Rediscovering Irish dancing in the Netherlands

‘European Championships feis showed just how loved our dance is by other nationalities’

"You will hear the diddildy-di from the street." These were my directions to my first Irish dancing class in The Hague. When I moved to Amsterdam in 2011, I immediately discovered one of only two Irish dancing schools in The Netherlands, run by a Galway man and now a dear friend, Seán Kilkenny.

I started Irish dancing at age five with the Hession School in Galway, where I spent some of my happiest hours, and haven't stopped since. At 15, I competed in my last Irish dancing feis in Ireland and never dreamt I would take to a feis stage in a dress, wig and all the gear to do it all over again, let alone 14 years later.

When I joined the school in The Hague, I was immediately struck by the class of Irish dancers speaking in Dutch to one another and how the majority had little or no familial connection to Ireland.

I have witnessed the same of other schools on the continent at different feiseanna, hearing dancers speaking in German one minute and dancing a traditional Irish set the next, or hearing foreign names of dancers announced from schools in Russia, Germany, Norway and beyond.

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Despite their lack of Irish connection in most cases, these Europeans dance with a learned traditional style, a high standard and with great passion.

The Netherlands falls into the Mainland Europe region which is one of nine global Irish dancing councils. The Mainland Europe Teachers Association began in 2001 and has developed into an organisation of 24 registered teachers across 13 countries, all part of Registered Teachers Mainland Europe.

With a minimal number of feiseanna throughout the year in the region, its dancers train towards their main competition of the year, the Mainland European Championships.

The 10th anniversary of this event took place last weekend in The Hague, organised locally by our Kilkenny School of Irish Dance. It welcomed a record 500 dancers from 23 countries including Austria, the Slovak Republic and Italy, representing a range of ages, dancing levels, nationalities, cultures and languages.

Dancers from beginner to intermediate level competed in the traditional feis while advanced dancers competed in the championships to try to qualify for the 2015 World Championships in Montreal.

The standard was very high, as recognised by adjudicator and vice president of the Irish Dancing Commission, Seámus Ó Sé who officially opened the event. Seámus spoke of the calibre of dancing in Mainland Europe since its development just over 10 years ago, and how the event compares to any feis in Ireland.

I was somehow convinced by Seán to go back on stage myself and give the championship a go. After some persuasion, I went in search of a dress and got the legs moving. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and approached it with a lot less stress than I would have in my teenage years. Walking into Seán’s class for the first time marked the beginning of an enlightening chapter in my life, which has created for me wonderful friendships, life lessons and experiences.

The launch of Riverdance in 1994 inspired people around the world to take up the learning of jigs and reels. It has been a wonderful and slightly surreal experience to watch, dance, teach and perform with people in The Netherlands and Mainland Europe. I have witnessed firsthand how our national dance is embraced and loved in other cultures, by so many nationalities and at so many levels.

I placed third to two beautiful dancers from Austria and Switzerland. Our school had three Dutch native champions, and I met with a 61-year-old Galway woman called Marion who danced in the feis after taking up Irish dancing at age 50 in Switzerland.

Yes there are wigs and fake tan and blingy dresses, but underneath it all, Irish dancers are performing a very skilful art. At a competitive level, they train exceptionally hard both physically and mentally, to reach the highest level they can. The skills developed are life-long and develop into careers in many cases.

Whatever the level, a few steps of a jig or a reel are always welcome as a party piece, and I have yet to see people not smile and clap and enjoy watching Irish dancing.

Ever-expanding, the Irish dancing world is an exciting one to be a part of.