Ulster Irish Dancing championships

Irish Dancing gets a modern twist

Rod rigid back, hands by your sides and feet at ten to two is everyone’s notion of Irish dancing.

But Irish dancing is no longer a quaint country dance staged in the backrooms of pubs across Ireland. Ever since Michael Flatley and Jean Butler staged Riverdance ten years ago, Irish dancing has seen a massive resurgence. Now dancers take part in highly competitive dancing events, with a following of thousands around the world.

As part of the Celebrate Belfast 2006 programme, the Waterfront Hall hosted the Ulster Irish Dancing championships during November 2005. The Waterfront Hall has a growing reputation as the home of Irish dancing. It previously staged two world championships and earlier this year hosted the All-Ireland championships.

Around 1,500 competitors from ten counties congregated to compete in four days of intense competition. The contest is the biggest provincial Irish dancing competition in Ireland and attracts about 1,000 families.

Ulster Irish Dance Commission chairman, Dan Armstrong, said: ‘Competitors from ten counties covering Donegal to Drogheda compete in five disciplines – the reel, jig, slip jig, hornpipe and set piece. Everybody gets to dance three rounds and they get the same amount of time on stage. They dance both the soft shoe dance and hard shoe dance. About 30 to 40 per cent of those are recalled and dance on their own to their own composition and series of steps.

‘The judges take into account timing, rhythm, technical execution and presentation. Years ago judges used to mark 25 points each, now we compose one mark out of 100 to eliminate discrepancies between judges. Then the computer awards the winners along a sliding scale down to one.’

Irish dancing first became popular during the eighteenth century when dance masters travelled between villages to teach dance to the peasants. As they often couldn’t tell the difference between their right and left foot, the master would place straw or hay in either their left or right foot, then he would shout ‘hay foot’, ‘straw foot’ in time to the music.

At the end of the eighteenth century solo dancing or step dancing first appeared. But it was only in the twentieth century that ‘standardised’ dancing was used, which resulted in feis or ‘festivals’.

When the competition started in 1928, Irish dance costumes were usually simple black dresses with hand-embroidered Celtic designs. Now, Irish dancing has gone distinctively bling. Dancers wear bespoke dresses embellished with diamante, costing thousands of pounds. They sport fake tan, immaculately applied make up and complete their look with elaborately coiffured curly wigs.

But Dan argues presentation is extremely important to the dancers:
‘Dancers want something that is different from everybody else. Parents often say we should tell them what to wear but we only set the length of their dress to protect their modesty. And wigs were the greatest invention. The problem is competitors would have their hair in rollers the night before a competition, which was very uncomfortable for them. But it depends on the individual.

'In the last couple of months I have seen kids wear their hair in its normal style and it looks just as well.'We have come out very much against make up and fake tan especially in the under - 10s competition. We are also considering a rule for the younger dancers to wear a more simple costume,’ he said.

Theresa Ferry, who works on the Irish World of Dance stall at the championship, said there is nothing wrong with the dancers’ image: ‘Fake tan and make up really adds to it. When they had a ban on fake tan for the under-10s the children looked very pale.’

Irish dancing has become a multi-million pound business. Dresses can cost between £1,000 and £1,400 and the wigs are between £50 and £70.

Shauna Shiels, who runs Irish World of Dance stall, said she started the business after her daughter, Codie, started dancing: ‘With all the Irish dancing schools in Derry there was a real demand for an Irish dancing shop. We sell everything from practice shoes to tiaras and make-up.’

Shauna was there to support her daughter, who was dancing in the under-10 division: ‘Codie is dancing in a dress that I designed especially for her. It is made out of cotton, satin, and has a Thai satin underlay. Then she picked a heart design embellished with bows and diamantes. It took us four days to make and we worked round the clock.’

Theresa Ferry’s son Matthew, who dances with the Elizabeth McConomy school, is competing in the under-15 division. She said: ‘It’s very competitive and the dancers take it very seriously but they really enjoy it. It’s a great hobby and they get to travel and make lots of friends. This is the fourth year Matthew will be competing and he improves every year. Last year he came third but he worked very hard. He would go to classes three times a week and then do an hour or two in the house on the days he’s not dancing.

Theresa said Riverdance propelled a lot of boys into Irish dancing. She said: ‘Riverdance made dancing popular and opened a lot of doors for the boys. There is no longer a stigma attached to dancing for the boys.’

By Heather Simpson