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How to Break Into the Irish Dance Underground

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If you or a little son or daughter of yours has just watched Riverdance and become completely inspired to join that magical toe-tapping world of straight arms and red hair, but you don’t know how to pronounce “Oireachtas” or how to tell the difference between a solo dress and a team dress, then fear not. Here is your preamble to joining the insanity that is the world of Irish Step Dancing. And yes, it is insanity—but more on that later.

First, let’s get down a few basics. There are two main types of dancing: figures and solos. Figures is a team dance, ranging anywhere from a two-hand (which is actually four hands and two people) to a sixteen-hand (again, sixteen people). Usually four-hands and eight-hands enter competitions.

Solos are split up into softshoe and hardshoe. Hardshoe is what most people picture when thinking of Irish Step: big, clunky black shoes with taps on the toes and an enormous chunk of metal on the heel. This is the loud dancing. Softshoe is danced in either gillies for girls (much like ballet slippers) or jazz shoes for guys. The styles are fairly similar, though hardshoe dances do more rhythmic moves and general banging. If you’re competing in solos, you dance one dance from both: either a softshoe reel and a hardshoe hornpipe or a softshoe slip jig and a hardshoe treble jig. If I go too much farther into what those are, I’ll be stealing your teacher’s money.

Competition is done on a few different levels. The most common is the feis, the local competition. The next level up is the regional Oireachtas (pronounced like “Oh rock Tuscany!” without the “cany”). Anyone can enter these, though often you need your school’s permission for the Oireachtas. The Oireachtas qualifies you to go to Nationals, which in turn qualifies you for the All-Irelands and the Worlds. Non-Irish folks do compete in the All-Irelands, and oftentimes folks from Ireland will fly over to America to compete in the Nationals. I really don’t have much of an answer for why, other than it’s a great excuse to go overseas. The Worlds are usually held somewhere in either Ireland or Northern Ireland, though they can also be in America or Great Britain.

To start getting involved, you’ll first need to find yourself a studio. If you haven’t been peering in the windows of one in the center of town already, then I would suggest going to either feisworx.com/school_list.php or irishdancingdirectory.com to find one near you. Make sure you get in contact with the head of the school to find out how they approach teaching. Most schools will focus almost entirely on competition, and some will narrow that to a specific focus on teams or solo competition.

If you want to compete, be prepared. It’s a huge time commitment and lots of preparation is involved. If you don’t want to compete, there is still fun to be had! It’s even possible to function as a noncompeting class-taker in a competing school (though you’ll have to walk the balance between smirking at the extra practices assigned to your classmates and groaning at the exercises imposed on your class for their competitive mistakes).

Irish dance competition is very intense, especially for the younger ages, and especially for girls. Picture searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but while wearing a leotard with blisters on your feet and your hands tied to a ruler behind your back. Obviously, most schools are not as concentration camp-like as that sounds (though there are a few), but you will still be drilled and drilled by that Irish working spirit. And there will be hundreds of people at the feises who have had the same done to them.

You will also have to come up with the costume, which can be quite expensive. Girls wear heavy, embroidered dresses that must be specifically ordered from a dressmaker (personalized for solos and coordinated for figures), and either curled hair or a wig, and boys wear dress pants and shirts with ties.

Not all competition, though, is negative. It’s quite possible to excel if you work hard, and competitions are split up into age and ability levels so that no one is ever out of their range. You can compete in either figures or solos, and the gratifications comes either as a medal from your local feis or a trophy from the Worlds competition.

If you decide to compete intensely and you end up going to the bigger competitions, you not only have a chance to travel, but also to bond with other dancers from your school who are going to the same competition. As any good college counselor will tell you, shared experiences abroad are some of the best things in life.

Now for the all-important question: what if you’re not Irish? Again, fear not! There’s no escaping the fact that you’ll be in the minority, but a little red hair dye and the official addition of an “O” or “Mc” in front of your last name should do the trick! Really, you’ll just have the chance to explore (and maybe even laugh at the quirkiness of!) another culture. You’ll be surprised at how serious things like St. Patrick’s Day become, but on the whole you’ll just be one of the dancers if you are willing to put in the work.

Just don’t show up to class on your first day covered in Lucky Charms.

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About Jen Herrmann