Communication studies junior Jason Hays is an international champion in Irish hardshoe dancing. He’s been competing for 14 years. But two days after his birth, he was supposed to be dead.
Cheyrle Hays, Jason’s mother, said that Jason had been born in breach, a term that describes an infant who comes out feet first from the womb, rather than head first in a normal birth. This caused the umbilical cord to wrap around his neck, causing difficulty breathing, which filled his lungs with amniotic fluid mixed with meconium.
Meconium is the feces that newborns typically pass after birth, but can be released in the uterus during difficult labor, according to an article on U.S. National Library of Medicine website.
“It basically glued his lungs shut,” Cheyrle said. “He was born at Harris Methodist in Fort Worth, and doctors had to rush over from Cook Children’s Medical Center to help him.”
Jason was put on a ventilator.
“The doctors told me he only had maybe two days to live,” Cheyrle said. “I was absolutely heartbroken.”
Seven days later, Jason was still alive, but in critical condition. The neonatal nurses at the hospital informed Cheyrle that if he did survive this, Jason would have severe asthma and he would be blind.
Three days after that, Jason was able to go home with his parents, completely free of any lasting conditions.
“It was a miracle,” Cheyrle said. “With the prayers from my neighbors, friends and family, I knew Jason was watched over by God that day, and that he was meant to live.”
During the past five years, Hays has consistently placed within the top-five dancers in his age division at the international competition, which played host to 4,500 dancers in 2012. He has only been a world champion once.
Jason discovered his passion for Irish dancing after watching a television program.
“I started at 7 years old,” Jason said. “It was after I saw Michael Flatley in Feet of Flames on TV, and it looked so amazing, I knew right then and there I wanted to be a dancer. My mom and I went to the local library to do some research and I was able to find instructional videos and a local school, and I have been dancing ever since.”
From that moment, Irish dancing has been Hays’ passion. In his first class, he met Maureen McTeggart Hall, a dance teacher that has been educating in Irish dance since 1976. She pushed him from just dancing for fun to competing.
Six months after he started in Nov. 1999, Jason competed in his first feis. Out of seven separate dances, he was awarded first place in each. In Nov. 2000, Jason competed in his first World Irish Dancing Championship.
“Dancing came very naturally to me,” Jason said. “I don’t think my parents and I realized it at the time, but the more I competed, the more I loved it.”
The organization that Jason dances for is known as the Irish Dancing Commission, also known as An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha. They were established as the authority of Irish dancing regulation and competition worldwide since 1930, according to their website.
To qualify at Worlds, a dancer has to win first place at a local feis, advancing from level to level in their age division or dance style in order to reach regional competition, also known as an Oireachtas. Jason said usually the top 25 percent of dancers advance from their region to the North American Irish Dance Championships, and from that only the top 10 to 15 dancers advance to Worlds.
“Winning the World Irish Dancing Championships to us is like winning the Olympics,” Hays said. Jason also competes in team dances as well as solo. His biggest team success was in 2010. After spending an entire summer in Houston with 16 members from his Houston and North Texas schools, his team went on to win the North American Irish Dance Championships that year.
“It was a really great bonding experience because I got to be with my friends all summer and we were all working really hard towards that goal,” Hays said.
It has not been all success for Hays, however. Jason almost repeated sixth grade for missing too many days of school for his dancing. After that year, Jason decided with his parents to switch to homeschooling. Jason practices one to two hours a day.
“I realize there were some things that I missed out on not going to public school, but everyone has their reasons for being homeschooled, and my passion for dancing was that reason,” Hays said.
This transfer from public school allowed Jason to go on a seven-week tour with Lord of the Dance across the U.S. his senior year of high school. This was followed immediately by a two-week tour in Israel and another two-week tour in Taiwan with Feet of Flames, where he danced on stage with Michael Flatley himself, the man who created Riverdance in 1994, according to his biography on michaelflatley.com.
“It was a dream come true for me,” Hays said. “It was like my whole dancing career had come full circle. Michael Flatley first inspired me to dance, and now I meet him and dance beside him on stage. He even told me happy birthday when I turned 18 in Taiwan.”
This happened right after Jason seriously considered quitting competing. In 2009 of that year, Hays placed in seventh at World Championships. Jason said that although it was a respectable place for most competitors, it left him defeated.
“I was honestly thinking of giving up after that year, but my friends, and my mom most of all, convinced me not to quit,” Jason said. “She told me that she knew I could prove to them that I was still a world champion, and it made me really evaluate how I dance. If I would have quit then, I would never have gone with Lord of the Dance and met my idol.”
Betty Thompson, one of Jason’s colleagues and friends, said that she has seen his dedication to his craft firsthand.
“He choreographed the dance that helped me get first runner up at Miss America 2012, and he did it in only one month,” Thompson said. “He is an amazing teacher and dancer.”
As for what’s next with Jason, he’s looking to compete in the 2013 World Irish Dancing Championships in Boston March 30.
“When I look at Jason and see what he has achieved from the moment he was born, and all that he has overcome, it just makes my heart smile,” Cheyrle said.