The ruling from the Irish Dancing Commission—which came into force at the start of this month—forbids children under the age of 10 from wearing makeup and fake eyelashes during contests, but stops short of outlawing fake tan and wigs.
The Irish Examiner said that supporters of the blanket ban, which applies to youngsters taking part in solo or team competitions, have welcomed the move, with many saying it was long overdue.
Concern had been raised that the globalization of Irish dancing since Riverdance had resulted in widespread use of makeup by young competitors. But a leading Irish dance teacher said it should be up to the parents to decide whether or not their competing daughters should wear makeup.
Pauline Fegan, who runs four schools in South County Dublin and County Wicklow, Ireland, said: “Too many people who don’t really understand Irish dancing have gotten involved, with people calling up radio shows to say it’s disgraceful that children are wearing makeup.
“But it’s not that big a deal. Children who take part in competitions are trying to win and they want to look as well as they can when they perform. The young girls get excited about putting a bit of makeup or lipstick on for competitions. At the end of the day it’s all about the dancing, but I think it should be left for the parents to decide on whether their daughters apply makeup.”
To see the full story, visit http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/irish-dance-make-up-ban-too-extreme-says-teacher-261013.html.
World Irish Dancing Championships makes its second U.S. appearance
By Karen White
They came from Ireland and everywhere—South America and Brazil, New Zealand and the Netherlands, Russia and Canada. They came to Boston, a city green with Irish pride, to one of the Emerald Isle’s most cherished events—the World Irish Dancing Championships.
This eight-day event was the 43rd edition of the Worlds, known in Gaelic as the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne—a dance competition that’s also part history lesson, part sporting event, and part fashion show—that drew 4,776 competitors from younger than 10 to older than 21. All had maneuvered a complex system of regional and national competitions for the right to be here, sometimes traveling hundreds or thousands of miles in the quest to qualify.
All week long, from early morning till night, simultaneously on three stages, young ladies in heavy curls with stallion-strong legs and young men with flashing feet stamped out time-honored steps.
This competition, which through its rules and expectations protects the integrity and history of a singular art form, was making history of its own. For only the second time, the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne was held outside of Ireland or Scotland. Four years ago, it was in Philadelphia. Next year, London will play host.
“It’s indeed right and proper that we assemble here in the Cradle of Liberty to celebrate all that is good in our Irish heritage and culture, and what makes us uniquely Irish,” An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha chairman Sean McDonagh said during the opening ceremonies on March 24 at the Hynes Convention Center ballroom. “Our presence in Boston is a symbol of the enduring link we share—divided by distance, we are very much united in heart and history.”
And with that, the competition was on. All week long, from early morning till night, simultaneously on three stages, young ladies in heavy curls with stallion-strong legs and young men with flashing feet stamped out time-honored steps. Judges—all certified through rigorous testing—would look for flair and finesse, perfection and precision, as they determined who would be 2013’s lords and ladies of the dance.
Three weeks earlier, at the Harney Academy of Irish Dancing in Walpole, Massachusetts, the mood was both festive and frantic. St. Patrick’s Day was fast approaching, and that meant about 15 performances at parties and parades had to be squeezed into a schedule already stuffed with last-minute competition rehearsals and training. As Worlds vice chairperson, school director Liam Harney was also mired in competition details, from accepting shipments of plaques to talking to the press to serving as liaison to the Boston host hotels.
About 134,500 Irish dancers now train with 2,047 teachers, registered through An Coimisuin le Rinci Gaelacha (the commission that preserves Irish dancing and language), Harney said. Excitement sparked by Riverdance and other shows led to a rising tide of competitive dancers that had begun to overwhelm the venues in Dublin, Galway, and Limerick where the Worlds had been held for decades. Now, for the first time in its history, the Irish Worlds would be held outside Ireland for five years running (Boston, London, Montreal, Scotland, and Washington, DC).
That break with tradition was a financial break for qualified U.S. dancers who can’t always foot the bill for international travel. In 2013, 19 Harney students qualified for solo competition at Worlds, along with 10 céilí teams of eight dancers each. “That’s the biggest entry from our school ever,” Harney said. “I normally have two teams at Worlds—the Atlantic Ocean is a great filter.”
In Boston, Yankee teams vastly outnumbered their Irish counterparts. Pauline Fegan, co-owner of Fegan School of Irish Dancing in Dublin, Ireland, lamented the absence of some of the top Irish academies. Of the 103 teams in the Junior Girls céilí competition, only the Fegan school and seven others were from Ireland.
