Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

When researching tunes recently I came across a video of Irish step dancers:
https://duckduckgo.com/?q=birmingham+irish+step+dancing&t=ffab&atb=v320-1&iar=videos&iax=videos&ia=videos&iai=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DUkvX5lTM8wA
I found the whole spectacle bizarre. The girls are wearing costumes that look as if they’re from a performance of Cinderella on Ice from the 1970s. They have elaborate hairdos and tiaras that look like the age of Marie Antoinette. A bit more searching of similar performances suggests that wigs and fake tans are also fairly common.

I find it difficult to imagine a less traditional look for dancers, which leaves me with lots of questions:

When did all this frippery come in?
Is this look approved of or encouraged by organisations dedicated to the preservation of Irish traditional music?
Do people actually enjoy watching dancers in these get-ups? To me it just seems distracting.

A puzzled Scotsman is looking for enlightenment from those who may be more knowledgeable ….

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It’s very possible that you are not the target demographic.

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I’m pretty certain I’m not the target demographic. But I’d still like to know: do people like this? Is this standard in step dancing competitions?

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Yes, very much standard these days at least in my experience of playing for youth step dance competitors and schools.

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There is a pretty huge distinction between sean-nós dance and competitive step dancing. If there is going to be dancing happening at a session, I have a very strong preference towards the organic flow of sean-nós over the strict choreography of modern competitive step dancers. This has come up as a issue several times in my life as a session host when pub management bring in dancers from the local step dance school to “liven up” the session for the patrons without checking to the session players first. If they instead hired a sean-nós dancer, there would be no issue at all.

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Yes. It’s there.

But you don’t have to look at it.

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Personally I find these better on my eyes to watch. Keeping it simple with the outfit. Looks not only more gorgeous but also doesn’t take off my eyes from the actual dancing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XjwAPqnsHw


The costumes on the OP post vid reminds me of those kid models you see in the usa (those contests where they look like little adults) and even the outfits from shows about travellers (the hairstyle, tiara and glitter) that have been broadcasted allover Europe.

But that is just my personal view.

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Let’s be thankful that trend has not taken hold with traditional musicians.

Somehow, I don’t think bouncy curls or a fake tan would improve my appearance any.

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“There is a pretty huge distinction between sean-nós dance and competitive step dancing.”

That’s why I posted the YT clips, for the contrast and perspective. And to show that sean-nós is still done.

The “girls in curls” approach is what it is. Not my cuppa, but I’ve known and played for some amazing dancers from that style. When they’re not competing, the good ones know how to relax, respond to the music, and have fun with it.

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I´ve heard the whole competitive dancing (de)Evolution laid at de Valera´s doorstep. 🙂 Gimpy´s right, the twain have parted. And of course the DanceHall act didn´t help. But I think sean-nós dancing has a future going forward.

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Yes I’ve come across this frequently at ceilis where the organisers have hired the local dance academy to do a turn during the interval. The dance instructor always has a cd of Riverdance-ish music to play over the band’s PA - I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of these outfits dance to live music.

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Money. Those costumes etc cost a lot. Some of that money flows back to the dance schools.

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We’ve played in concerts where we’ve played for some items for local dance schools and they do some to their recorded music. Good fun and good discipline to hit and maintain the tempo they want.

One downside with youngsters dancing - they do their stuff in the first half of the concert then a significant proportion of the audience disappears at the interval!

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ps Conical, I would have been quite interested in that ‘Jig’ video but doesn’t seem to play here in the UK……..?

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Thinking on, there was one occasion at a ceili where the downloaded music wouldn’t play for some reason, so the dance leader was forced to turn to us [the band] to see if anything could be salvaged - she seemed to have no conception of the various slip jigs, hornpipes, reels etc that we suggested but after increasingly frantic negotiation we agreed on ‘Lord of the Dance’ which we then played at top speed for 5 or 6 minutes - it seemed to work ok.

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Although it’s a nice enough semi-hipster local pub where we recently played an Irish trad session, they had blue red and white butcher’s apron bunting decorating the bar area, no doubt celebrating the so-called platinum incumbency of one of the richest women in the world (whilst there are millions of children below the povert line in this country.) To one of my session mates, a native of the north of Ireland, it all appeared a bit like Sandy Row or Shankill Road in July (or any time, come to think of it.) So I think I prefer the Marie Antoinette/Cinderella on Ice wannabes. At least they’re mostly harmless.

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There was an English woman who, knowing nothing about Irish dancing, was taken to a competition and her comment later was: God, I thought I was in a Barbie Doll convention.

