As someone who Irish danced for over 10 years, I feel obligated to make this my first post! When we opened our first class with the question of what comes to mind with the term “Celtic,” someone said the inevitable…Riverdance. The show’s creator, Michael Flatley, made his choreography a bit more theatrical than the traditional steps, but his work was well-received and brought parts of Irish culture to the international community.
Irish step dance has changed significantly since I started in ‘95. I would describe the the process as two-fold: cultural & competitive. My school held daily practices and usually performed on weekends at festivals, parties, and parades. These traditional included group dances, called “céilís,” or solo sets with predetermined songs & steps that told some type of folklore tale. The rest of the time we would participate in “fèises,” or Irish dance competitions. Our biggest annual event was Celtic Fest, which is still the largest free Celtic festival in North America. Below is a picture of me (far left…I used to be short!) and the group about to dance at the Grand Pavillion. The next picture I took last year at the same Celtic Fest stage when I went to see my old school perform.
Clearly, a lot has changed. The visual aspect of Irish dance has honestly become similar to Toddlers & Tiaras. It’s much more competitive overall, but significantly more materialistic. When I was dancing, “solo dresses,” or costumes a dancer had made specifically for her, costed between $1000 and $2500. These normally contained beautiful detailing of Celtic crosses and knots. The dresses are now more abstract/geometrical and I’m sure their prices have skyrocketed. There was always an emphasis on having extremely curly hair, which seems to be a tradition derived from the beauty ideal of Irish folklore. Since the late 90s, Irish step dancers started to wear wigs. I didn’t mind because it meant avoiding the painful process of hair curlers, but the wigs were quite heavy and difficult to dance with. According to my friends who still dance, serious competitors must have spray tanned legs, theatre-style face makeup, two wigs, and a blindly sparkly solo dress.
I think this takes away from the actual art of the dancing and distracts from the truly difficult moves dancers must pull off. At fèises, dancers must impress the judges by jumping high, moving their feet swiftly, keeping to the beat, having their hands at their side, maintaining perfect posture, and being forceful in their steps…all while smiling. The highest level I got to was the East Coast championship, which is still held annually in Philadelphia. This competition was called the “Oireachtas,” which is also is the name of Ireland’s national parliament. The competition was so chaotic but exciting, as each stage had it’s own small band to play reels and jigs. At this level, dancers go onto the national competition and potentially the world championship, which is actually held in London this year.
Irish dance has become an international sport of sorts. I danced with girls & boys from all backgrounds and met people along the way who have no ties to Ireland, but were genuinely drawn to the style of dance and the traditional music that goes along with it. I wanted to talk more about the history & tradition of the dancing itself, but got a bit carried away so maybe I’ll have to save that for another post. Let me know if you have any questions! Don’t ask me to step dance for you though, as I’ve gotten too old.(: Check out this trailer if you’d like to see how things have changed since Riverdance: