September 2013 | Boston’s Irish Invasion

World Irish Dancing Championships makes its second U.S. appearance
By Karen White
This ceili team from Scoil-Rince Mona Ni Rodaigh, Cuigh Uladh, Ireland, placed seventh in the Senior Girls division. Photo by Shamrock Photo

This ceili team from Scoil-Rince Mona Ni Rodaigh, Cuigh Uladh, Ireland, placed seventh in the Senior Girls division. Photo by Shamrock Photo

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.

The preparation

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.

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Photo by Shamrock Photo

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.”

The tradition

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.

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Photo by Shamrock Photo

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.”

The competition

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.

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Photo by Karen White

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.