Stepping into the bling ring of Irish dance

The Telegraph newspaper recently described the World Irish Dancing Championships in London as "hell". Is this really how our national tradition is viewed abroad? Áilín Quinlan meets the 13-year-old world champion — and her family — in Belfast to talk wigs and crystal-encrusted €2,500 costumes.

Stepping into the bling ring of Irish dance

Once you know that she started Irish dancing before the age of three — and practises for up to four hours a day — it’s no surprise that Clodagh Davis has won just about every prize that’s going, including a world title.

For her family, this 13-year-old’s dancing career is clearly a big priority.

Her costumes — the current one is black, white and gold, accessorised by a white, crystal-encrusted band perched atop an auburn wig — each cost up to €2,500 and are changed every six months.

Most of Clodagh’s spare time is spent attending daily classes, competing and practising on her own, while mum Elaine spends much of hers driving the youngster around.

Clodagh, who pulled on her first pair of pumps at the age of just two years and 10 months, is the 2013 World Champion and her expensive ensembles are a must, says Elaine:

“Because Clodagh is a champion she has to look very well.

“You have to keep ahead of the competition, and the style of the costumes change.”

The Telegraph newspaper, however, recently described the World Irish Dancing Championships — the biggest global display of Celtic dance — in London as “hell”.

“Everywhere you look,” the journalist wrote, “doll-like competitors are tapping toes, doing the splits or practising thigh-kicks in shimmering costumes of silver, luminous green and phosphorescent purple. Smiling beneath identikit poodle-curl wigs, held in place by a salon’s worth of hairspray, their faces are made up in Oompa Loompa orange so that each looks unnervingly like a miniature Dolly Parton, complete with stick-on eyelashes and red lips.

“A hotel worker confides that they’ve had to provide special towels so their linen doesn’t get ruined by fake tan.”

Ouch. Should we be worried about how our national tradition is viewed abroad?

The article elicited an angry response outrage from Dearbhla Lennon of An Comisiun Le Rinci Gaelacha, the group behind the event and one of the driving forces behind the transformation of Irish dancing into a worldwide phenomenon.

An Irish dancer, teacher and adjudicator, Lennon said the piece belittled the “dedication, hours and incredible amount of work” put in by competitors.

“I know what it takes to become the best and it’s certainly more than lipstick and curls,” she declared.

Elaine, who described the cost of keeping Clodagh clad in the requisite regalia as “very heavy” acknowledges, however, that some people might find the level of bling a bit extreme.

“People who are not involved in Irish dancing would find it very hard to understand,” she says.

Although the costs are reasonable when a child starts, once a girl starts competing at a higher level, they escalate sharply.

“The dresses have become very colourful and eclectic with crystals – parents will pay anything up to €2,000 for a top-of-the-range dress which would be covered in teardrop crystals and applique and mostly made of silk or satin or light velvet,” said Jacqueline Leigh of An Comhdhail which banned make-up for under-13’s in 2007.

“But you can get a dress for under €1,000 — these would be for 19-20 year olds. For younger age groups it would be €500 or €600,”

Parents shop around, of course, and most girls would have only one performance ensemble at a time, she explained.

The short, colourful dresses are accessorised by wigs, which start from €80 or €90 and go up to €150, and ‘bands’ or ‘tiaras’, usually gold or silver, and studded with Swarovski crystals of different colours to match the dress.

“There is a bit of bling here,” admits Leigh, whose 20-year-old daughter recently spent €1,500 for a dress, tiara and wig ensemble.

“These girls are on a stage with lots of lights so they have to stand out.”

Then you have the footwear — soft shoes or ‘pumps’, hard ‘hornpipe’ shoes, bubble socks, sock glue to keep the socks up, and, for boys, intricately patterned waistcoats.

“The fake tan is a big thing if you’re dancing at the top level on a brightly-lit stage with these incredibly highly coloured dresses.

“The more seriously the dancer takes it the more expensive it gets.”

Using makeup and having the right dress makes them feel “a thousand times more confident about their dancing,” she says.

Elaine is a strong believer in the look.

“They say it’s getting more like the child beauty pageants, but when you’re in dancing circles you understand that when the dancers are onstage they need the makeup. Without it, they don’t look the same.

