Bringing the Oireachtas to the Rock

Victoria hosts Irish dance championships

Graphics by Austin Willis, Design Director

For the first time in its 43 years, the Western Canadian Regional Oireachtas (pronounced uh-ROCK-tus) was held on Vancouver Island. Six hundred dancers (representing 24 dance schools) flocked to the island from across BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba to compete in the Irish dance championships. These dancers were aged anywhere from “U8” (though some dancers were as young as five or six) to “Seniors” (22 and older). Some dancers qualified for the adult category (meaning they started competing as adults with no prior training) and were much older.

In the Western Canadian region, there are just under a dozen regularly held larger “feiseanna” (the plural form of “feis,” the name for an Irish dance competition) —seven of which are held in Alberta (not including the rotating Oireachtas), one in Saskatchewan, and one more Vancouver. Vancouver Island dance schools will occasionally host their own feiseanna, but they are not annual affairs.

So what does this mean for Vancouver Island dancers?

If they want to advance to higher levels and qualify for “majors” (such as the North American or World Championships), dancers have to travel to a different province to compete.

Often, this means that the only dancers representing a school in a competition are both older and more advanced. Newer dancers may not be able to commit the time and money necessary to travel to neighbouring provinces to compete or support the dancers from their communities.

Siobhan McGoldrick has been dancing for 20 years—almost her entire life. The 2017 Western Canadian Regional competition was her ninth Oireachtas, but the first on her home turf.

“It’s never been on the Island — so it’s a big deal for dancers here,” she says, smiling.

McGoldrick’s excitement is shared by all members of the Vancouver Island Irish dance community, be it from the dancers, parents, or teachers.

“I think it’s very significant,” echoes Alison Paladini, the Chairperson of the Oireachtas Committee. “I think it’s really good for the kids on Vancouver Island to see what we call a ‘major dance competition.’ People are coming from all over and the calibre of dancing is exemplary. It’s going to be amazing for the younger dancers and the newer dancers to see.”

Unlike other types of dance, Irish dance is split into two vastly different styles. They’re both considered Irish dance, but they differ in almost every other way.

“Hard shoe” dances are similar in many ways to tap dancing — dancers tap and drum out rhythms and beats to accompanying music. “Soft shoe,” on the other hand, is more balletic; dancers jump and spin with pointed toes. Regardless of the style, however, two things are constant: straight arms and turned out feet.

While dancers may perform hard shoe numbers in groups as part of performances or shows, hard shoe competitions are always done solo. Soft shoe competitions, however, can be either solo or team dances. These teams dances are more traditional than solos, which showcase athleticism and personal style. Two-hand, four-hand, six-hand, and eight-hand “figures” (group dances featuring two, four, six, and eight dancers, respectively) may vary school to school, but will be rooted in the same core movements and patterns.

As is to be expected, the world of Irish dance is split down the middle when it comes to the hard shoe vs. soft shoe debate.

“I wish I could do it all in soft shoe,” laughs Emily Lytle, a third-year geography and environmental studies student at UVic. Lytle has been dancing for 15 years, and this November marked her 12th Oireachtas.

“Growing up, I got the gnarliest blisters from my hard shoes and I would just /hate/ putting those shoes on every single time,” Lytle says. “I feel like I have more energy [dancing soft shoe]—I just feel happier.”

McGoldrick, a TA in UVic’s school of Earth and ocean sciences, firmly (but politely) disagrees.

“I prefer the rhythm in hard shoe,” she says. “I’m not the most flexible, nor do I have a beautiful point, so anything that’s beautiful and graceful in soft shoe, I struggle with. So if it’s hard shoe and rhythm-y and you don’t have to jump as much, that’s great for me.

“Everyone’s got their strengths and the music they prefer—even though there’s not a great emotional connection to Irish dance music. It’s the accordion,” she laughs. “But some people just really prefer the rhythm or the speed of a certain song. They like those steps better, or they’re stronger with rhythms, or they’re stronger with jumps and things that are more balletic. It’s really down to personal preference.”

Aside from the obvious benefits of physical exercise, Irish dance often has a positive impact in other areas of a dancer’s life.

“Well I think one thing Irish dancing brings is structure,” muses Oireachtas chairperson Paladini. “And it’s really good for their self esteem and confidence. It’s a positive environment — so in terms of structure, what I mean is that we have regular classes, there’s a fair amount of commitment, and you have to practice. There’s accountability, and every student needs to be accountable for whether they’ve practiced or not.”

Paladini, who teaches with the Victoria Irish Dancers, adds that dance schools foster a family atmosphere. Dance parents who live near UVic, for example, will happily offer rides to dancers living in residence, she says.

“Everybody knows who everybody is — we take care of each other,” she says. “And you know, it’s just that family environment that you don’t have when you’re a university student, because you’re away from your family. So we try to include them and make them feel welcome in what is probably a new town to them.”

Another key way in which Irish dance differs from other styles is the costuming. The dresses worn in solo female competitions are masterpieces — each different than any other but equally and gloriously bedazzled. They often incorporate traditional Celtic designs, such as Celtic knots or claddaghs, as well as the occasional nature-inspired motif (such as flames, birds, or flowers).

Used dresses range between $300 and $2 500, depending on the size, style, designer, and number of Swarovski crystals. Adult dancers spend at least $600 or $700 on a used dress, and much more on something new and custom-designed. (Many dancers laugh that their solo dresses will cost more than their wedding dresses.)

But the dress is just the beginning. Those familiar with Irish dance will recognize the other costume pieces necessary: socks, two types of shoe (hard and soft), and a curly wig.

