I know through my previous posts I kept talking about this “competition” thing, but I wanted to keep you on your toes (pun intended). The competitive world of Irish dancing is one that I walked into two years ago not knowing what to expect at all and unsure of what I had gotten myself into.
My very first competition was June of 2011 at the Old Dominion Feis in Fairfax, VA. There were at least a thousand dancers and their families packed into this high school gym, with Irish music playing, stages all around, judges sitting patiently; my first thought was chaos. Being an older dancer, and just starting to compete it was really intimidating when most of the girls my age at the time had been dancing since they were five.
However, I did not give up and I pushed through with confidence knowing that I wanted to excel in dancing no matter what it took. I ended up placing out of my division that very day, and the rest is history. Competitive Irish dancing allows a dancer to strive for a goal, in most cases becoming a World Champion, and allows a dancer to grow both physically and mentally in his or her dancing. I know that since I started to compete I have grown tremendously as a dancer, and I think it is a great opportunity for a dancer even if they try it one time.
How does it work?
In order to compete at a competition, a dancer must register by mail or online through the many different websites created and pay the required fees. Usually there is an entry fee, somewhere between $10 and $20, and then each competition you enter has its own fee as well. Each section of Irish dance has its own competition, including Reel, Slip Jig, Treble Jig, Hornpipe, Treble Reel, Traditional Set, and then ceilis or figures. These are farther broken down by age and level that increase in difficulty as a dancer moves on.
Each dancer is assigned a number (usually ordered by last name) that they pick up the day of the feis and wear it while they compete. This allows for the judge to distinguish between dancers while allowing for a level playing field among the dancers.
As I mentioned before the competition is broken into sections. First by level: Beginner, Advanced Beginner, Novice, Prizewinner, Preliminary Championship, and then Open Championship. In order to move up in a level a dancer must earn a certain placement (first, second, third, etc) with the confidence that he or she can succeed in the upper level. These levels are then broken down by age, usually by two year increments, until you reach 15, then it usually will turn into a 15 & over, unless there are enough registered dancers for more age brackets.
Beginner: A dancer who has either not yet competed, or received a first, second, or third in this level
Advanced Beginner: A dancer who has received a first, second, or third in the beginner category
Novice: A dancer who has received a first, second, or third in the Advanced Beginner category
Prizewinner: A dancer who has received first place in the Novice category
Preliminary Championship: A dancer who has received first place in both light shoe and hard shoe dances in the Prizewinner level
Open Championship: A dancer who has received two first place wins in all offered dances
Each group of dancers will line up on one side of the stage, shoulder to shoulder, in front of an adjudicator who will write down the numbers of each dancer. Two to three dancers (depending on the size of the stage) will then step forward and wait for the music. Music at Irish dance competitions is always live, with a musician playing either a violin or accordion.
Once the tempo begins the dancers will dance two steps. As the first dancers reach the final half of their second step (the left foot) the next two dancers will get ready to perform, and the pattern continues until every dancer has danced. Once all dancers have gone, the judge will nod or ring a bell, all will bow and then exit the stage. This set up is different for those in Preliminary and Open championship, as they have a panel of three judges, but it basically runs the same way. A great resource for a more detailed look at things is the North American Feis Commission‘s website. They give you a break down of what rules are established and how a dancer must perform.
One important thing to point out about Irish dance competition is that every dancer has different steps. Although many dances may have the same movements, each dancer gets to do his or her own thing, that can make it difficult for the little ones just starting out, but allows dancers to be unique. Due to this, photography and video taping at Irish competitions is strictly forbidden due to the fact that other dance schools will “steal steps”. Recently, this has not been that big of an issue, but it is still forbidden all the same. To see tips on how to impress a judge visit World Irish Dancer.
The nail biting moment is when you are sitting there anxiously awaiting the results of the competition. I personally do not look until I have completed all of my dances for that day, just in case, but no matter what the outcome I am always proud that I got out there and did my best. The judge scores dancers based on their technique, style, and overall appearance. If your toes were pointed, legs were straight, arms were tight, and you held a smile, chances are you placed very high.
The greatest moment of a young dancer’s life is seeing their number listed on that sheet of paper. Preliminary and Open Champions awards are conducted at a podium where each dancer is called by name to receive their award. Awards can be medals, trophies, sashes, or even cups, depending on the feis, but no matter what you do or do not receive, every dancer should be proud of themselves for getting out there and doing their thing!
Oireachtas (Pronounced Orocktus), Nationals and Worlds
These competitions are run a little differently as they include a larger area of dancers and much fiercer competition.
Oireachtas: This is a regional competition that is broken up by state in the United States including: Mid-America, Mid-Atlantic, New England, Southern, and Western, each with their own annual competition that varies in location. The number of dancers in each level increases tremendously compared to that of a local feis, usually in the hundreds, and a dancer must place high enough in order to qualify for nationals or worlds. A dancer at Oireachtas will dance one soft shoe, one hard shoe, and then a traditional set piece, in the same fashion as a local feis. These scores are complied, and the top dancers in each category (depending on the number of dancers) will either qualify for nationals or worlds.
Nationals: Nationals run the same way as Oireachtas, and the highest placed dancers in each category will move on to the World Competition.
Worlds: Worlds is the ultimate goal for an Irish dancer. Dancers from all over the world will meet once a year for a chance at the title of World Champion. The competition is run similar to that of Oireachtas and Nationals, except the stakes are much higher. There can be upwards of 400 dancers in your category, and you must show the judges that you are the best. A world champion dancer has poise, grace, and elegance on the stage, does not make one mistake, and holds that trophy up high. This past year they were held in Boston, Massachusetts, but they can be held anywher from Ireland to Australia! With motivation and A LOT of practice, every dancer can get there.
Beginner Photo Courtesy of Dailey Edge
Judge Photo Courtesy of Irish Dance Tumbler
Oireachtas, National, and World Photos Courtesy of Irish Central