 9.

In addition, over the past five years, Beret has earned almost $12,000 in scholarship and prize awards that help to defray expenses associated with competing on a national level. However, at every $1,000, the “Bear” donates a percentage of her good fortune to a charitable cause.

Balancing work and school, Beret practices every day, twice during her busy season. The sophomore at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts intends to continue Scottish Highland dancing and to eventually study law while “one day, teaching others the art form” that she loves so. Described as “driven even during setbacks,” she loves to give local performances, so one shouldn’t be surprised to her dancing in North Park.

“I do my best during every dance,” Beret concluded. “I’m competitive. I channel my competitions into an art form. A dancing art form that I’m really passionate about.”

— Contact Lucia Viti at luciaviti@roadrunner.com.

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