“When I heard [Worlds] was in Boston, I said, ‘Who would like to go?’ ” Fegan said. “These parents are not rich, but they took it on themselves,” holding fundraisers like social events to foot the bill.
The Fegan girls, along with two mothers who made the trip, Debbie McCann and Lindsey O’Connor, spoke of sacrifices made for Irish dance—birthdays missed, sparse Christmases, endless demands on time and travel. “We travel sometimes 200 kilometers [approximately 125 miles] to a competition,” McCann said. “I’ve broken three cars. One broke on a highway coming home from a feis [competitive festival], but we had won, so we didn’t care!”
Problems, though, gave way to pride as talk turned to the two World Champions produced by the tiny local town of Bray, of their school’s success with “recalls” (making it to the championship round), of the practice “halls”— sheds, basically—they’ve all built in their gardens.
Making it to Worlds makes it all worthwhile. “When I’m standing backstage, it’s nerve-wracking. I have to make a good impression,” said Aoife Cashin, 11. “When I get onstage I forget it and dance my heart out. I’m on the world stage, and I just love it.”
Championship Irish dance is not for the financially faint-of-heart, as a walk through the vendor area proves. Glitter knee socks, $22. Tiara, $69. Wig (choice of 28 colors), $119. Shoes, $180. Dress bag, $65. Dress, $1,250 and up. (That must have been a “show special”—nearby, a temporary consignment shop was doing brisk business selling used dresses for up to $2,500.)
And that’s not all. There are doughnut-sized scrunchies (worn on the top of the head to give a lift to the wig), undershirts, tights, toe pads, “pit pads,” makeup, spray tan, sock glue. Sock glue? To keep your knee socks up, explains parent Martha Shehan. “You should have seen us trying to get sock glue through airport security,” she said, laughing.
Shehan is sitting with fellow moms Michelle Aguayo and Cathy Chavez outside a competition ballroom. Hanging crowded on the wall behind them are the distinctive black-and-white team costumes of their kids’ academy, Celtic Steps School of Irish Dance in Colorado. All around them dancers grab snacks, touch up makeup, or hop, hop, hop in a practice that never ceases.
Celtic Steps student Blaine Donovan (the eventual sixth-place finisher in Senior Men over 21) pauses his practice to rave about his new costume. Top soloists have their garments made by designers who “read” each dancer to determine which colors and designs will best enhance their skin color, body type, and movement style. (Later in the week, vendor Chris Ellis with the dress design company Emerald Key shared one trick of the trade: if a dancer is having trouble holding his or her arms steady, it’s best to not draw attention to the costume’s sleeves with sequins or bright colors.)
While team costumes still pay tribute to traditional Celtic patterning and colors, the girls’ solo costumes are ablaze with sequins, rhinestones, ruffles, and tulle in hot pink, shocking orange, or burning blue, while the men and boys sport black pants with vests or jackets embellished with brocade swirls or lightning strike patterns, and matching ties.
“It’s important, for sure. It makes you feel confident,” Donovan said. “I know I will look amazing. But the dancing is still the best part. Winning the Worlds is a career goal I’ve had since age 7.”
The three moms each have multiple kids who dance, boys and girls, and family life is an endless round of feises and performances, classes and workshops. Annual bills run $8,000 to $12,000, they said. But no one is complaining.
“It’s a tradition in my family,” said Chavez, who grew up in a big Irish family. “I call my kids Leprechanos because they are both Spanish and Irish,” she joked.
Celtic Steps co-director Aisling Casey said she brought 62 of her 300-plus students to the Worlds. She started dancing at age 4 in her hometown of Belfast, “feised” every weekend, and toured with Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance for eight years. Shaun Casey, now her husband and school co-director, was also a dancer with the show.
Aisling Casey believes Irish dance thrives because of its inherent “fast and exciting” style, the popularity of several long-running Riverdance-type shows, and the devotion of American students, who are gaining on their Irish counterparts in the competitive world. “The level of dancing in America is outstanding,” she said, adding that there have been “tons” of American world champions since Flatley broke through the Irish block in 1975.
“It doesn’t matter where this competition is; it’s exactly the same as if it were held in Dublin,” she said. Whether the winner is from Ireland, the United States, or elsewhere “depends on who performs the strongest on that day. There are no clear frontrunners.”
Irish dancers compete in group and solo categories, but that’s where comparisons to other dance competitions end. Musicians play the very short list of reels and jigs used by everyone, a series of quaint titles like “The Vanishing Lake,” “Trip to the Cottage,” or “The Drunken Gauger” (which, in this sprightly tune, refers to someone who measures pints to ensure that a pub keeper doesn’t shortchange his customers).
