Blood, sweat and tears: the unseen side of Irish dancing

Irish dancing is not only part of our culture but is a worldwide competitive sport, as Clodagh Moriarty explains.

Jigs and reels might be the first thing you think of when it comes to Irish dancing but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. The scale of Irish Dancing Championship competitions ‒ and the commitment required ‒ is not understood by people who do not have insider knowledge about the dance form. It’s not just a hobby, but a lifestyle.

Many begin their training as an Irish dancer at the young age of three or four. At such a young age, these dancers develop a passion for Irish dance that matures with them. This passion, for many, develops into a career in their later life.


Humble beginnings

Traditional Irish dance dates back to before the 18th century. At that time, a dance master travelled from village to village teaching dance steps and organising céilís. The word ‘céilí’ originated from the gathering of neighbours in a house to enjoy dancing, singing, playing music and storytelling. However, it is most definitely the famous Riverdance that has popularised Irish dance and made it what it is today.


“There are so many children that do it and drop out because they realise how difficult it is – it’s a way of life.”

                                                                                   Joey Comerford, choreographer of Johnnie Fox’s Hooley


In 1994, Riverdance was a seven-minute piece on an international stage at the Eurovision Song Contest which was broadcast to over 300 million viewers worldwide. It has since become one of the most successful dance productions in the world.

The success of Riverdance has encouraged many more similar performances to be produced. One such example is The Hooley in Johnnie Fox’s Pub – a show which incorporates singing, music and, of course, Irish dance. “You’re literally told you’re allowed to take Christmas off…you had to practice every day,” choreographer Joey Comerford says.

Johnnie Fox’s Hooley, video by Clodagh Moriarty 

Comerford, who choreographed The Hooley and is assistant teacher in Dance Hall Academy, says “there are so many children that do it and drop out because they realise how difficult it is – it’s a way of life.”

Johnnie Fox’s Hooley, video by Clodagh Moriarty 

Comerford, who has an MA in Dance Research from University of Limerick, tells me “we’ve got a standard and it’s kept, they all practice for two to three hours a day, seven days a week.”

 Johnnie Fox’s Hooley, video by Clodagh Moriarty 


Competitive sport

Sport is defined as an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team compete against one another or a group of others for entertainment.

Feiseanna are an important part of cultural life where children, teenagers and adults compete against each other for titles and prizes.

There are dancing championships in each province in Ireland – the winners qualifying for the ‘All Ireland Championships’.

The traditional costumes worn today commemorate the clothing of the past – every dance school has their own unique costume. When an individual dancer reaches a certain level, they design their own costume.

I travelled to the ‘Omagh Championships’ to observe these dancers, their costumes and the dedication they have to Irish dance.

Alex Hayes (12) ‘Omagh Championships.’ Image by Clodagh Moriarty

Beneath the flashy, friendly exterior, lurk hyper-competitive dancers who will stop at nothing to gain a competitive edge and a winning result.

Tara-Rose Mahon (10) Omagh Champion. Image by Clodagh Moriarty
Emily Finnegan (12)Lee Byrne Academy. Image by Clodagh Moriarty

Emily Finnegan (12) from Co. Kildare travelled three hours to compete in the Omagh Championships.

Even after breaking her foot twice in one year, Finnegan couldn’t be prevented from getting back into the competing world. She practices for two hours, three days a week in class, and pushes herself in a four-hour workshop every second Sunday. This is without the hours of practice she does at home.

‘Omagh Championships’ dancer’s accessories shop. Image by Clodagh Moriarty

Some people compare it to beauty pageants but it’s not the same. Irish dancers are actually doing it as a competitive sport.

To be able to dance well you need to be flexible, strong, have stamina, endurance and most importantly, a love for the dance. There is an incredible amount of pressure put on Irish dancers to remember their routine and get all of their steps right.

Fegan Academy. Image by Clodagh Moriarty

In order to improve, a dancer must be constantly working on their technique so everything is perfect and on point.

Amber Curran (12) Fegan Academy, video by Clodagh Moriarty

I travelled to ‘The Fegan Academy’ in Bray to observe some dancers practising their routines. All of the students were travelling to Scotland to compete in the ‘Scotland Championships’.

Fegan Academy. Image by Clodagh Moriarty

In the run up to the Scotland Championships, these dancers practice for two hours a day, six days a week. Again not mentioning the extra practice they put in at home.

Fegan Academy dancer’s. Video by Clodagh Moriarty

Not only do Irish dancers have to practice regularly but they must also include specific fitness training routines.

Amber Curran (12), Fegan Academy. Image by Clodagh Moriarty

Curran (12) – came 2nd in the Leinster Championships, 16th in the ‘All Ireland Championships’ and has qualified for the World Championships’ (April 2017) – told me she practices six days a week but must also include fitness in her training.

Her fitness training helps her to gain full body strength and improve her technical execution, and most importantly it helps to prevent injury.

Not only is Irish dance an expression of art, but the combination of physical fitness required in addition to the competitive focus most definitely makes Irish dance a sport.



Featured image: Clodagh Moriarty

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