Those costumes leave me speechless. Not so Dr. John Cullinane the Irish dance guru (subject of a recent thread: https://thesession.org/discussions/47140#comment943846 ):

“I have very strong feelings on … the excessively ornate, highly adorned costumes. This is the parents living the parents’ fantasy, not the child … and it has gone way out of proportion, even to the extent of spraying gold glitter on their faces now when they’re five and six and seven and eight years of age!
It’s the little Las Vegas beauty princess, my little princess, my little doll kind of thing; … ninety percent of it is the mothers …
But the same thing is happening in other walks of life. For example … children are now going on suntan beds to get them tanned for their First Communion, and some of the dresses that they wear, they’re like little miniature brides … this is the parents really going overboard … often I think you will find that it is those who can least afford it who are doing it … the upper classes, or professional classes will say to the child ‘I’m sorry, love. You’re only beginning Irish Dancing, or you’re only beginning to play the piano, and when you are able to play it and I know that you’re committed to it, then we will make the investment.’ … But very often the more deprived classes are the people who seem to say ’ I want to make sure my child will want for nothing’ and they go perhaps overboard.
I felt so strongly about this that as Vice Chairman of the Dancing Commission, I introduced a document … in which I laid down guidelines on how to control the costumes. The section on the girls’ costumes was shot down. There was a lot of pressure, from America in particular, that the children should be allowed to wear as elaborate a costume as they wanted to, and I’m sorry if I offend anyone – I’m not really sorry if I offend anyone – I stated that this is Irish culture and we should have the right to control it.” (https://www.bernards.cz/seznamte-se/dr-john-cullinane/)

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Yes, yes, you’re all absolutely right. It is excessive and, as pointed out above, could be a cover for some parents’ own insecurities.
But my point is, the barbie gear is not as lavish and pointless as the display we are about to witness here in London. Unless the purpose is to rekindle some kind of post-colonial national pride. Nationalism is of course an extension of egotism.

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Indeed, the barbie gear may not be as lavish as what will be on display for the jubilee in London. But then it’s also not as lavish as Mardi Gras at New Orleans, or Carnival in Rio, or Diwali celebrations in India, or Fastnacht in Basel, or dozens of other public events. The point is, are barbie costumes, tiaras, wigs and fake tans really appropriate for traditional dancing?

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Is it traditional dancing though? Did they really dance like that a hundred years ago? It looks highly stylised to me, invented for the competition circuit.

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@Tony O’Rourke – That’s a beautiful clip, and a universe away from, say, the clip posted by Dutchie further back in the discussion. It is formal and stylised compared to Sean-Nós, certainly, but it is clearly a piece in the jigsaw of Irish traditional music and dance. Dutchie’s ‘modern’ example appears to use most of the same techniques (I am fairly clueless about the technicalities of dancing, but I assume that to be the case), but beyond that, it is hard to see any connection between it and the music we play; other features, such as the synchronised head movements at the beginning, remind me more of Michael Jackson or Madonna than anything traditional. Presumably, the older style still forms the backbone of traditional dance competitions… Is there a separate category for the modern stuff?

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“The point is, are barbie costumes, tiaras, wigs and fake tans really appropriate for traditional dancing?”

The judges apparently reward it. Or at least don’t dock points for flamboyant costumes.

An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (the Irish Dancing Commission) website includes costume rules, but they’re mostly focused on “modesty,” that is, skirt length and neckline. There’s also a section on makeup, which is not allowed in the younger age groups (although younger dancers competing in older age groups are exempted from the ban). See: https://www.clrg.ie/index.php/en/rules.html and scroll down to General Rules for the pdf on costumes.

Other dance competition organizations have their own rules. E.g., https://www.irish.dance/competition-rules

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I could barely take the absurd costumes (which I personally think are almost sexualizing to a worrying extent) but I really object to the disdain that most dance schools show for the music itself; it’s almost like they are teaching the opposite of any appreciation for Irish music/culture. In my performing days I used to constantly encounter these dancers and their parents/teachers and I guarantee that the majority of them were apparently unaware of the fact that Irish dancing means a connection with Irish music. Mad. I remember playing at an alleged Irish festival during which these Irish dance parents started pulling up the tiles around us as we were playing, preparing the stage for their children and setting an appalling example for them, who probably were wishing they were somewhere else …
In short, I’m with you Muircheartaigh, sadly.

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Most folk dancers round the world seem to wear a costume either based on some form of rural workers clothing, or archaic formal dress, or the sort of national or regional costume that people may get married in. The dancers in Tony O’Rourke’s clip are dressed along those lines. Are there examples elsewhere in the world of something like the ‘girls with curls’?

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This discussion has done gone revived my old interest in wig glue!
Do those girl children use SyrupStik or Igloo Wigloo? (Hair Hat Araldite is no longer available)

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That’s OK, Kenny, they don’t tend to think much of what we do, either! 😛

Step dancing is how I came to this music, as my (now) ex-wife was a dance teacher. And I have seen stuff that looks just like that video so many times. (They were all really good, BTW). Two of my dearest friends, a husband and wife, came out of that world as TCRG teachers, one of whom still does some teaching. They met while dancing on one of the tours (Masters of the Tradition, I believe), and unlike all the other dancers, after a show, they would follow the musicians, instead of going out partying with the dancers. The musicians would go find a session and play. And so the two of them both got inspired to learn to play, and they’re both wonderful musicians now!