All official Irish dance competitions function under parameters dictated by An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha, which has regulated Irish dancing since 1930. Solo dancers compete within age categories (Boys 14 to 15, for example, or Ladies 17 to 18) and winners must navigate three rounds. In the Worlds Round 1, three competitors simultaneously took to the stage in hard shoes to demonstrate traditional steps performed to either a jig or a hornpipe; in Round 2, in soft shoes, pairs of girls/ladies performed a reel or slip jig, while boys/men performed to a reel.
In these rounds, the competition can be a battle royal, with dancers using speed and confidence to fight for prime locations onstage. Without being able to turn their heads (which, like arms, must remain still), dancers moving at top speed pass frightening close to one another, sometimes even crashing and falling. Very few dancers smile, their faces locked in concentration.
Grainne Ryan, 15, of Fegan School of Irish Dancing, explained, “You always have to stay at the front, and you take the risk even though you could spin off the stage. Everyone is fighting to get to the corners of the stage, because if you don’t, the judges will say you’re not [physically] fit and you won’t get a recall.”
The top dancers are “recalled,” or brought back for Round 3. Dancing solo this time, again in hard shoes, competitors performed to a set number of bars of music, with steps first performed on the right side, then on the left. Judges look for speed and precision, turnout, a “floating quality” to leaps, arms held but not rigid, solid torsos, strong legs and feet, and “clicks” (the heels of the hard shoes striking together)—plus a champion-worthy performance quality.
“The breath and life of the dance is the rhythm and timing,” Harney said. “It’s a percussive dance form. That’s when the magic happens.”
Teams of all girls/ladies or “mixed” (males and females), all in soft shoes, compete in céilí and figure dances. Teams of eight must prepare two céilí dances, which are based on traditional patterns and steps: a traditional dance (with choreography taken from the official commission handbook), and one (presented if the team is recalled) that can feature flavor and embellishments (like hand claps) added by a teacher or choreographer.
Figure competition mixes traditional steps with creative arm movements and patterns in original dances that illustrate a story. Stories might be a tale of Irish immigrants felled by cholera and prejudice, a Tír na nÓg fairy tale, or a tribute to Ireland’s proud symbols like the shamrock and Celtic cross, and are read aloud by the announcer.
The final event, dance drama, features seven-and-a-half-minute dance productions that include theatrical costumes, elaborate set pieces, comedy, story lines, and fun.
Winning and beyond
The quest for the top takes dancers around the world. Mary Alice Moroz and her 15-year-old daughter, Aidan Moroz, had recently returned from the All Scotland Irish Dance Championship in Glasgow. “She wanted to see what it takes to qualify for Worlds as a soloist,” Moroz said of her daughter, who was competing in Boston with a junior céilí team from Ryan-Kilcoyne School of Irish Dancing in Pennsylvania. “The more experience you can get at a top-level competition, the more you understand what’s expected.”
Ashley Smith remembers constantly traveling to Ireland and elsewhere as a student at her parents’ Irish dance studio, the well-respected Smith-Houlihan Dance Academy in Norwood, Massachusetts. That experience led her to three World Championship solo titles (2004, 2005, and 2009), to Top 30 placement in Season 7 of So You Think You Can Dance, and to a career teaching dance in New York City.
Irish dance even got her into the movies—almost. Silver Linings Playbook was to have some Irish dancers in its pivotal dance competition scene, but “the director decided to go with all ballroom dancers,” Smith said. “But I was on set and got into the union [Screen Actors’ Guild]. It just goes to show that you can take Irish dance out of the competitive world, just like you can ballet, tap, or jazz.”
Over Christmas, Fiona McCabe from County Meath, Ireland, was in China on a Riverdance tour. In March she sat in Boston, watching 10-year-old girls compete in the Worlds as she once did. In the inch-thick program she jotted down her personal set of scores, which she planned to compare against the judges’—practice for her adjudicator certification test coming up in June. “As a kid, you practice every day because you are told to. I never realized the scale of this, how very big and important it is,” said McCabe. “It’s all about the prestige of winning a World title, and being able to represent your dance school and make your family proud.”
Representing their school well were the céilí teams from Harney Academy, which collected seven “globes”—first places for Sub Minor (under 11), Minor Mixed, Senior Girls, and Senior Mixed teams; second place for Junior Girls; plus first and second place for the school’s two Minor Girls teams. (Harney student and 2012 World Champion Melissa McCarthy also won a globe for placing third in Girls 16 to 17.)