“Everyone has their own opinions on it — some mums don’t like it but I like the costumes, the tan and the makeup — the dancers like dressing up too,” she said.

“When they go on stage they have to look their best and if they were all just dancing in black they’d look less interesting.

“It’s a big pressure on parents to pay these costs and some parents don’t have the money to do it.

“Some mums say it’s too important, others say it’s not. But the look is very important.

“The dancers like their costumes and their wigs because it’s about getting dressed up to perform — there’s the added excitement of it and they feel the costumes give them the confidence to perform better when they come onstage.

“It’s a huge commitment for families — all the money seems to go on the dancing,” admits Elaine, who works as a part-time credit controller, primarily to “keep Clodagh in dancing”.

“There are no financial prizes; it’s all trophies and titles.”

But why, asks psychologist Patricia Murray, is such blindingly expensive ornamentation even necessary?

“There’s something about it that reminds me of child beauty pageants,” she observes, though she acknowledged the costumes are not sexualised — “these dancers are not dressed in bikinis”.

However, she disapproves of what she terms the “preening and ornamentation” involved:

“Why do they need so many additions – the big hair, the fake tan, the extravagant dresses, the lipstick?

“The skills and competition involved are fabulous — why do girls need to be ornamented?”

The message to the girls, she believes may be that no matter how skilled you are, “you have to make yourself into an ornament to succeed”.

“I feel the regalia generally is over the top — it subtly teaches them that they’re ornaments despite the incredible skills they develop. Why don’t they just dance in something plain?

“You don’t need all these extras. It’s overly commercialised,” she says.

And, as she points out:

“How will you progress to the upper levels if you cannot afford to pay thousands for these ensembles?

“I think the more things a child can compete in that are solely about skill the better. Why introduce all this expensive bling?”

She believes the excessive emphasis on ornamentation “takes away” from a sophisticated and beautiful art form, and that for some people “the dancing is a side issue to the bling”.

Dearbhla Lennon, whose organisation introduced a makeup ban earlier this year for the under-10s, says that personally, she’d “love to see people become more engaged with the art form and less with the aesthetics”.

“What these kids are doing is genuinely beautiful and is a preservation of our heritage.”

Even a cursory look at the world of Irish dancing shows there’s a lot more to it than big wigs and sparkly dresses — the sheer effort, sweat and talent required to make it to the higher levels of Irish dancing is formidable, even at quite a young age.

For a champion like Clodagh, the work is unremitting.

After losing her title to an American dancer in the recent London World Championships, she is determined to regain the trophy in the 2015 World Irish Dancing Championships in Montreal.

To do it, she will practise for up to four hours a day. Clodagh attends Irish dancing classes — each lasting an average of two hours — on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

She also practises alone in the local leisure centre for two hours each on Fridays and Sundays. But that’s only the routine maintenance stuff.

In the run-up to big Feiseanna or competitions, the teenager from Carryduff, Belfast, will practise for two hours per day on top of the class.

“Coming up to big competitions I’d actually be dancing up to four hours a day,” she said.

“Sometimes we have dance workshops as well, and they last up to four hours. We have to practise so much because everybody is good and you need to keep up.”

Observed Lennon: “These children work very hard; they’re not standing around in a beauty pageant.

“They’re athletes who execute complex rhythms and intricate footwork and who are renowned all over the world for it. It’s only when the dancing goes into the global stage like Riverdance that people see the results of the training.”

At the moment there isn’t time for much else in her life, Clodagh acknowledges.

“School and dancing is what I do.

“I want to win the World again.”

Irish dancing has become a big international phenomenon — An Comisiun, for example, now has thriving branches in places like Canada, Argentina, South Africa and Russia, with an estimated 250,000 people attending classes and competing.

Its sister company in the Irish dancing world, An Comhdail, has branches in Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Israel, Argentina, USA Scotland and the Channel Islands.

Its recent World Championships in Killarney attracted thousands of competitors from all over the world.

“Irish dancing is now taught in most countries,” says An Comhdhail’s Jaqueline Leigh, who pointed to the reception she and her dancers received last March when they arrived in Israel for the St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

The girls, she recalled, received a rapturous reception. “They were treated like goddesses! They were revered — they couldn’t get over it, because when they’re dancing here, it’s the norm.

“They couldn’t believe how much the dancing is admired abroad.”

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