Irish dancing began as a traditional form of dance in the 18th Century, as a way to celebrate and promote Irish nationalism.
Most people recognise Irish dancing by its unique technique. Stiff arms pinned to the torso and rapid foot movements in a bouncy, jig style. Legend has it that this strange style developed because the dance was customarily performed on top of barrels and tabletops.
Today, Irish dancing now is a glamorous global affair, with a ripe following in countries like the US, South Africa, and Australia. ‘90s dance shows such as ‘Lord of the Dance’ and ‘Riverdance’ catapulted the genre onto the global stage, sparking an international frenzy of furiously fast feet.
Most Fridays from ages seven to eleven, I arrived at primary school with fake tanned legs and my hair in rollers, in anticipation of a Saturday Feis. Years later, I started to ponder how the traditional dance, native to my father’s place of birth, evolved into a glitzy competition.
Secretary of the Australian Irish Dancing Association (AIDA), Ciara Podesta, told me that makeup, wigs, fake tans and elaborate dresses only gained popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s, coinciding with increased global interest in Irish dancing.
Podesta grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where both her mother and grandmother were Irish dancers. “There was a lot of conflict in Northern Ireland,” Podesta said, “so Irish dancing was something that we did…sort of in defiance.”
The current Irish dancing industry is structured around competitions, or ‘Feiseanna,’ which are highly expensive affairs.
Former Irish dancing dressmaker, Ina Ogilvie, said dancers would have a new dress made every one to two years, “depending on how spoilt the child was and how competitive the parents were.” When she stopped making Irish dancing dresses about five years ago, Ogilvie said the costumes then would put dancers back approximately $1500-$2000. They currently cost between $2500-$3000.
As a dressmaker, Ogilvie had to work within AIDA’s presentation standards, which attempt to preserve the modesty of young dancers. The standards dictate that dresses must be no shorter than 10cm above the knee, with full-length sleeves to the thumb knuckle. Ogilvie said, however, that despite the guidelines, they were largely ignored at competitions with “no visible consequences that I knew or heard of.”
“Some judges will pull the child up, but funnily enough most of the big dressmakers are actually teachers and adjudicators, and they’re the ones… making them short,” Podesta said. “Adjudicators like to see the kids legs.”
In addition to the cost of costuming, competing dancers and their families are expected to fork out thousands for travel expenses to attend Feisanna both nationally and internationally. “When my kids were young, the goal was to do well at the Nationals, now most students are focused on overseas…they want to win the Worlds,” Podesta said.
The globalisation of this traditional dance has undeniably changed the face of Irish dancing forever, repackaging it into a palatable form for international consumption.
Dr Guy Redden from USyd’s Department of Gender and Cultural Studies argues that commodification of cultural traditions is not uncommon.
Dr Redden said that while this practice can be positive because, “it maintains performances of traditions that might otherwise die out in the modern world,” it ultimately dilutes the original significance of the tradition. “Many people today engage with cultural traditions as consumers who pay money for an experience,” said Dr Redden.
In my experience, Irish dancing is extremely powerful and exciting, regardless of the superfluous costuming and customs that have become a part of the art. With any luck, future years will herald a renewed focus on the beauty of the form, and a shift away from the unnecessary extras.