“It was an amazing scene as those scores came up,” Harney said. “We’ve never won a céilí at Worlds—this was a big breakthrough. It was a lot of hard work, but it’s a very happy studio.”
As competitors all around him hugged and kissed, took photos and texted the good news home, Harney suddenly froze. “Oh, no! We have to start fundraising for London!” Then he disappeared into the celebration.
What’s up in the dance community
Inspiring and Incomparable: Maria Tallchief, 88, Dies
Maria Tallchief danced in the early days of American ballet, soaring like the Firebird she so vividly portrayed and setting a standard of magnificence for subsequent New York City Ballet ballerinas to follow.
Tallchief, a student of Bronislava Nijinska and the fourth wife of George Balanchine, died April 11 in Chicago, reported the Chicago Tribune. She was 88.
Born January 24, 1925, in Oklahoma, Tallchief started her career with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. At NYCB, she created roles in many Balanchine masterpieces, such as Pas de Dix and Allegro Brillante, while allowing him to shape her body and technique into his image of a ballerina. Her elegant, powerful dancing won her worldwide fame, and she performed with many of the day’s legendary dancers, including Eric Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev.
After retiring from the stage in the late 1960s, Tallchief moved to roles behind the scenes, working as director of ballet for Lyric Opera of Chicago for most of the ’70s and founding the short-lived Chicago City Ballet (1981–1987).
Outspoken, glamorous, and reportedly the highest-paid dancer in the world (in 1954–55), Tallchief was the epitome of ballet at a time when this European-based art form was recasting itself with American flair. How fitting it was that Tallchief, of Native American Osage heritage, was there to lead the way.
Irish Steppers Send ‘Love’ to Wounded Dancer
Irish dance teacher Bree Johnson of Milwaukee was watching the bad news about the Boston marathon bombing with her mother, Trish Johnson, when they heard that a little girl who had lost a leg was an Irish step dancer. With tears in their eyes, they agreed that they had to do something. They decided to collect T-shirts from Irish dance schools to make a quilt for the injured girl, Jane Richard.
The next day, the two women launched a Facebook page—Wrapping Jane in Our Love—hoping for 20 to 30 shirts, Bree, 21, told Dance Studio Life. In less than two weeks, around 500 shirts had arrived or were on the way from academies in Ireland, Hong Kong, Japan, Belgium, Australia, England, Canada, Norway, and all over the U.S. Opening mailers, Bree was stunned to see a Lord of the Dance shirt signed by cast members on a tour of Russia—and another from Michael Flatley to “Jane, my favorite dancer.”
“The Irish dance community is super small; we are one big family. The response has been amazing—more than anything my mom and I could have imagined,” Bree said.
By the first week in May, shirts were being shipped to a family friend on Cape Cod, who stood ready with a team of quilters.
“I know what it’s like to be 7 years old and have such big dreams and such a passion for Irish dance,” said Bree, who studied Irish dance for 16 years at Glencastle Irish Dancers. “We want to show Jane that no matter what happens in her life, we are always going to be there for her, and she’ll always be an Irish dancer.”
Degas’ Famous Statue Comes to Life
The little girl stands in fourth position, hips relaxed, arms behind her back. This statue by Edgar Degas—Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, one of the most famous and beloved ballet images in the world—soon will be brought to singing, dancing life.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, has announced plans to produce Little Dancer, an original production with music and lyrics by Lynn Aherns and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Once on This Island), to be directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Based loosely on the story of Marie van Goethem, the Paris Opera “petite rat” who posed for Degas’ now-famous sculpture, the musical will tell how Marie struggles to keep her place in the corps while being battered by the forces of poverty, the demands of art, and the attention of wealthy male “patrons” of the ballet.
While iconic today, the mixed-media sculpture was viciously received by some art critics in its first showing in 1881, criticized for its realism and deemed ugly. The response shocked Degas. Although the artist created many sculptures before his death in 1917, this was the only one he showed in his lifetime.
According to a Kennedy Center release, performances are set to begin in October 2014.
A British Ballet Star Shines Till the End
When Frederic Franklin was 88, his performance in an American Ballet Theatre production made the director of the Kirov Ballet exclaim to New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, “Who is the man who was the tutor in Swan Lake? He has the presence of a star.”
That telling anecdote was included in a Washington Post obituary for Franklin, a major British-born ballet star who partnered Alexandra Danilova to great fanfare. Franklin, born June 13, 1914, in Liverpool, died May 4 in Manhattan, where he had been living. He was 98.
