The World of Competitive Irish Step: Wigs, Funny Dresses & Hard Work

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The World of Competitive Irish Step: Wigs, Funny Dresses & Hard Work

Maggie Ryan '15

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When people hear Irish step, they think of dresses, make-up, fast feet movement, Dublin, hairpieces, wigs and spray tans. What people don’t know are the hours of training that go into one seemingly effortless performance.

In Irish dance there are two shoes we wear. The hard shoe is the one that makes sound and it is similar to a tap shoe or pointe shoes because you can go up on pointe. In hard shoe you can dance a treble jig, a hornpipe or a set dance. The soft shoe, which we call ghillies (gil-ly), are more like a ballet slipper. In the soft shoe you can dance a reel and a slip jig. In a soft shoe you can also dance a ceili (kay-lee), which is a team dance instead of a solo dance, typically danced with either 4 or 8 people.

In Irish Step there are many levels (pre-beginner, advanced Beginner, Novice, Prizewinner, Prelim, and Open). In Prelim and Open you can qualify to dance at larger competitions such as nationals, worlds, and other overseas competitions, primarily in England, Scotland and Ireland. In the lower levels (pre-beginner through prizewinner), you typically do 2 steps in 3-6 different dances. In prelim you dance a hard and a soft dance but you you 3 steps. In open you dance 3 dances, 2 hard and 1 soft. The extra hard shoe dance is called a set which is when you dance by yourself and you show off your strengths.

There are many types of competitions. There are big competitions such as nationals, worlds or oireachtas (O-rock-tas)(regionals). What makes these competitions big is that there are more dancers and often higher level dancers compete .You also have the opportunity to qualify for the next year’s world championships. At nationals and oireachtas is where most people qualify for worlds. Worlds are very hard to qualify for and very few qualify to represent America against competitors all over the world. At the worlds competition, out of probably 150-200 competitors, only about 50 get a recall and do their set dance one more time for the judges. Out of those 50, there are only about 20 are world medal holders which means that they  actually placed. The people who are world medal holders are automatically qualified for worlds the following year.

There are also many other large competitions that you can attend such as the All Ireland championships, the Great Britain championships, the All Scotland Championships and the British National championships. Besides these larger competitions, there are also smaller local competitions in America throughout the year. At these competitions anyone can dance but mostly people from around the area to as much as four hours drive participate in local competitions. The other large competitions happen once a year and most people don’t go to all of them. There are  local feis you can go to almost every weekend.

The intensity of training depends on the time of year and what competition is coming up. Nationals happen over the course of 4 days during the week of the 4th of July. Worlds is always a week long and is the week of Easter. Oireachtas occurs over 3 days and is the weekend before Thanksgiving. If nationals, worlds or oireachtas, are coming up you would train 6-7 days

a week including cross-training, practicing on your own and going to class 4-6 times a week.

Cross- training is something that almost all irish step dancers do. Cross training is a little different for everyone but it is basically building muscles such as you abs and such. Some people do yoga, pilates, running. Cross-Fit or go to a personal trainer.

Local feises you wouldn’t prepare for as vigorously as you would for a large competition or a “major” as we like to call them, but you also wouldn’t slack off. For a local feis you would go through your full routine once or twice through without stopping so that you don’t die or tire on stage. For a local feis you wouldn’t cross-train as hard. Local events aren’t as competitive, but it is good practice to compare yourself with the other dancers from around the area in your age group. Local competitions are kind of like confidence boosts for majors. At a local feis you get back you score sheets and get feedback from the judges so you can see what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. For local competitions you would only go to class 2-3 days a week with a workout class after your normal classes one or two of the days and practice on your own the rest of the days.

Irish Step is a complex art form that includes much athleticism and extraordinary commitment.



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