Irish dancing comes of age with reel ‘feis-ionistas’

Irish dancer Aisling McMahon from Dromoland, Co Clare, with her mother, Barbara: 'The most important thing should be the dancing.'Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22

Wigs and ornate dresses have driven up the cost of Irish dancing. But, says Arlene Harris, many parents want a more back-to-basics approach today

IT’S been 20 years since Riverdance captured the imagination of the world and Irish dancing has been gaining in popularity ever since. But as with everything in life, popularity brings commercial opportunities and of course, fashion.

It may have begun with humble woollen dresses with discreet Celtic designs, but dance costumes have become increasingly ornate with today’s young dancers not feeling the part unless they are bedecked with jewels, sequins, make-up and of course, the ubiquitous bouncy wigs.

Starting tonight on RTÉ One, Jigs and Wigs is a new six-part series which looks at the extreme end of the Irish dancing world, including the current over-the-top outfits.

Aisling McMahon, 12, has been dancing since she was five-years-old and while the Clare girl has been doing well on a competitive level and really enjoys the dancing, her mother Barbara says the pressure to look the part can be draining.

“When Aisling first started dancing, she wore the class costume and because she was in bun grad [beginners level], wasn’t allowed to wear make-up or wigs,” says Barbara. “It’s the same in the tús grade [second level] but once they move on to the mean grade [intermediate] and árd grade [championship level], everything becomes really expensive.”

At this stage, the costumes are an all important factor and many parents, like Barbara, feel obliged to fork out for designer dresses and dramatic hairpieces.

“The outfits are almost as competitive as the dancing and solo dresses for girls can cost anything from €700 to €2,000 or even more,” she says. “Aisling’s last dress was a Gavin Doherty [a well-known designer in the Irish dancing world] but she has grown out of it and because they are so expensive, we have had one made locally instead.

“On top of the dress cost, there are the added extras of shoes, wigs, hair pieces and fake tan — it ends up costing a fortune. But if you want your child to do well in a competition, you have to dress them appropriately — I know if I sent my daughter up in a plain dress, she wouldn’t get anywhere.”

ther-of-three (Grace, 14, Aisling, 12, and Oisín, 9) says the practice of dressing girls up for dancing competitions has become akin to the beauty competitions in America. “When I was young, dancing dresses were just decorated with embroidery and no-one would have worn much or any makeup,” she says. “But about 20 years ago, the American contestants started wearing sparkly dresses and wigs and before long, it caught on here. Now it’s gone crazy and some of the girls look as if they are going to a beauty pageant.

“Aisling is fairly low-key in comparison to some, and although I don’t like having to dress her up like this at all, I tell myself that it’s like an actor getting ready to play a role. I hope one day the outfits and the big hair become less of an issue, because at the end of the day, the most important thing should be the dancing.”

Dancing teacher and competition adjudicator, Olive Hurley, says while very few judges would mark a child down if she wasn’t dressed as glitzy as her counterparts, looking well on the day is still important.

“I have been teaching since 1976 and the whole scene has changed a lot since then,” says Hurley. “The dresses have gone from being fairly plain with just a Celtic design to the full-on wigs, make-up and elaborate outfits most of the girls wear today.

“As an adjudicator, I can safely say that it doesn’t really matter what the girls are wearing when they dance, but in the same way that you wouldn’t go to a ball in jeans and a pair of Ugg boots, they do have to make an effort in some way — so if the outfit looks good, it does enhance the package and some judges do see the dress before the dancer.”

The Dublin-based teacher believes most people feel pressurised into buying the wigs and expensive dresses because they feel their child will be left behind if they don’t. But she hopes this practice will eventually ease off. “Most judges will be able to see a good dancer shine, regardless of what sort of dress she has on her,” says Hurley. “Over the years Irish dancing has definitely become more aesthetic and beautiful — as well as much more intricate — and the effort put into the outfits is a reflection of this.

“I would like to see it toned down a lot more and I do think there is shift towards the softer more natural-looking half wigs so things are definitely moving in that direction. Who knows, maybe they will give up the wigs altogether in the future.”

“But outfits aside, Irish dancing has become popular across the globe and the standard both here and abroad is phenomenal so that is all that really matters.”


* Solo dresses range from €700 to €2500

* Light shoes from €60 to €80

* Heavy shoes €150

* Half wig €40

* Full wig €60

* Accessories for hair and shoes from €25 upwards

* Fake tan €15

* Jigs and Wigs starts on RTE One tonight at 8.30pm. For information on classes visit


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