Irish Dance Picks Up the Pace

By Carr, Darrah | Dance Magazine, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Irish Dance Picks Up the Pace


Carr, Darrah, Dance Magazine


STEPS GET FASTER, COSTUMES GET FANCIER AS COMPETITION HEATS UP

Last month, Darrah Carr described the intense competition circuit of Irish dancing that produces highly trained performers and is an important force in the evolution of its intricate steps. Winners of the Oireachtas--regional competitions held nationwide--maintain heavy practice schedules and face increased pressure as returning champions, due to the higher standards for competition that have developed in the last five to ten years. While some observers have postulated that Broadway shows featuring Irish dance have challenged existing standards of technical proficiency, others claim that the artistry was already there; the difference is in Irish dance's newfound exposure and accessibility.

At the 2000 Eastern Regional Oireachtas in Philadelphia last November, many dancers, teachers and adjudicators maintained that the steps done by an individual competitor are more complex than those done by the line of dancers in Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. One reason for this is that dancers in a show must execute steps in perfect unison, hence the sequences are more repetitive. The powerful effect of unison movement and the speed with which show steps are performed makes the choreography visually exciting to the audience. Mary Lou Schade, the founder of the Schade Academy in New York, explains, "Audiences appreciate faster feet. Even when we do school performances, we speed up the music. In Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, the music is very fast, so it makes the steps look very difficult. In competitive dancing, on the other hand, there are regulated tempi. For example, the hornpipe must be danced between 112 and 116 [beats per minute]. At that speed, you can fit more intricate material into a bar of music."

Thus, in competitive dancing, tempi stay the same while the material escalates in difficulty. Karen Petri, co-founder of the New York-based Petri School, describes this tendency as "an inevitable competitive evolution," and explains, "If you look back in time, you can trace the escalation of the technique. Fifty to seventy-five years ago, they used to dance low to the floor, and they didn't stand as stiffly, either." Mary Kay Henegan, founder of the Rince Na Tiarna School of Irish Dance in Buffalo, New York (whose team dancers won an amazing thirteen first places, two second places and one third place in the sixteen competitions they entered), also attributes this noticeable escalation to the nature of competition in general. "Once you make dance competitive, you have to consider what to do to make your dancer stand out," Henegan said. "There is the sense of keeping up with the Joneses, which applies to both the increase in technical difficulty of the steps as well as the increasingly elaborate costumes."

Fifteen-year-old Meghan Reilly, a five-time Oireachtas winner from the Peter Smith School in New Jersey, echoes Henegan's sentiments and notes the parallels between step development and costume design. She remarks, "The demand of winning pushes teachers to think of something new, so the steps are constantly evolving. It's the same thing with the costumes. You never would have seen a fluorescent-yellow dress before. Everything has become more eye-catching." Theresa Wall, a 21-year-old dancer from the New York-based Verlin School who has won the Oireachtas six times, agrees: "Times change; things become more modern and more elaborate. Before, my mom would've just made my costume!" (Dancers who win in their age category typically speak of "winning the Oireachtas," though they haven't won the whole event.)

As the pressure and the practice hours have increased, costumes have become ever more elaborate--and expensive. A female costume replete with embroidered Celtic designs can cost up to $1,500, while a pair of hard shoes costs over $100. Furthermore, beyond the regional Oireachtas there exists an entire international competition circuit that attracts many of these champion dancers. …

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