Pursuing ballet when it was still in its infancy in England, Franklin triumphed in a wide range of roles while touring Europe and America in the late 1930s and early ’40s with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, keeping his star quality as he segued from lead to character roles later in life. His incredible ability to recall choreography served him well; he built a strong reputation for re-creating classic ballets, often with a new twist—such as setting Giselle in New Orleans for a Dance Theatre of Harlem production.
Franklin also co-directed The Washington Ballet for several years and founded the short-lived National Ballet in Washington. He received a Bessie Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2011.
The Irish dance community is rallying in support for Jane Richard, the 7-year-old from Dorchester, Massachusetts, who lost a leg in last week’s Boston Marathon bombings that claimed the life of her 8-year-old brother, Martin, reports the Nice Deb blog.
For the past four years Jane has attended Tuesday Irish dance classes at the Clifden Academy of Irish Dance in Milton, Massachusetts. Owner and dance instructor Eileen Dillon Dinn told the Irish Voice that Jane “lives to dance,” and schools all over the U.S. have started fundraising to provide financial assistance to the Richard family.
Events and activities include:
• A Facebook page, Wrapping Jane in Our Love (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Wrapping-Jane-in-Our-Love/477212572350202), is collecting T-shirts from Irish dance schools all over the world to make them into a quilt for the tiny dancer. As of Thursday morning, shirts had been received from 468 studios.
• In Boston: Dance Out for Jane (https://www.facebook.com/events/448828438535122/), an evening of Irish music and dancing by Boston area college dance groups, as well as New England solo and céilí World Champions, will be held tomorrow (April 27) at 7pm at the John Hancock Back Bay Event Center, 180 Berkeley Street. Tickets are $26.20 and are available in advance only at www.biddingforgood.com/danceoutforjane. Every penny raised will go towards the Richard Family Fund.
• In New York: a Dance Out for Jane event will be held tomorrow (April 27) from 1 to 6pm at The Kerry Hall, 305 McLean Avenue in Yonkers, All musicians, singers and dancers are invited to show their support for the Richards, with 90 percent of proceeds raised going towards the family fund, and 10 percent donated to the Leukemia Foundation. (http://www.irishcentral.com/news/-Irish-Dancers-rally-for-Jane-Richard-in-New-York-and-Boston-204464591.html#ixzz2ROTq9nqd )
• In Kansas City: a Dance Out for Jane fundraiser (https://www.facebook.com/events/121283458067964/) with performances by Kansas City Irish dancers and Irish bands will be held tonight (April 26) at the Irish Center in Union Station. Doors open at 6:30pm. Admission is $10 ($25 for families) at the door, and snacks and beverages will be available for purchase. One hundred percent of the money raised will go to the family.
• Dance Out for Jane online auction runs through May 1. Items include dancing and feis supplies, Aer Lingus tickets, Red Sox tickets, and more. (http://www.biddingforgood.com/auction/AuctionHome.action?vhost=danceoutforjane)
• Red Sox for Jane Facebook page (htthttps://www.facebook.com/RedSoxsForJane?ref=ts&fref=tsps://www.facebook.com/RedSoxsForJane?ref=ts&fref=ts) is asking for donations of Irish dance socks, which will be dyed red and distributed for a donation.
The Harney Academy of Irish Dance of Walpole, Massachusetts, brought home eight “Globes”—the equivalent of a top three finish—from the World Irish Dancing Championships held March 21 to 31 in Boston, Massachusetts.
School founder and owner Liam Harney, world champion in 1984 and 1987, said the eight globes sets a record for the largest number won by a single school at a world championship. “Our studio is abuzz with the success of this year’s world championships,” he said. “I think part of our success was due to the fact that the world championships were in our hometown, which allowed more of my dancers the opportunity to compete. Usually we have to travel overseas in order to compete at worlds.”
First place was awarded to Harney Academy in the following divisions: Ceili Under 11 (combined Mixed and Girls team), Under 13 Girls Ceili, Under 13 Mixed Ceili, Senior Girls Ceili Under 19, and Senior Mixed Ceili. Second place awards went to Under 13 Girls Ceili and Under 16 Girls Ceili. Harney Academy student Melissa McCarthy took third place in Girls 16 to 17 Solo category.
Other Harney Academy soloists and teams made it to the final rounds of the competition, with the academy’s Under 19 Girls Ceili team placing ninth. For more information on the Harney Academy, visit http://www.harneyacademy.com/cms/about. For a full list of World Championship 2013 results, visit http://www.irishdancing.com/?q=node/27331.