So, just as with the Riverdance craze, it inspires some people to learn more about both the music and the dance, and is part of what keeps our tradition alive. It’s just too bad most of the dancers don’t really care about the music at all, and will dance to anything with a beat. But there are exceptions, like my friends and Michael Flatley (who is a good flute player, BTW).

I do get annoyed a bit with the competitive nature. Irish step dancing is a competitive sport, and I have watched overbearing parents berate their children for not doing better at a feis. But it’s not that different than little league baseball, or gymnastics in that regard.

I have played for step dance performances before. My group played for the Christmas show for one of the local dance schools for several years, and I found it really rewarding. (Although, not as rewarding as playing for sean nos dancers, where you can really play off each other’s energy!)

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I have played for Irish step dancers (a few were involved in competitions) who knew how to dance to different rhythms, who grew up listening to their parents playing in sessions, most of them had seen Riverdance in person, they all took step dance lessons locally. The dancers who entered competitions had dresses somewhere around $1,000 (U.S.). They didn’t just wear them in competition. I’ve played for dancers on several occasions where they would wear the costumes for certain events (not competitive dancing) but also would dance at ceilis, in kitchens, anywhere Irish music was played.

I’m aware of the pressure and demands competitions placed on them. I don’t think fake tans were part of the scene back then. But then I’m not even sure if the tiaras were different back then or they even wore tiaras.
I’ve never been to a competition. But from what I’ve heard from one girl who always came to our session the competitions were not the most fun she had dancing at all. She won competitions. She lost competitions.
She eventually hung up her shoes. Competition aside we all loved Mollie coming to our session in her younger years and when she was in her teens. She fully appreciated the music being played and was a natural
putting down some steps for anything we played. I remember mid session we’d take a break in the kitchen
and she would be right in the middle of a few adults as comfortable as can be talking about anything really.
But she knew the music, great sense of rhythm. Mollie had the costumes and curls yet when I think about her back then I remember her dancing.

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As in so many areas of life the male costume/dress code is sober where the female version is completely different.

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A few quotes from this thread:

It is hard to see any connection between it and the music we play (CreadurMawnOrganig).

I really object to the disdain that most dance schools show for the music itself; it’s almost like they are teaching the opposite of any appreciation for Irish music/culture. In my performing days I used to constantly encounter these dancers and their parents/teachers and I guarantee that the majority of them were apparently unaware of the fact that Irish dancing means a connection with Irish music. (Cabaiste)

It’s just too bad most of the dancers don’t really care about the music at all, and will dance to anything with a beat. (Reverend)

Consider these comments in the light of the song for 50th Anniversary World Irish Dancing Celebration in Dublin Ireland.
https://youtu.be/ic-n8k5-Dd0


It’s based on the song ‘Temple Bar’ by Nathan Carter:
https://youtu.be/njnEMHSidN4

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Well, folks, this thread has been going for little more than a day and it’s been a real education. I had no idea that the fancy costumes and wigs were so widespread. I’ve often heard people criticising Riverdance, but I think that the costumes worn by Jean Butler, Michael Flatley and the other dancers were far more becoming (and less distracting) than ones that look like they’ve come from Nashville with additional input from Liberace’s dressers …

@Last Posted. Thanks for putting up that video, which I watched with a mixture of laughter and horror. I lived through the 1970s, but that whole show looks as if it’s from another planet.

Keep the comments coming, folks!

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This sort of thing isn’t unique to Irish dance competition; similar issues happen in many sorts of competition.

Competition breeds conformity, we all know that, and it can take many guises, from everybody scrambling to get whistles that look like the whistle-du-jour to musicians and dancers feeling pressure to keep up with the current look. These things signal to the judges who is “in the loop” and who isn’t.

The same evolution of competition dancers’ costumes has been going on in the Scottish Highland Dance world. 50 years ago female dancers wore traditional tartans, sporrans, bonnets, and yards of lace. Nowadays the lace is scaled back and the bonnets and sporrans are gone, and the tartans are the garish colours seen in Highlighter felt-tip marking pens like vivid DayGlo lime green, pink, fuchsia, purple, teal, etc.

It was interesting to see the same thing happening in Native American dance competition costumes, the garish vivid colours taking over, having zero resemblance to anything traditional.

The Scottish Highland pipe band world is notorious for faddishness. In the 1990s if you band wasn’t wearing gleaming white socks the judges would think you crawled out from under a rock; today they would if you are.

Let’s not imagine that Irish trad musicians aren’t free from this sort of thing. A century ago it was common for uilleann pipers etc to appear in knee-breeches, a “suit of the Irish cut”, and in the mid-20th century musicians appeared in suits. In the 1970s long hair and scruffy blue jeans were the norm.

Look around at your next session and take note of what sorts of things you see, and don’t see.

(I was once taken to task for wearing a football shirt! In a pub that didn’t have a “no football colours” sign.)

