Eighteen months ago, all was normal in the world of Irish dancing. The World Championships had taken place in April, dancers and teachers had resumed training diligently for the forthcoming feis season. And then, in October, news broke that rocked the sport irrevocably.
A dossier purportedly showing widespread cheating was handed into the Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (CLRG), the oldest and largest governing body for competitive Irish dancing in the world, during the summer of 2022.
Contained within the dossier were text messages appearing to show efforts by Irish dancing instructors to secure high scores for their students from fellow teachers, including the offer of sexual favours between a judge and a teacher in exchange for better marks. The allegations related to 2019 but were only reported last year, and later leaked online.
In the first interview the commission has given since the controversy broke more than a year ago, Sandra Connick, chairwoman of the CLRG, said she had not heard any murmurings of such behaviour before this, adding that it was a “big shock to everybody”.
“I can honestly say I wasn’t aware but it is very disappointing. When you have something like that happen, you have to stamp it out immediately. It’s just not acceptable; it won’t be tolerated,” said Ms Connick, a dance teacher who moved from Cork to the United States more than 30 years ago.
She admitted there were “one or two” rumours about cheating circulating throughout the decades she has been involved in Irish dance, but they were considered just “hearsay” at the time.
Ms Connick, who started her own dance school in North Carolina in 1994, was elected to the position of chairwoman last May, meaning she was not in the role when the scandal was first reported to the body, nor when it became public knowledge.
She became chair in the largest turnover of elected representatives at CLRG; a third of the 113 members are newly elected. While she was involved with CLRG, a voluntary body, for many years, she took a break from the organisation for a period of years before she was elected as chair because the organisation was not “moving with the times like we needed”.
She said news of the alleged competition rigging was “a lot of the reason why I came back”.
“I have a long experience with the commission and I think it was the right time for change and I wanted to be part of that change,” she said.
Documents filed in the High Court last December detailed some of the messages purportedly sent between teachers and judges. They included “could I ask you to look out for” and “I will sort her out” to “just do the best you can for them” and “have a girl u15 that needs to qualify”.
In one case, an exchange between two male teachers who also act as judges, the conversations were sexually explicit, with one of the teachers appearing to offer sexual favours for higher scores.
Ms Connick said when things like that happen and several people are involved, it is important to “look at what’s wrong with the system”.
“Maybe there’s something wrong with the system that allows for this type of behaviour. When people can’t believe that their kid can rise to the top by just being the best child,” she said.
In all, 44 individuals are facing disciplinary hearings. The hearings began in August and a number have been completed, with a further 10 books of evidence to be issued to individuals “shortly”. The CLRG has declined to disclose the outcomes of the hearings until all are completed. It is envisaged that all of the hearings will be completed by the middle of next year.
“All 44 will have their day in court. The commission is adamant that we’re going to hear each and every one of these cases – and the respondents have the right to be heard,” Ms Connick said.
For individuals who are found guilty, Ms Connick said “we are looking to punish them, if punishment is due or if there’s no punishment and they’re found not guilty then just move on in the normal manner”.
Punishments could vary, depending on which offence an individual is found guilty, she said. If it’s gross misconduct, an individual could be requested to step down from their position “immediately”, could be prevented from running for office and could receive a financial fine.
If it’s a lesser offence, then it could be a case of an individual being written up and recorded on their file, or the duration of their suspension served or suspension time yet to be served being applied to the person. Both the outcome and any potential punishment will be decided by the independent panel that is conducting the hearings.
In addition to the reputational damage to CLRG from the controversy, there are also financial repercussions. The commission last year recorded a €1 million loss, which is largely down to legal and professional costs arising from the organisation’s response to the allegations of wrongdoing.
There has been one successful High Court case already. Amanda Hennigan, a feis adjudicator who also runs an Irish dancing school in the UK, took a case after she was suspended while the disciplinary hearings proceeded. Ms Justice Eileen Roberts halted her suspension but ruled that CLRG could proceed with their hearings.
Ms Hennigan denied allegations of competition fixing, arguing that “no favouritism was sought or provided” for her dancer after she sent a text message to a judge at the 2019 All Ireland Championships telling him she would “appreciate anything you can do” for one of her students.
In light of the ruling, the body agreed to lift the suspension for all others involved in the allegations, as they said continuing to contest legal challenges would place CLRG in “severe financial difficulty”.
There could be further litigation, Ms Connick said.
“People threaten it [legal action] all the time; it’s common, but people say a lot of things they mightn’t necessarily do when they’re hurt or angry. But we’re prepared for that should it arise, but we are taking continuous action to not allow that to happen,” she said.
In response to the scandal, the body has already made changes in a bid to ensure no such fixing could occur again. Judges will no longer have access to their phones or other electronics throughout the day of judging and competitor numbers are no longer provided far in advance of the competition.
There have also been changes to the way in which judging works, Ms Connick said.
“Typically at large competitions, you would have three judges. We’ve put in five judges now, we drop the highest score in case someone gets a really off-the-cuff mark, we drop the lowest score in case somebody felt they were being penalised severely. We take the three in the middle which gives a fairer playing field,” Ms Connick said.
However, it can be a slow process to make changes, as all 113 members, who located in countries around the world, must vote on any decision that is made.
The body commissioned an independent report by consultants Sia Partners, which, in July, found a “lack of trust” in the organisation, particularly in relation to the organisation’s complaint process, while its disciplinary process was not fit for purpose.
The consultants also found those within Irish dancing had concerns about the “variation” in how rules were applied between regions and schools, especially when it came to competitions.
Despite the criticism, Ms Connick is confident trust can be restored and said steps have already been taken to do so. Further steps are in place, with motions being put forward for the next meeting of members, due to take place next weekend, to establish a grievance process and to create the new roles of managing director and in-house public relations representative.
Ms Connick said the CLRG will do its “utmost best” to make sure there is no permanent reputational damage to the sector.
“As a teacher in this organisation, we have a very bright future. We will learn. I recognise the hurt that was caused to every dancer out there, including my own,” she said.
“I recognise the hurt that was caused to every teacher out there, including myself. When you send your children, they have invested so much of their time and their parents’ time...for them to find out there was this going on? That’s devastating.”