Two dancers from Chicago’s Trinity Irish Dancers won solo gold medals at the World Irish Dancing Championships, held March 24 to 31 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Peter Dziak, 15, of Villa Park, won his third consecutive world title, while Tyler Schwartz, 22, of Libertyville, won the senior men’s world title.
A release from the school said much of this year’s success can be attributed to Dublin-born head coach and choreographer Dolores Taaffe, who recently moved to Elmhurst, Illinois, from Ireland. Trinity also eclipsed its own record by placing a total of 17 dancers at the top of solo competitions this year. Trinity now holds 15 world titles for the United States.
In other studio news, children ages 3-and-a-half to 12 and their families are invited to participate in Taste of Trinity, a free fun fair, on April 13 at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 North Knox Avenue, Chicago, and Trinity’s Elmhurst Studio, 747 Church Road, Elmhurst. Register online for this free event at www.trinityirishdancers.com.
Registrations are now being accepted for the 17th annual New England Dance Festival, to be held June 15 and 16 at the Timberlane Performing Arts Center in Plaistow, New Hampshire.
Run by Paula Callahan, a 25-year member of the Dance Teachers’ Club of Boston, the NEDF is a local competition that uses many DTCB members as judges. Categories include ballet, pointe, tap, lyrical, modern, hip-hop, contemporary, character, jazz, musical theater, production, open, student choreography, and Irish. Age divisions are primary (6 and under, 7 to 8), junior (9 to 10, 11 to 12), intermediate (13 to 14, 15 to 16), senior (17 to 18, 19 to 29), and adult (30 and older). Classifications include a pre-competitive class for first-year competitors, novice for dancers training two hours or less a week, amateur, pro-am, and professional.
Entries need to be received by May 17. Late entries will be accepted on a first come, first serve basis according to availability. For more information contact Paula Callahan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Post-Riverdance, this fleet-footed dancing goes mainstream
By Darrah Carr
It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Riverdance generated a craze for Irish dance—if you mention the show to your younger students, you might get a blank stare. But the rapid-fire, unison dancing of Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, and kindred shows appears to have taken root in the United States—and not just among those of Irish ancestry. Its teachers report strong continued interest from students of varied ethnicities. What’s more, they say that training in Irish dance can be helpful to students in ballet and other genres.
Long before Riverdance, the fundamentals of Irish dance were taught locally in Irish villages by traveling dance masters—all men—who emerged during the second half of the 18th century. Largely itinerant, they stayed in a community for six weeks at a time and taught dance, music, and deportment in exchange for room and board. During the Gaelic Revival of the 1890s, Irish dance became an important national symbol as revivalists fostered a strong sense of Irish cultural identity in order to support the push for Irish independence from Great Britain. The teaching of Irish dance became formalized with the introduction of Irish dance competitions in 1901 and the founding of An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (The Irish Dancing Commission) in 1929.
Throughout the 20th century, Irish dance spread across the United States, Canada, and Australia due to large waves of Irish emigration. The Irish Dancing Commission oversaw the regulation of competitions and the certification of teachers and adjudicators through rigorous examinations. (Certified teachers are said to have a TCRG, the Gaelic acronym for “Commission-Certified Irish Dance Teacher.” Certified adjudicators hold the ADCRG, for “Commission-Certified Irish Dance Adjudicator.” A person holding such certification is commonly referred to as “a TCRG” or “an ADCRG.”) Irish dancing schools were established in parish halls, community centers, and school auditoriums. Rather than owning their own studios, teachers, like their itinerant forebears, often held classes in several locations within a given area.
Given the heavy focus on competition, Irish dance evolved into a highly technical form, née sport, with dancers trained in two distinct styles: soft shoe and hard shoe. (A certified teacher is qualified to teach both styles.) Soft shoe dances are akin to ballet and feature graceful jumps, turns, and intricate footwork. Hard shoe dances are similar to tap and focus on the precise execution of percussive rhythms. In both styles, dancers hold their arms down by their sides and keep their torso still so that the speed and clarity of their footwork are emphasized. Both styles are performed entirely on the balls of the feet without incorporating any plié.
Dancers typically begin training at 5 years of age and learn the soft shoe style first. During the second or third year of study, hard shoes are introduced. Many dancers enter competition as early as their first year of study. Ornate dresses with designs inspired by Celtic knotwork and curly-haired wigs are standard features of competition for girls. Boys wear a more simple ensemble of trousers, shirts, vests, and cummerbunds.