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“A century ago it was common for uilleann pipers etc to appear in knee-breeches, a ‘suit of the Irish cut’, and in the mid-20th century musicians appeared in suits. In the 1970s long hair and scruffy blue jeans were the norm.”

Yes, but in those eras, those styles were common across society, in everyday situations. Imagine if ‘civilians’ dressed like today’s step dance competitors just to go to the grocer’s or to work.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSekfCKafMs

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My goodness! What are you lot on about? It’s called costuming! Look what marching bands, sports teams and Olympic competitors wear. Look at the armed forces, for heaven’s sake. Look at English judges and barristers. Talk about your curly wigs!

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Did I mention the clergy? Nothing more dignified than a miter hat, is there?

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Ha-ha! Ailin, well said. We’re probably all just being cultural snobs. If mothers want to dress up their little girls like that for competitions, why not? They’re not doing any harm. We may think it’s gross, but that’s our problem, not theirs. For my part, I don’t much like Irish dance competitions - they seem fairly joyless and regimented with emphasis on technique rather than enjoyment - so perhaps I’m see the costumes as yet another item to tick off against them.
Mind you, those wigs judges wear - now, they are really ridiculous.

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What do “the little girls” think, or maybe their opinions don’t count ?

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“What do “the little girls” think, or maybe their opinions don’t count ?”

In that “Jig” documentary I linked above (sorry if it’s not available outside the US, I don’t know a workaround), there are many behind-the-scenes interviews with both very young and much older older girls, who all seemed really into it. Maybe selective editing? On the other hand, the documentary focused on the major dance competition scene, where I would assume any kids who didn’t like it wouldn’t get that far.

I agree with comments above that there is an apparent disconnect with the Irish music being used. Almost verging on disrespect, it seems to me. But I guess that’s just a result of the practicalities in the competition dance scene. They need to start and stop the music on demand, have it consistent every time, and available to practice at home. Blame it on the focus on competition, and not just having fun at an informal gathering of dancers and musicians.

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I think the important point is exactly that ‘the little girls’ opinion doesn’t count’ - or the little boys for that matter; I’ve yet to see an ounce of joy exhibited by them in these scenarios, compared to the competitiveness of the parents, which is abundant. And it’s not the same as a beauty pageant - that whole concept is a joke, but at least it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is, whereas some of us have an old-fashioned notion that Irish dance/music/culture is worthy of a little more respect. Am I being a killjoy about it? No, quite the opposite - dancing should be exactly about joy and enjoyment of the music and community that comes with it, not some endless routine of competition and excessive expense; over the years I have not seen one ‘Irish dancer’ who hasn’t just hung up their boots/dress unless there was a commercial benefit to keeping up with it. And I’ve yet to meet one who found an interest in music from doing it, though I’m glad to read above that this happens now and again, albeit very rarely.

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It may (or may not) be the case that the people who compete in this form of Irish dancing aren’t in it for the music, or even the dancing, as the primary focus. In my experience (including performing with dancers who competed at the Worlds), they’re in it for the competition, specifically winning. Sure, they take the dance seriously and work very hard on the steps and presentation, but it’s a means to an end, not the end itself. Some people enjoy competing and will rise to a challenge on almost anything. Consider hot dog eating contests….

This might not be as common among musicians who compete, but I suspect there are some who progress through Comhaltas competitions, perhaps even reaching a high level, and then they too ‘hang up their shoes’ (or fiddles, concertinas, whistles, flutes, etc.) when they either top out or get tired of finishing fourth. Or they simply outgrow that facet of their competitive streak and shift it to something else, like their day job.

Most Irish dance schools regularly trot out the whole troupe for community performances and St. Patrick’s Day parades, always well attended by the overeager parents, so from a young age the kids are exposed to crowds madly whooping and clapping (usually instigated by the dancers themselves) at the spectacle. This is moth-meet-flame to the kind of person who loves the limelight.

Is it Irish trad? Of course not, regardless of what the promoters say or the teachers, families, and audiences think. It’s ‘derivative’ but very much its own thing. At least the kids are away from their screens for a bit and getting some exercise.

FWIW, I’ve known some brilliant dancers who went through that phase and they still love to dance—to living music, spontaneously, in their street clothes, freely, relaxed, basking in the tunes not in the adoration of any audience. I wish there were more of them, but that’s not what competition step dancing is all about.

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> Is it Irish trad? Of course not

Hmm. I suspect the Irish dance crowd have been doing their thing for longer than the “Irish music session” has existed. The folk revival of the 60s created a narrative about tradition that doesn’t stand all that much close scrutiny.

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But when did the dancing become divorced from live musicians, with an apparent preference for pre-recorded music ? Think of John Doonan and “Flute For The Feis”, early 70s. Irish dancers who won’t dance to Irish traditional musicians ? Where’s the logic in that ?

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Point taken, Calum. Yes, sessions as we know them are likely a mid-20th century phenomenon. But the flamboyant pageant costumes, fake tans, and canned, rocked-up, written-for-Riverdance music isn’t remotely “traditional.”

