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Irish dancing is, in my opinion, the most beautiful and graceful types of dance in the world, as old as the Irish themselves. For those of you who have seen Riverdance, you can probably understand what I'm talking about. For those who haven't, I suggest you watch it immidietly.
Mostly, Irish dancing is divided into three categories; figure dancing, soft-shoe dancing, and hard-shoe dancing.
These are a pair of soft shoes, or gillies.
Soft-shoe dancing is the first type of dancing that you learn. The shoes are a lot like black ballet shoes. The dancing is a little like ballet, too, but not much. Unless you've actually seen Irish dancing, it's kind of hard to describe. Maybe I can eventually get some video clips of it up, later. Suffice to say, it's a very light-footed, bouncy, graceful type of dancing.
These are a pair of hard shoes.
Hard-shoe dancing is the more traditional type of dancing, something you learn as you get more advanced. It's also a little hard to describe, but it sounds a lot like tap-dancing when you do it. The shoes aren't like tap shoes, though. They have wood or fiberglass bottoms and are high-heeled.
Mostly what I can say about them is that they are a little uncomfterable when you first start wearing them, and mine take pride in seeing how many blisters they can rub on my poor feet. Other than that, they're awfully fun to dance in. It can get tiring after awhile, though, because you have to lift your feet very high even though you're wearing clunky, heavy shoes.
The last kind of dancing, figure dancing, is perhaps the hardest to learn. It involves two or more people dancing together. (Thus, the two-hand, three-hand, four-hand, six-hand, eight-hand, etc, and 'hand' means person, not literally a hand.) When I learn figure dancing, I am usually forced to play the part of the boy because there are something like three boys in our entire school (The Bracken School of Irish Dance) and I'm one of the tallest girls. Oh, well, that's life! Figure dancing is very pretty, if you do it right, because the patterns of dancing literally form 'figures' across the floor. Of course, it's best if you can get a bird's-eyes view of it, which is rather hard to do, but it's still okay from ground-level.
Okay, on from types of Irish dancing to the costumes. Boys mostly wear a white shirt, sash, and pants. A girl's, however, is much more intricate. Each dress has a very large, stiffly-starched skirt
that goes down to the knees, a matching tiara, and a sash. Everything is covered with heavy embroidery. The dresses are made in Ireland and shipped over here, and it can take over six months from the time you order the dress to when you actually get it. Each school has their own special pattern of dress, and you wear the school dress until you get to a certain level of competition, where you can exchange it for a solo dress, which has a unique pattern you can choose yourself. The dress for my school, The Bracken School of Irish Dance, is dark blue with green lining and green, orange, and white emboidery. The pattern is of swans and Celtic knotwork. Bracken and swan start with the same letter in Irish, thus, the association. The purple dress shown here is not the Bracken dress, but it is a very good example of what one looks like. Please the the stock numbers above the picture--I couldn't figure out how to remove those.
I'm going to make some sort of attempt to describe a feis in here, but, mostly, the word that comes to mind is 'madhouse.'
Your average feis is two days long, and divided up into five levels of competition: beginner one, beginner two, novice, prizewinner, and preliminary champion. In order to move up to the next level, you have to get first place in a competition with five or more dancers. Needless to say, it's very hard to move up, and that's why I'm still beginner one after three years--plus the fact that there are not that many feises in Tucson or someplace within driving distance.
At a feis, the first thing you do is walk in the gate and look around nervously to see if anyone is staring at your hair, which is always in curlers. (You have to curl your hair in ringlets for a competition.) No ever is, because their hair is always in curlers, too. Next, you try to make your way through all the vendor's stands, selling everything, from shoes to brooches for your sash to Irish music to porcelain dolls with Irish dresses on. Once you actually make it inside, you can begin the long search for the table where you sign in, which can be comepletely on the other side of the room. If you actually make it to the table and sign in, then you can try to wind your way through the crowds to find out where everyone else from your school is hanging out. All the while, you're flipping through the program (which is sometimes accurate) trying to find when your dances are scheduled and trying to guess when they'll really take place, based on how far behind they are at the moment. Then, you sit and wait...and wait...and wait...and go outside to practice, maybe eat something, and then wait some more. Then, when you're least expecting it, they call out your dance and you have to somehow get up to the stage to perform. Then there's the actuall performing part, where you're trying to concentrate on turning your feet out and jumping high and staying in beat to the music and smiling this big, dorky grin and looking the judge in the eye and who knows what else. Then you bow to the judge, the musicians, and walk off...and it's all over. Until your next dance, that is. And then there's the exitement of waiting for them to announce who won...
Whew! I make it sound really bad, don't I? But actually, it's a lot of fun! So far, the highest I've gotten is second place in the slip jig--which is good, but it garuntees that everyone has a high expectation of me to get first on that dance in the next feis. Oh, well--I'm ready for it! (I hope.) Anyway thanks for listening and I hope I've got you hooked!

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The above photos, of the gillies and hardshoes are the property of 'Katie's Irish Dance Page,' and may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of the creator/owner of 'Katie's Irish Dance Page.' The photo of the Irish dancing dress is the property of 'Celtic Daughters' and may not be reproduced in any form without express permission of the owner of 'Celtic Daughters.' (You can link to both of these sites from my Irish dancing links page.)

This page was last updated November 14, 1999.
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