The development of Irish dance as an extremely virtuosic form literally set the stage for the smash hit Riverdance (1994), as well as Lord of the Dance (1996) and the many spin-offs that followed. To date, Riverdance has played more than 10,000 times in 300 venues in 32 countries across 4 continents, not to mention the show’s worldwide television audience of nearly 2 billion people.
Riverdance’s incredible popularity led to a huge increase in enrollment. “It spread like wildfire in terms of enrollment in the school and people seeking Irish dance classes,” says Eireann McCormack, a TCRG and former Riverdance member who teaches at the Griffith Academy in Wethersfield, Connecticut. “Within a year of Riverdance, classes had grown immensely and were filled with people who were not even of Irish heritage, which I think is fantastic. Irish dance is aerobic, fun, and beautiful. People can get many different things from it. Our adult classes grew quite a bit too. It wasn’t just ‘I want my kid to do that’—it was ‘I want to do that, too!’ ”
Enrollment is no longer at the all-time high that it was when Riverdance first started touring. Nevertheless, many Irish dance teachers still travel to different class locations under the umbrella of one Irish dancing school. And the dance form itself is now traveling, too. Irish dance is crossing over from Irish dancing schools to mainstream dance studios where it is frequently offered alongside ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop. Kieran Jordan, TCRG and a Boston-based Irish dance performer, teacher, and choreographer, recalls, “Around ’95 or ’96, when Riverdance first hit America, the calls really started coming in. I wasn’t teaching at all at the time. I was focusing on performance. But I had offers to start kids’ programs in every variety of dance studio.”
“In Irish dance, we concentrate on listening to the timing of the music so much that it really helps with tap dance training. . . . Also, because we spend so much time on our toes in Irish dance, it really benefits the girls who are going into ballet class.” —teacher Christine Morrison
For several years, Jordan taught Irish at three dance studios in the Boston suburbs. “I would start by giving a master class. Then I’d [teach] during the summer for a week and then for a longer summer camp. Then there was enough interest that people wanted yearly classes. So I’d teach four classes in a row at one place and then four classes in another place. I’d also choreograph an Irish dance piece for their end-of-year recitals.”
In 2004 Jordan left Boston to pursue a master’s degree in contemporary dance performance at the University of Limerick, Ireland. She turned over her classes at Dance New England School of Dance (DNE) in North Chelmsford, Massachusetts, to her colleague Christine Morrison.
When Morrison started teaching at DNE, the studio offered four Irish dance classes per week, with a total enrollment of 30 to 40 students. Six years later, the studio offers 24 Irish dance classes per week that draw close to 200 students. “It is great to see it grow, although it is almost spiraling out of control,” Morrison says with a laugh. “Being in the Boston area, a lot of my students have Irish backgrounds. But we also have Asian and Middle Eastern students. We have students from pretty much every ethnicity. When they come into the studio, they hear the fast music and they know that they are going to have fun.”
Morrison estimates that 30 percent of her Irish dance students are also enrolled in other classes at the studio. And she sees direct benefits of applying Irish dance training to other forms. “In Irish dance, we concentrate on listening to the timing of the music so much that it really helps with tap dance training. When my Irish dance students go into a tap class, they are really on the ball. Also, because we spend so much time on our toes in Irish dance, it really benefits the girls who are going into ballet class.”
Mary Beth Griffith, TCRG, an instructor at Griffith Academy, can comment on the benefits of Irish dance training for other forms of dance. When her mother, the late Mary Ann Griffith, founded the school 55 years ago, it was one of the few certified Irish dancing schools (and still is) that offered ballet, tap, and jazz classes in addition to fundamental Irish dance training. “The structure and discipline of Irish dance are very similar to ballet. And studying Irish dance is such a help with a dancer’s posture,” she says. “Also, it can be hard to get a group of young boys interested in ballet because the music is so much slower, whereas if you start them with Irish dance, the music is so lively, and, at the same time, they are learning about posture, engaging their abdominals, and turnout.”
Cross-training in multiple forms can help prevent injuries. Erin Hayes, who has worked as both a physical therapist and a professional Irish dancer, notes that “there are many benefits to not doing the same type of dance every day. If you use different muscle groups each day, you are less susceptible to overuse injuries.”