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Kenny, it’s worse than an “apparent preference” for canned music. I’ve seen dance school troupes who *can’t* dance to live music (the same musicians requested by my previously mentioned Worlds competing dancers). If it’s not the specific piece they’ve practiced to, as they’ve heard it from the boom box a million times before, they don’t know what to do. Of course this doesn’t apply to every troupe or school, but I’ve seen it more than once.

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In the late 70s, I served as an MC for a competition. Waaay before Riverdance and looking and sounding like they do now.

I used to wonder about the preference for recorded music until I played for a dance show. It’s better to have the level of control from learning to rehearsing to performing. My impression, anyway.

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Many years ago my playing partner and I were hired to play a gig on pipes and fiddle out at an Irish club in the deserts of Southern California.

They also hired a young step dancer, guessing in her late teens, in full competition regalia, sparkly dress, big curls and all.

When she arrived, she had a old-school boombox with her for music.

We told her we would be happy to play music for her sets, and she seemed open to the idea.

She pulls the CD out of the boombox and after looking at it for a few seconds, asks us:

“Do you know how to play ‘The Reel’?”

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Cripes, Michael, that’s just depressing… especially if you guys hadn’t taken the time to learn “The Reel” 🙂

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“Waaay before Riverdance and looking and sounding like they do now.” (Ailin) I had been wondering about that and the comments about Riverdance above. Isn’t the competition-style dancing one of the things that went into the mix that made Riverdance rather than something that followed it ?

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Ailin, yes, that’s why the schools used canned music. But if that’s all the kids ever do, it’s also why so many of them are lost when they get an opportunity to dance to live music.

When I’ve done gigs with top-class dancers, we rehearsed together for several weeks beforehand. We ironed out things like the intro and outro, pace, and desired degree of swing. I also sussed out precisely where their choreography wanted extra lift, or a triplet or stopped note, say, to match their footwork. I’ve also occasionally rehearsed with a local school, even learned some of their canned tunes, so I could provide the music they wanted. It was a learning experience for all of us, and I hope the kids came away with at least an ounce more connection to the music than they had before.

I’ve also played for (really, it’s *with*) dancers who grew up dancing to live music. That’s pure joy for all involved.

The idea of always dancing to canned music makes as much sense to me as a musician always playing along to a recording, never with other living, breathing humans. The same applies to how you learn your tunes. I understand that not everyone has access to people to play with and learn from, but if videos and recordings are your only source, you’re missing well more than half of what this is all about: craic, stories, community, friendship.

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“Do you know how to play ‘The Reel’?”

“Yes!” 😀

You could’ve had her play a snippet of The Reel from the CD. Chances are it was either a Liz Carroll tune or some old chestnut. Either way, you suss out the key/mode and conjure a reel in your repertoire that more or less resembles The Reel, and then say, “Yes, of course! That’s the tempo you want? We’ll play it for you!” Odds are in your favor that she’d never notice the difference.

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“Isn’t the competition-style dancing one of the things that went into the mix that made Riverdance rather than something that followed it?”

Based on my experience in the 1970s and 80s, yes. Hence the originally “understated” 😉 Riverdance style.

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Oh, it went fine, we played a set of reels for her at proper competition dance speed. I think the next one was “The Slip Jig”.

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Well, ya live long enough, and some of us have, you realize that the stuff you remember being new is now ‘the tradition’ … and that there are a couple of younger generations for whom that once-new stuff is how their grandparents did it …….

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Maybe Irish Dancing will combine with cheerleading for some interesting group performances?

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–“One downside with youngsters dancing - they do their stuff in the first half of the concert then a significant proportion of the audience disappears at the interval!”–
My guess is that you’re not losing much– much of that “audience” was probably family/friends of the kid dancers, and if it wasn’t for the dancers, they wouldn’t have showed up in the first place…

–“The judges apparently reward it. Or at least don’t dock points for flamboyant costumes.”–
From what I’ve read (on dance forums and such), the point is to be “noticed” the most on stage. Hence the neon colors, glitter, etc.

–“I think that the costumes worn by Jean Butler, Michael Flatley and the other dancers were far more becoming (and less distracting) than ones that look like they’ve come from Nashville with additional input from Liberace’s dressers …”–
Sure, but it’s also the difference between adult dancers and little kids. I’m sure many competitive adults prefer the more-sober costumes– and I’ve seen some on forums say so.

–“Competition breeds conformity, we all know that, and it can take many guises, from everybody scrambling to get whistles that look like the whistle-du-jour to musicians and dancers feeling pressure to keep up with the current look. These things signal to the judges who is “in the loop” and who isn’t. “–
Quite true… to the point that anything too different may be frowned upon. I’ve had times when my dance teacher looks askance at anything I’ve worn that’s too “retro” (I buy secondhand when it comes to my costumes), and while I always say that if for some reason I had to get a new kilt, I would consider a certain tartan that isn’t a “dress” tartan– she might tell me not to do it because judges wouldn’t view it favorably because it’s not what most people do.

