World of dance: 'You have to get noticed'


The official line is that the dancing is of paramount importance at the 42nd World Irish Dancing Championships, in Belfast – but, as ROSITA BOLANDdiscovers, if your dress, wig and tiara don’t get the attention of the judges, neither will you

IRISH DANCING competitions are not about subtlety. For all the protests that what really matters is the skill of the dancers, it’s difficult not to conclude that image plays an ever-more important role.

The 42nd World Irish Dancing Championships have been taking place this week in Belfast, run by the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, or An Coimisiún. The 4,300 dancers are competing at two venues: the Waterfront centre and St George’s Market. With thousands of competitors listed, the programme is the size of an old telephone directory.

There are also pages of rules. One of them reads: “Any competitor found to be using artificial carriage aids and subsequently refuses to remove same, will be subject to disqualification from that particular competition. Medically prescribed apparatus will be exempt from this ruling.”

What, I wondered, is an “artificial carriage aid”? A stacked heel, all the better to hammer the floor with? No. “It’s when you put rods down your sleeves to stop your arms moving,” explains James Politeski, who has travelled from Ontario with his wife and two daughters, one of whom, Emily, is competing. “You’re not meant to move the top of your body. The carriage of your torso has to be straight and you can’t move your arms.”

“You can’t wear a girdle to keep yourself straight. Or put Velcro down your sleeves. Or wear a pole down your back,” adds Emily. Apparently, competitors have done all of these subversive things in the past.

Competition days are long, with all dancers dancing two rounds. A third of each category then get a callback for a solo dance. Results and awards ceremonies go on until 11pm, with placements and appearance on stage going all the way to 25 and beyond. “My daughter just got placed 12th in the world!” one man shouts late on Monday night down a mobile phone as the results are projected onscreen.

There is no rule to say that female competitors must wear wigs, but every girl I see has one. They come in red, black and blond and the number of ringlets would make Shirley Temple appear bald by comparison. Why the wigs? To an outsider’s eye, they remove individuality from competitors and add another layer of artificiality, along with fake-tanned legs and heavy regulation make-up.

Apparently the rise of the wigs is entirely the responsibility of the Irish people. Competitors believe they are just trying to be true to Irish female hair – which was decided, at some point in Irish-dancing history, to be long and curly. And competitors and their mothers seem to adore them.

“I know why we wear wigs,” says Megan Politeski confidently. She is Emily’s older sister and a former dancer and wearer of wigs herself. “It’s because the tradition in Ireland was for women to curl their hair before they went to Mass. After Mass, they’d go home and start dancing.”

At some point, although there were never any rules, it became the norm for girls – or more usually, their mothers – to curl their hair before competing. This was time-consuming. “We love the wigs,” says Megan Howard from Ohio, mother of competitor Brooke. “They are so easy. On. Off. No curling. We’re conforming to what we think is Irish tradition, and it’s an inexpensive means to an end.” The wigs cost between €70 and €100, and most girls buy two a year.

Female competitors also now wear fake tan and huge tiaras over their wigs. As for the now de-rigueur astonishing dresses that look more like jewellery counters than items of clothing, they are a touchy subject. They’re so touchy that one of the organisers interrupts as I’m talking to a dancer backstage. I receive a loud and lengthy lecture about what he sees as a disgraceful media obsession with the dresses. The 20 or so dancers around us stare at the floor, mortified.

But it’s impossible to ignore something that has been designed to be noticed. The dresses, which cost up to €4,000, are often one of a kind, in styles that change from year to year. What they all have in common, however, are sparkling stones. The more your dress glitters, the more it will have cost. “There can never be enough crystals,” one young girl says.

“I wish I could say the dresses don’t matter, but I don’t believe that,” says Janet Heidental from Ohio, who has a daughter competing. “You have to get noticed on stage. You have to stick out at this level of competition.”

“First impressions are really important to the judges,” James Politeski says. “It’s a chance to stand out while you’re waiting there on stage as the opening bars of music play. The judges’ eyes will catch on the most ebullient dress.”

“The venues have got bigger, and when you go on stage, you have to stand out,” says Francis Ward, a dance teacher who is based in Limerick. “Dresses are only as dear as parents want them to be.”

“You’re not just doing Irish dancing any more, you’re giving a performance,” says Genevieve Carroll, a dance teacher from Sydney. She wryly describes the modern dresses as mini chandeliers. Carroll tells a story of an exceptionally talented dancer she had some years ago, whom she sent to competitions in traditional old embroidered velvet dresses. The dancer won nothing.

“One day, I borrowed one of the bling dresses for her, and she won. Suddenly everyone was talking about her, and asking where she had come from. She had been competing for three years, unnoticed, before this. So, yes, the dresses matter.”

As at every large event, there are accompanying stalls, selling a range of merchandise. “Getting girls ready to compete on stage is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together,” stallholder Carl King from Crossgar, Co Down, says. His most popular seller this week has been “hair shapers that go under wigs for more volume” and €55 tiaras. “Bling always sells.”

Melaine Murphy, who brought her stall from Leeds, has been in the business for 20 years. Wigs have been her big seller. “They should last a year, but you need to spray them with conditioning spray to keep them soft and natural.”

In two decades, Murphy has seen big changes in Irish-dancing competitions. “The costumes are off the wall now,” she says, rolling her eyes. “They’re very expensive. But what’s cost to a parent if Irish dancing is going to keep your child off the streets? Dresses are expensive, but how expensive is it going to be for the parent if you have to put your child through rehab at 18 because she’s ended up on the streets? You have to look at it that way.”