With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, you are likely to spot Irish dancers at the parade downtown on Sunday, at your school or even restaurants and bars. We are known for our quick feet, still upper bodies, elaborate costumes and curly hair. What you may not know is that there is an entire world of Irish dancing beyond just the public performances. We train as hard for competitions as athletes train for their sports. Endless hours in the dance studio perfecting complicated rhythms and steps might seem crazy, but for Irish dancers, there’s nothing better than the feeling of a dance well done.
There are six levels of dance: beginner, advanced beginner, novice, prizewinner, preliminary championship and open championship. Dancers train year-round for different levels of competition. A feis (pronounced “fesh,” the Irish word for festival) is a local competition of dancers, musicians and artists at all levels. There are also regional and national competitions, which take place annually and are limited to ceili dances (dances with more than one dancer) and higher level solo dancers. The Worlds, the Olympics for Irish dance, will be held later this month in Boston. People always think that St. Patrick’s Day is our busiest time of year, but Irish dancers always have something to train for.
There are different types of dances that depend on which shoes you are wearing. The hard-shoe dances showcase the dancer’s rhythm and complicated footwork. The dances in soft shoes, ghilles (pronounced “gil-lees”), are much more graceful than hard-shoe dances. In competition, judges look for turned out feet, the height on the dancer’s toes, straight knees, stiff upper body, lots of stamina and an overall confident presence. The dancer’s confidence is boosted by his or her appearance. Dresses are worn by female dancers; males usually wear black pants with a shirt and tie, and sometimes, a vest. Beginner dancers wear dresses with designs that are specific to their dance school. When a dancer reaches the prizewinner level, they have the option to wear a custom dress for competition. These dresses are more elaborate and flashy to catch the judge’s eye. Dancers will do anything to get the judges’ attention, which is why dress styles are constantly changing.
So, the secret is that, for most dancers, the curls are not real. It’s just a wig and a whole lot of hairpins. The wig emerged from a tradition in Ireland where the girls and women would rag roll their hair the night before the dances on Sundays to look their best.
All it takes is one class to fall in love with Irish dance. The way the dancers create rhythm and grace with only their feet is something so unique that once you start, you cannot stop. You get pulled in, like having a rope harnessed at your waist. It is addictive. Being an Irish dancer has taught me so much, especially that in order to achieve anything, you have to put in the work. So when you see an Irish dancer this St. Patrick’s Day, just remember to look past the curls and focus on the feet – that’s the real show.
Emily Kuettel is a sophomore at City Honors.