–“and the tartans are the garish colours seen in Highlighter felt-tip marking pens like vivid DayGlo lime green, pink, fuchsia, purple, teal, etc. “–
Glad to pass on the lace, but this is true for the tartans; the trend in the past 8-10 years or so especially has been for a certain tartan to come out in several colorways, and often a certain colorway is popular across tartans– it was turquoise, then I think the next year it may have been lime, and then I think orange may have had its turn, or maybe it was one of the magenta/fuschia pinks. I kind of miss the larger variety– yeah, the tartans used to all still be dress tartans (but that’s been popular for far longer than I’ve been dancing), but at least they were more known tartans than invented ones. Some of the tartans that were available when I started are no longer woven (mine is one of them, actually, but then, as far as I can tell from photos and videos, mine was popular in the 70s or 80s…).

–“This might not be as common among musicians who compete, but I suspect there are some who progress through Comhaltas competitions, perhaps even reaching a high level, and then they too ‘hang up their shoes’ (or fiddles, concertinas, whistles, flutes, etc.) when they either top out or get tired of finishing fourth. “–
Sure, but let’s not knock getting tired of finishing fourth too hard. After a while, if you’re not very good, I suppose you get sick of making a fool of yourself in public with everyone else probably wondering why you bother (I’m coming at this as a dancer who’s not very good and I’m sure there are people tired of seeing me looking bad on a competition platform and I cringe and hope it’s not embarrassing to my teacher). In the case of music, there are likely chances to do it outside of competition. I wish I could find many opportunities to dance outside of competitions, besides just going to class and my own personal practice.

–“I used to wonder about the preference for recorded music until I played for a dance show. It’s better to have the level of control from learning to rehearsing to performing. My impression, anyway.”–
And we have to remember some of these dancers are quite young kids. Throw a wrench into their gears and some of them may not recover… (and if you keep in mind that young-child Irish and Scottish dancers are doing more than many of their counterparts I’ve seen in ballet/tap/whatever shows, in which their “routine” tends to consist of “march in circles, wave their arms, twirl around once or twice” and all the styles of dance look the same… you can’t knock it too hard that in Highland dance, some kids their age are dancing over swords…)

–“For What It’s Worth”–
My first thought before I hit ‘play’– “Buffalo Springfield?” LOL

Re: Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

Katia12, I wasn’t knocking musicians (or dancers) who stop competing, or stop playing completely, when they don’t win. I was merely pointing out that for some people, they’re less interested in playing music (or dancing) than they are in *competing.* That’s fine, it’s their life, their choice. Some of them move on and find something else to compete in. Corporate corner offices are full of former competitive runners, swimmers, cyclists, etc.

Those of us who aren’t competitive by nature tend to be more motivated by the activity—dancing, making music, whatever—itself, than by any extrinsic reward or notoriety. And we’re more likely to pursue that passion over a lifetime rather than only as a phase in childhood or adolescence.

I’d also point out that the Irish trad musicians who place fourth (or fifth, etc.) in many regional fleadhs are often brilliant players, not making fools of themselves in the least.

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Re: Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

@Katai12 – get you some local musicians who appreciate having a real live dancer around, maybe? I know not everybody likes playing for dancers, but there are ones out there who’ll appreciate your talents if you can find them!

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“I’ve had times when my dance teacher looks askance at anything I’ve worn that’s too “retro” (I buy secondhand when it comes to my costumes), and…… “
Is it a dancing competition or a fashion competition ?

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‘Is it a dancing competition or a fashion competition ?’

Nah, Kenny, it’s just a chance to wig out.

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Re: Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

My brother a while back was saying about fiddle contests that usually it’s the one who comes in fourth or fifth that he’d really like to hear more of …..

Re: Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

I don’t know how much it has changed in the last 20 years, but it used to be that you wore a school uniform dress that was much simpler to start out, often times for many years. Until you placed in a competition, at which point you were given the option of dancing in a solo dress, which would be the flashier, fancier dresses that you see in the original video.

Yes, the dresses will cost upward of a thousand dollars, but I don’t know that it’s all that different than a lot of other competitive sports gear when you’re competing at a decent level. And the girls LOVE the dresses. If you’ve ever been to a feis, you’ll know how much they talk about their dresses, and compare with everyone else’s. I think part of the fun of a solo dress is letting the dancer decide colors, designs, patterns, etc. It’s almost as important to some dancers as their wedding dress will be! And I think part of the allure to the dancer is to make themselves stand out a bit for the judges.

And the hair (or wigs, or extensions) are part of it too. The curls accentuate the jumps, and the super tight curls will stand out more by bouncing more during the jumps. I am led to believe that there’s an actual benefit, because the judges will notice the jumps more, especially when you’re dancing with other dancers at the same time.

So I really don’t begrudge any of it. And the fact that it can definitely lead at least some of the participants down the road of discovering the music and the culture is a bonus. I know a few sean nos dancers that started in the world of step dancing.

