Tale of two titles as Irish dancing does the splits


Dance and dazzle go together at one of two world dancing events in Ireland this week

“IT’S THE Olympics of Irish dancing,” is what everyone is saying in Belfast this week, where the 42nd World Irish Dancing Championships are taking place. They’re very possibly saying the same in Dublin, where the World Irish Dance Championships are also running all week.

Confused? Welcome to the politicised world of Irish dancing.

“We are the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, the Coimisiún,” explains chairman Terry Gillan.

“The Dublin event is being organised by the Comhdháil. The Comhdháil was set up by a group of teachers who were part of this commission and who split away years ago to form their own organisation, with different rules.

“Those competitions are primarily for Irish and British dancers, whereas we have competitors from the US, Canada and Australia.

“Their competition used to be called ‘the All Irelands’. This is the first year they’ve called themselves ‘the Worlds’. We don’t really interact with them. This is a much bigger event.”

There are some 4,300 competitors in Belfast, and there are so many acrylic ringlet wigs in evidence the static could power a small rocket. The girls wear custom-made dresses that Sydney dance teacher Genevieve Carroll describes as “mini chandeliers”. These cost €1,000-€4,000.

There isn’t a single dress without an armour of diamante stones, and the colours are so bright – electric pink, lime, purple, orange or turquoise – that to look too long at the stage is to get the sensation your eyes are slowly being gouged out.

The most noticeable costume in St George’s Market yesterday was worn by Codie Shiels, who was competing in the girls under-16 category. Her hot-pink dress is partially composed of feathers, and the back depicts a flamingo sitting on a globe, to emphasise that this is a world championship.

“We’re not from Florida. We’re from Derry,” says Shauna Shiels, Codie’s mother. “Her dance teacher decided she needed a new look. You have to make an impression on the stage. Dresses shouldn’t be important, but they’re important to the child. The child goes up there feeling better in a new dress. And a different kind of dress can get you noticed.”

Standing backstage, waiting to dance for the third time that day in the girls 12-13 category, Mary Kate Guinan from Chicago gestures to her glittering orange and white dress. “This is my third orange dress,” she says. “It’s a more mature replica of the ones I had before.”

It’s not just the girls who have to make an impression on stage. The boys all wear embroidered waistcoats of the same bright colours, which sparkle with glued-on rhinestones. They look like a cross between Mexican mariachi singers and ice-skaters at the Winter Olympics.

When you take away the wigs, tiaras, the make-up, fake-tanned legs, bejewelled socks and shoe buckles, the extraordinary dresses and waistcoats, though, it’s all about the dancing.

“The judges look for four things,” explains London-based dance teacher Lisa Delaney, who has three students competing at Belfast. “Timing. Posture. Footwork. And execution. The best dancers make it look effortless. To get here, you have to be among the best.”

The girls’ competitions have much bigger numbers competing than the boys. There are 169 listed competitors alone for the girls 12-13 category. They all dance twice with other competitors, and about a third get called back to dance solo, which is effectively their show dance. From this final third, the winners are chosen.

The marking system here makes even the Eurovision Song Contest look simple. There are seven judges for the girls 12-13 category, and spreadsheets of their marks for each of the 50 or so final-round competitors are projected on to a screen, one by one.

In the Waterfront auditorium, hundreds of phone screens blink as parents, teachers and competitors do the maths. Total scores range from 180 to 700.

As it turns out, two dancers each receive 700 points and are named joint champions.

They are Cyra Taylor from Derry and Melanie Valdes from New York.

How does Valdes feel about coming joint-first? “You mean, what does it feel like to win?” she corrects me. “I won. And winning is possibly the most amazing feeling you could ever have.”

View the gallery of images at irishtimes.com