The cost of competing is nothing to scoff at. Female dancers competing in both team and solo competitions will often need two different wigs, and will pay to rent school dresses for team competitions and shows. Many dancers also have separate pairs of shoes for practice and competition. Additional costs include spray tans, makeup, garment bags, headbands or crowns, and buckles for their hard shoes (and, of course, the cost of the classes themselves and extra gym memberships).

The costuming for male dancers is much simpler: black pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a brightly designed (and sometimes sequined) vest. They do not wear wigs and are not expected to spray tan, though they too require two different styles of shoe.

All competing dancers must also take into consideration registration fees, hotel fees, and paying for the ferries and/or planes to get to competitions.

The cherry on top? Unlike other championship-level sports, there is no prize money associated with Irish dancing. Even world-title-holding dancers can’t offset competition costs with a nice little bit of prize money.

That said, dancers who place at or win the world championships come home with an enduring reputation and many are scouted for famous shows such as /Riverdance/ or /Lord of the Dance/. Many more will on to become choreographers, judges, or teachers.

Given that university students are already shouldering the burden of tuition and school fees, McGoldrick is hardly surprised that far fewer dancers continue to compete after graduating from high school.

“The number of people who are actually competing after high school drops /substantially/  — it probably cuts in half — because people just can’t afford to do it any longer,” she says.

If a dancer’s parents are either unwilling or unable to support a dancer’s competitive career, it becomes unmanageable for many dancers.

“Most university students aren’t taking trips that require hotel stays in the middle of the term, McGoldrick says, citing the numerous additional costs facing Irish dancers. “So unfortunately, that really narrows down the group of people that are able to compete. And that’s a shame.

“There’s not really any financial support, either — there’s one scholarship that’s put out by the North American Irish Dance Teacher’s Association. And to be fair, they do give out probably 20 scholarships a year, the largest is $2 000 and the smallest is, I think, $500 to students pursuing postsecondary schooling.”

Cost is by no means the only challenge facing dancers who are also attending university. In preparing for the Oireachtas, McGoldrick was spending more time than she had at the studio: she attended four practices per week (one and a half to two hours long), and on her own time incorporated exercises to prevent injuries and stretching to enhance flexibility. Some dancers will incorporate track sessions or other forms of cross-training into their schedules, she says.

McGoldrick has competed at the North American championships for both teams and solos. She did qualify for the championships again while attending university, but did not have the time or money to devote to training and travelling.

“I think the biggest [challenge] for each dancer is reevaluating goals and expectations,” says McGoldrick. “Because once you finish high school, everybody’s circumstances that change so much. And there are some people who are choosing to really commit and train for dance, and that’s most of what they’re doing—and they’re able to do that financially, or do that and work part-time, or to live at home, and they’re making that a priority.

“So they’re training /extensively/ for this one thing. And then there are others that are at school full-time, or need to work full-time to afford to dance. So at some point, you have to realistically go through “who am I competing against?” she says.

“If they’re training four hours everyday and I’m going to class two times a week, let’s maybe reevaluate what I’m trying to do here. And that change of expectations, I think, is a challenge. Because at some stage, if you’re really trying to be super competitive, it’s hard to beat someone that’s training four hours a day when you really can’t. All the talent in the world can’t beat that hard work.”

When she was in high school, Lytle would attend three or four dance classes a week, and compete on a near-monthly basis. Since beginning university, she says, that number has all but dropped off, and before the Oireachtas, she hadn’t competed in a couple of years.

“When I started off [at UVic], I was like “Okay, I can probably do two or three classes. That will be fine’,” Lytle says. “Because in first year, I wanted to keep it up — pretty much the same way I was competing coming out of high school.”

Lytle quickly realized that two or three classes each week was not manageable along with her university course load.

“Even one sometimes was pushing it,” she says. “But it was so nice to have something— especially in first year—to get me off campus, out of that bubble of res, and doing something that I was so comfortable in and knew. I was so lucky that I knew all of the girls already at dance—it was kind of like a little family I was going back to. They would always help me with school problems and everything and adjusting to moving over here.”

That all said, Lytle urges dancers not to give up simply because they’re busy.

“It’s definitely a possibility—you just have to work for it. And you have to want it,” Lytle says. “If you’re not super into it, you’re not going to want to go to class. Especially bussing from campus if you don’t have a car—it takes a good five hours out of my day to go to dance.”

While Lytle says she could be using this time to study, she has learned to look at it from a different perspective. Dance class is not only exercise, but an excuse to catch up with her friends.

Beyond that, she says, it’s all about time management and realistic expectations.

“I wasn’t great at that going into first year,” she laughs. “But I realized I /can/ make time for this if I use my time wisely — you have to know what you want and what your priorities are. If you do really want to keep up dance or start dance again while doing a full course load, there’s going to have to be compromises in things. I quickly realized that I’m not going to be where I was before, and things are totally different.”

While Lytle and McGoldrick are preparing to step away from major feiseanna — this was likely the last Oireachtas for both of them — Paladini, however, is just getting started.

“I’ve never done anything as big as this before,” Paladini says. While she herself brought home a number of consecutive Oireachtas wins (“at least eight, I think,” she laughs), organizing the event was a different beast entirely.

Victoria’s Oireachtas was a year in the making; from submitting a proposal to host the event to booking the Victoria Conference Centre and liaising with hotels. Just bringing the dancers into town, says Paladini, has taken endless volunteer hours on the part of Paladini and her cohort of volunteers.

Paladini, however, is ready to do it all again.

“I’m the co-Chair for the North American Irish Dance Championships and they are coming to Vancouver in 2019,” she says. “And that will be thousands of dancers.

“It’s about time [it came to the West Coast]. And we’re excited to bring it here. Even though it’s hard work, you do it for the love of the dance.”

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