And there ARE schools that will use live music, even if they’re few and far between. And to be honest, an awful lot of the music I hear in most sessions is not really played well enough to compete with recoded music for performance dancing. (A lot of the competition dancing is done at slower tempos. The more advanced the dance, the slower the tempo, to allow all the steps to fit in the time. Think of a treble jig competition, which is played painfully slow. God bless those feis musicians who can play solo, extremely steadily, for hours…)

Re: Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

But is it not an emerging Irish tradition?

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This might be considered a bit ‘off color’, but, many aspects of this kind of real life entertainment adornment, especially when it comes to the sexes, has been conceived by old white men, who are titillated by young girls in flouncy hair and costumes that confirm their obdurate exigencies for flamboyant display.

Having played for many live Irish dance performances with outstanding dance troupes, I found that the audience, mostly ignorant of the actual culture, simply loved to see their offspring devoted to a training regimen, (any regimen, for that matter), because it was a worthwhile discipline which had cultural roots. What their costume represented was secondary to the value of their participation.

The Irish dance schools, with young girls, and a few boys represent(ed) something beyond tap dance, ballet, jazz, and modern dance academies that embraced a cultural element - which, as previously stated was coopted by a bunch of old white men who wanted to see little girls in weird costumes and flouncy hair.

Re: Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

Thank you for the informative response, Reverend. I appreciate your input.

I’ll only comment on one small bit. “And to be honest, an awful lot of the music I hear in most sessions is not really played well enough to compete with reco(r)ded music for performance dancing.”

While I haven’t played for stepdancers near as much as any feis musician I have played for dancers. The best performances needed to be ‘tight’ between the musicians and the dance. Fortunately the young dancer who came to our sessions had been dancing since she was five. We listened to her to learn what she needed from the musicians. Don’t tell me she didn’t know the music. She knows. Frankly her dancing informed my playing relative to the different dance types.

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Re: Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

I wondered if it was just me but AB’s comment about the dancer informing the muscian’s playing has happened to me a couple of times and has stayed with me.
The last time it happened was when I played for an English style stepper.
It was a reminder that it is ‘dance’ music that I was playing and that both dancer and musician can complement and inspire each other.

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A ‘muscian’?! What?…

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I do that too. Good news is the apostrophe is correct. 😉

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–“Katia12, I wasn’t knocking musicians (or dancers) who stop competing, or stop playing completely, when they don’t win. I was merely pointing out that for some people, they’re less interested in playing music (or dancing) than they are in *competing.* “–
Oh, I know that. But I was pointing out why sometimes it’s “competition or nothing” for when it comes to something to do.

–“Those of us who aren’t competitive by nature tend to be more motivated by the activity—dancing, making music, whatever—itself, than by any extrinsic reward or notoriety. And we’re more likely to pursue that passion over a lifetime rather than only as a phase in childhood or adolescence. –
That’s why I still dance, in spite of making a fool of myself… but it also feels sort of pointless to practice a performing art and only do it in your own house.

–“I’d also point out that the Irish trad musicians who place fourth (or fifth, etc.) in many regional fleadhs are often brilliant players, not making fools of themselves in the least.”–
Quite true, but it may also be that they’re tired of knowing they’re good but it just so happens to be an accident of geography that they live near other people who are consistently better.

–“@Katai12 — get you some local musicians who appreciate having a real live dancer around, maybe? I know not everybody likes playing for dancers, but there are ones out there who’ll appreciate your talents if you can find them!“–
Not really. There are local pipe bands and I reached out to one once, but it sort of fizzled when our schedules didn’t line up so well.

–““I’ve had times when my dance teacher looks askance at anything I’ve worn that’s too “retro” (I buy secondhand when it comes to my costumes), and…… “
Is it a dancing competition or a fashion competition ?”–
A bit of both (and some competitions used to have a “best dressed” section– some still might). There’s a certain level of conformity, and to do otherwise may look odd in the minds of judges and spectators– especially in this case, where the “retro” look makes it obvious that what I’m wearing is secondhand. (If the clothing didn’t matter at all, then there wouldn’t be dress codes and costumes in the first place… Highland dance does, by the way, have a dress code that prohibits anything flashy or spangly…)

–“This might be considered a bit ‘off color’, but, many aspects of this kind of real life entertainment adornment, especially when it comes to the sexes, has been conceived by old white men, who are titillated by young girls in flouncy hair and costumes that confirm their obdurate exigencies for flamboyant display. “–
An interesting one is that quite a few years ago, apparently one of the Irish dance governing bodies came out in their dress code that female dancers over a certain age (I can’t remember if it was 18, or 16, or 25, or whatever) aren’t allowed to wear the bare legs and white “poodle” socks younger dancers do– they were now required to wear black tights, the minimum opaqueness of which I believe was specified. There was quite a bit of outrage about “Oh, so they’ve decided our ‘old lady’ legs aren’t fit to be seen??”

