Participants are kitted out in their finest frocks, hairpieces piled high upon their heads with carefully applied make-up glistening under the heat of the stage lights.
This is not a beauty pageant or a group of models on the catwalk, but the scene of countless Irish dancing competitions up and down the country and indeed the world, where participants aged 10 and up are coiffed, bronzed and groomed within an inch of their lives.
The CLRG (Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha) World Irish Dancing Championships will take place next week in Glasgow and, while results are based entirely on dance skills, many parents feel they have to conform to the trend of buying “hideously expensive” dresses, putting heavy wigs on their daughters’ heads and applying make-up which many believe is far too old for their tender years.
Áine O’Connell has two daughters in the dance circuit and while they are currently in the Bun Grad, which doesn’t “require” full costume, their enthusiasm for going forward is somewhat thwarted by the apparent need to dress up.
“My girls are doing great and really love participating in competitions,” says the Dublin woman. “But while my eldest is 10 and should be moving on to the next level, she really doesn’t want to have to wear wigs and make-up as she thinks the girls look really silly. And I agree with her.
“To my mind they look like mini-drag queens with all the hair, tan and make-up. People give out about beauty pageants in America, but this is no different. I would love to know why parents send their daughters to competitions like that and why don’t officials ban them from dressing in what I, and many other parents, believe is totally inappropriate for their age group.”
Values of parents
Tara Stewart, of Stewarts School of Irish Dance in Kildare, agrees but says the costumes are not representative of the values shared by most of the parents involved in the competitive circuit.
"I don't think the dancing world do themselves any favours because, while the costumes, wigs and fake tan look extreme, it couldn't be in more contrast to the environment and people who wear them," she says. "I have heard many a view from people who are not involved in dancing that it has 'all gone to the dogs' and can be viewed similarly to reality shows such as Dancing Moms, where it's not a healthy environment for the kids.
“So in a sense I think the overall look of a competitive Irish dancer these days gives negative PR to the industry. Where in actual fact when you are closely involved, the discipline, family support, friendships and overall life lessons to be learned make it a very well-balanced, happy place to grow up in. And this is sad as the athleticism and skill level of today’s competitive Irish dancers is unreal – so perhaps what is needed is a look that reflects this.”
Make-up and fake tan have been very controversial for years, but it's a parent's choice, and there are dance organisations available to those that don't approve
But Caitrin Cooke from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, says the costumes are both necessary and uplifting for competitors. Her daughter Cora (11) has been dancing since she was four: “In my opinion the wig is a huge advantage,” says Cooke. “It saves so much time before a competition because it’s so easy to clip on and she gets a good sleep because, as a previous dancer myself, I know how hard it is to try and sleep with a full head of rollers.
“Make-up and fake tan have been very controversial for years, but it’s a parent’s choice, and there are dance organisations available to those that don’t approve.”
In CLRG, the organisation her daughter Cora dances for, make-up is worn from under 11 upwards. “As with any performance taking place under strong lighting, it’s common to wear make-up and I feel the Irish dance industry receives a lot of negative press with regards their image, even though other performing arts all have similar standards with regards to make-up and tanning products. There will always be people that don’t agree but in my opinion if it doesn’t affect you or your life, then why let it bother you?”
Cost of outfits
Cooke, who runs Munster Irish Dancers, which sells second-hand costumes, says the biggest problem is the cost of the outfits, which can run to thousands of euro.
“A costume suitable for the World Championships can cost €2,000 [including a matching hair accessory],” she says. “I’ve always purchased a new costume right from the start and made that investment when my daughter was six and her first costume cost €1,000. Now at age 11 her costumes cost a bit more, as it’s for the World Championship stage.
“But the costumes I sell range from €100-€1,700 and as more and more dancers are replacing them after only a few months, this has increased the value of the second-hand market so negotiating a price is much more favourable as the buyer has a huge amount to choose from.”
Angela Hogan, chairwoman of the CLRG Costume Committee says while expensive dresses and elaborate wigs all add to the performance, dancers will not be judged on their attire. “Costumes enhance a performance but the actual individual dress is not judged, just the overall performance, which would include how it is presented,” she says. “Many great dancers have won titles with very plain dresses.
“We have rules in place for our young dancers from beginner to intermediate level to only wear more traditional class costumes and of course no make-up under the age of 10. But I don’t know of any form of dance that doesn’t wear make-up so the person is not lost on a large stage with bright lights – and tanning of the body is also used in gymnastics and ballroom dancing. But overall your performance for the day is how you advance.”
Áine O’Connell does not agree and says there is an “unspoken rule” that if your child doesn’t conform to the norm, they will not reach the top grade, regardless of their dancing skills.
“I know officially everyone says you don’t have to wear wigs and make-up, but I truly believe that without it, the girls won’t be taken seriously in competitions,” she says. “I know some amazing dancers who don’t wear full-make up and have their hair up in a natural bun and they always seem to lose out to girls who are kitted out in really expensive dresses and frankly, quite ridiculous make-up and wigs.”