In 2008, before going on tour with The Magic of Ireland, Hayes taught Irish dance classes at Ballet Arts: The Performing Arts School of Southern Westchester in Pelham, New York. Having grown up taking Irish dance classes on a slippery gym floor, Hayes sees great benefit in the dance studio environment. “The floor is key,” she says. “What kids are dancing on makes a huge difference in terms of injury prevention. It is especially important for Irish dance classes to be on a sprung floor—we don’t use plié, so there is no way for the body to absorb impact. Having a Marley dance floor also makes it less slippery and keeps kids from falling.”
Although there are many benefits to offering Irish dance classes in a mainstream dance studio, there are also complications given the Irish Dancing Commission’s strict regulation of competition and teacher certification. In order to enter an Irish dance competition, a student must belong to a registered Irish dancing school or be trained by a certified teacher who has passed the TCRG exam. The Irish Dancing Commission enforces these policies in order to protect the livelihoods of registered Irish dance teachers and to ensure that the Irish dance tradition is maintained and transmitted to an appropriate standard. Dance studio owners can refer to the Irish Dance Teacher’s Association of North America (IDTANA) in order to find a certified instructor in their area. IDTANA has more than 650 registered members, with more than 550 in the United States, 100 in Canada, and even one member in Mexico.
On the other hand, competition may not be a priority for every dance studio. As McCormack says, “You don’t have to be based in competition in order to pursue Irish dance. I can see that the Irish Dancing Commission wants to protect each Irish dancing teacher and their livelihood, but at the same time, there is no harm in offering a knowledge-based Irish dance class—as long as the studio owner is clear that it is given in a workshop setting and not in a setting where the students can participate in competition.”
In addition, many students thrive in a non-competitive atmosphere. “When teaching Irish dance in dance studio settings, you tend to get transfers from large Irish dancing schools—parents who don’t want their kids in a competitive environment, or who don’t want to spend money on expensive Irish dancing costumes and wigs,” Hayes explains. “In a competitive Irish dancing school, kids who don’t like competition can get lost. In a dance studio, however, because it is not certified, then they can’t compete, so it is just for fun and for the recital.”
When competition is not an option, the recital performance can become a motivating goal. “Irish dance does stand out,” Jordan says. “It is invigorating music; it is rhythmic, so the audience can all clap along. It is likable and straightforward. The large-group choreography seen in videos of Riverdance or Lord of the Dance can be inspirational when creating student routines.”
As to the question of certification, McCormack says, “People will argue both sides. I don’t think you would find unity within a sampling of Irish dance teachers. Irish dance is definitely more mainstream than it was before Riverdance. The mainstreaming has opened Irish dance to other forms of dance and it has opened other forms of dance to Irish dance.”
Erin Hayes, the author of Feis 101: A Handbook for Beginner Irish Dancers, is touring with two Irish dance productions, The Echoes of Ireland and The Magic of Ireland. She offers this advice for studio owners who are thinking about offering Irish dance classes.
Require dancers to wear proper footwear. Irish dancers are notorious for training barefoot or in socks, but doing so creates a great risk of foot and ankle injuries. Proper Irish footwear minimizes this risk—even if it means a few more blisters.
Warm up before class or rehearsal. Irish dancers especially need to warm up their feet and stretch their Achilles tendons before dancing.
Teach on sprung floors. Irish dancing involves moderate to severe impact on load-bearing joints. Sprung floors can prevent stress injuries to young dancers’ growing bodies.
Schedule days off between classes. Offering classes on consecutive days can lead to overuse injuries and deny tired dancers the chance to recuperate.
Provide cross-training opportunities. Irish dance training focuses on a select few muscles, bones, and joints, leading to greater risk of injury. Cross-training through Pilates, yoga, and other techniques helps to develop well-rounded and stronger dancers.
Stop dancing when it hurts. Encourage dancers to sit out and rest when they’re injured. Dancing through pain is never healthy and can lead to further damage.
An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (The Irish Dancing Commission): www.clrg.ie
Irish Dance Teacher’s Association of North America: idtana.org
Jean Butler’s Irish Dance Masterclass
Celtic Feet Original & Best by Colin Dunne
Irish Dancing Step by Step, Volumes I to III, by Olive Hurley
The Complete Ceili Dance Collection (four-DVD set) by Olive Hurley
Musical Feet! by Kieran Jordan
The Irish Dance Fitness Plan by Ruth Magee
Dancing at the Crossroads by Sheila Ryan
The Story of Irish Dance by Helen Brennan
Competitive Irish Dance: Art, Sport, Duty by Frank Hall
The Terminology of Irish Dance by Orfhlaith Ni Bhriain
Irish Dance From the Boreen to Broadway, edited by Mick Moloney, J’aime Morrison, and Colin Quigley