I’m not sure what the reasoning was behind it. Surely adult female dancers might feel odd in costumes that feel cutesy and seem designed for children, such as the Irish dance dresses or the female options in Highland dance for Nationals costumes (which sometimes make me feel like I’m attending a Scottish Strawberry Shortcake convention). But I’d think that would be their choice, or that maybe the governing bodies could add costuming options for adults or those who simply prefer a more-sober look…

–“I do that too. Good news is the apostrophe is correct. “–
I have a great aptitude for typos (but usually I catch them as I type. For example, I made 3-4 just in this sentence). The worst of the ones that I don’t catch are the ones that also are actually popular mis-grammarisms or misspellings… which means they don’t look like typos, they make me look like I’m illiterate.

Re: Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

“Is it a dancing competition or a fashion competition ?”— A bit of both“.
So are you telling us that you could presumably have a situation in a competition where the best dancer doesn’t win, merely because of what they are wearing ?

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That seems like a question for the governing board &/or adjudicators, Kenny. Not that I’m trying to answer for Katia. She probably is providing good information based on her past experience in dance competition.

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Re: Costumes in Step Dancing Competitions

Fiddle player and former competitive Irish step dancer here. Yes, the costuming for modern Irish step-dance competitions involves a lot of pageantry. I took up Irish dance as a middle-aged adult and competed for about 7 years. Why did I do it? I wanted to learn dance in order to inform my fiddle playing. At the time, the competitive school was the only option available. Yes, aspects of the competitive dance culture are over-the-top, and one can rightfully question the codification and evolution of the sport. But the benefits to my musicianship outweighed the negatives and learning dance was fabulous for internalizing rhythm (this applies any time one plays for dancers). I enjoyed accompanying dancers from the school on occasion (usually St. Patrick’s Day shows). I’ve since migrated to traditional step and sean-nós dance and have enjoyed that, too. Modern competition Irish dance is just one (very visible) form of the several Irish dance types practiced today, and it provided me a springboard to those other styles. It’s interesting to see commonalities in the various forms of Irish dance, and the roots of the competitive steps in the traditional steps.

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@AB “The best performances needed to be ‘tight’ between the musicians and the dance.”

I agree, wholeheartedly. And that is really one of my favorite things about playing for dancers!

When I was referring to “performance dancing”, I was speaking more to situations like a dance school doing a performance as a group. I used to play for a yearly Christmas Show by one of the dance schools in the area. We would play for a lot of the dancing. But they would have group numbers, like the big finale where it would be many minutes long, and feature every one of their dancers at some point. They would have painfully worked through the details of group choreography, and built it to fit a specific arrangement of music. This school tended to use Beoga tracks, which often weave in and out of tunes in very creative ways, while staying rock solid on the tempos… (I believe that the members of Beoga were all feis musicians, and very involved in playing for dancers). There was no real way that we, as a group of players, would have been able to do that kind of arrangement for the dancing, in part because we didn’t get to rehearse with the dancers at all. So for the stuff we did, we were given a tune type and a tempo, and we’d play whatever we liked.

I really like playing for solo dancers, sean nos dancers, and ceili dancing. But even for that, the dancers are often looking for tempos that a lot of session players might not be comfortable with…

But it’s also important to remember that in step dancing competition, the dancers are pretty much always competing to music played live, mostly by a solo player, but sometimes by small groups. So it’s hard to say that the dancers *can’t* dance to live music. 😉

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–““Is it a dancing competition or a fashion competition ?”— A bit of both“.
So are you telling us that you could presumably have a situation in a competition where the best dancer doesn’t win, merely because of what they are wearing ?“–
Not necessarily, though I imagine to an extent it could influence judges subconsciously (for example, wearing obviously old costumes, or something that top-level dancers don’t necessarily wear, may give the impression that one does not take it seriously). And in a close competition where a judge might be looking for any small thing to place one dancer over another, who knows. Is it right? No. Does it happen? Possibly. (I mean, let’s think about it… should it matter whether a performer is smiling, or not smiling because they’re concentrating on what they’re doing? It shouldn’t, if they’re good, but a lot of people would say it does…)

And, to an extent, onlooker opinions can matter. I’m aware that I’m also publicly representing my dance school/teacher, so I at least give thought to her advice even if I might not care for myself whether people find me fashionable.

(I’m afraid I’ve led this rather away from the original topic– though I have to admit I’m glad I’m not a competitive Irish dancer because I’m not sure how much pressure there is to go with the day-glo dresses…)

–“But the benefits to my musicianship outweighed the negatives and learning dance was fabulous for internalizing rhythm (this applies any time one plays for dancers).”–
I’ve actually found the reverse– that coming to dance already being a musician has helped with rhythm and such.

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“I’ve actually found the reverse— that coming to dance already being a musician has helped with rhythm and such.”

How so?

Katia12, I appreciate your most recent reply. It gives a good perspective on the whole scene. I hope my above question is not too much. I just had to ask because you were responding to the one bit from Fiddling Fossilist’s comments which resonates so much for me and the whole subject of dance (movement) & playing an instrument.

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