OC Register Presents WORK: The Pluck of the Irish (Dancer)

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(This story comes to the HuffPost via the OC Register. For accompanying Podcast and slideshow, visit the WORK page at the OC Register)

IRVINE - The young woman waiting in line doesn't look like the other kids here at the Youth Job Fair this Saturday morning.
She's dressed up for success, in a skirt and pumps, her long blond hair pulled back in a bun. She's hoping to get a part-time job at a bank. Maybe a teller gig, she says.

She pulls out a resume and hands it to the pesky reporter. Yes, a 17-year-old with a resume. But it gets better. This high school senior has already grown too old to stay in her current career, so she's retired, she says, and will soon need another job.

And what is it that you do, says the reporter, delicately hitting the "do," but secretly wondering if such a normal-looking girl is really kinda kooky. But it gets better.

Because Devin Nelson is no ordinary high school kid with the usual job scooping yogurt or clerking at the card shop or asking if you want fries with that. Devin is a professional Irish dancer, and she's got the medals and trophies to prove it. Over the past four years, she's gone home with hardware from the regional, the national and the international competitions that attracted the best Irish dancers from around the world.

"I think I always liked it because it was something different from everyone else," she said. "It kind of sets you apart. I just enjoyed it. And a lot of the girls I've danced with my entire life. So you create a lot of really, really strong friends."

Devin has been dancing since she was 6 years old, growing up with the girls at the Claddagh Dance Company in Lake Forest. She found the dance addictive, this beautiful, tough mix of art and sport. But like all great athletes and dancers, the work ultimately takes a terrible toll on the body, even a body that's just 17 years old.

So while it might be hard to envision in a girl who wears a pink brocade dress, poodle socks and lace-up tap shoes, Devin has the bad knees and beat-up body of an old boxer. Her lower back, ankles, hips and feet took a pounding from all the years of clogging and the stern straightness of the Irish dancer's form. She's had torn tendons, shin splints, stress fractures and problems with her hip. She's an old hand at using Advil, ice packs, the physical therapist and the chiropractor.

This year, her senior year at Northwood High School in Irvine, Devin decided to retire from competitive Irish dancing. She was burned out, tired of the stress on her body and the hours and hours spent during six-day-a-week practice. Her career achievements are now decorating her parents' home with pictures, medals and crystal trophies - and are, or course, on record on her resume.

So this retired teenager went looking for work. But the girl with so much get up and go found that all the jobs were gone, and she joined the ranks of those hit hardest during a recession: low-paid and inexperienced workers. In October, the national teenage unemployment rate was 27.6 percent - nearly triple the national rate of 10.2 percent and the highest since the U.S. Labor Department began keeping track in 1948.

How bad is it? Let's look at, for instance, what's considered the hottest job at Devin's school: Golden Spoon Frozen Yogurt. High school kids are aced out of those minimum-wage jobs by two groups: community college students and, well, people Devin delicately calls "adults," which appears to define anyone age 30 and up. It can take up to two years just to get an interview, and once someone grabs the Golden Spoon, they don't let go. Devin can't even get a job at the Hallmark Cards, where her now 24-year-old sister used to work, because that store doesn't hire anyone under 30.

"You'll apply places and now ... you're not only competing against other high school students, you're also competing against, like, adults that are willing to take, like, the lower-paying jobs," Devin said. "Even at the Golden Spoon now, they have, like, people in their 40s or 50s working at Golden Spoon. Obviously they're going to be more experienced than a high school student."
So what's a young woman with the work ethic of a junior James Brown to do? Get back to show business.

Devin is now dancing again - part-time, not competitively - in a troupe doing an Irish Christmas show that will soon be performing in several cities in Southern California. The past few weeks, Devin, along with a friend she's danced with since they were little girls, Katy Archer of Mission Viejo, drive up to Hollywood each Sunday afternoon for rehearsals for a show put on by Kerry Records, an Irish-owned production company based in Los Angeles.

So for now, Devin is back to using her pink athletic tape and wrapping her blisters and clogging and jigging along with the dancers and singers in the show. But the girl with the unusual part-time job is still looking for a regular gig. She wants something normal, something for the weekdays when she gets off school early, maybe something with a national bank, a company that promises to help pay for her education. She turned 18 this week, so she's hoping that will give her a leg up in a job where she's doesn't have to use those beat-up legs.

The always-busy Devin is now planning for life after high school. She hasn't chosen a college just yet, but she knows she's going to major in English and political science, which she thinks will serve her well when she goes on to law school. She loved speech and debate (listed at No. 3 on her resume, just after cheerleading captain and Irish dancer), so maybe she can parlay her love of performing to the court room.

For a retired teenager with a resume, what could be better than that?

(This story comes to the HuffPost via the OC Register. For accompanying Podcast and slideshow, visit the WORK page at the OC Register)