Lord of the Dance hails contest
The "Olympics" of Irish dancing has opened in the presence of Lord of the Dance Michael Flatley and elite dancers from around the world.
The 44th World Irish Dancing Championships in London is set to attract thousands of dancers and supporters from countries including Japan, Australia, Russia and the US this week.
Invited on to the stage during the official opening ceremony, Flatley was greeted with thunderous applause and cheering from the many dancers who see him as their idol.
The Irish dancing superstar - who was surrounded by autograph and photograph hunters - told competitors at the ceremony they are "all winners".
He recalled winning the world title in 1975 and pursuing his "seemingly impossible dream" of putting together "huge Irish dance shows" that he hoped would "take the world by storm".
Flatley appeared in Riverdance, and went on to create shows including Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames and Celtic Tiger.
The showman from Chicago paid tribute to all the hard work put in by dancers, teachers and parents.
"I see the hundreds and hundreds of hours that went into preparing for that one dance.
"I see sleepless nights for teachers, thinking 'will they cross their feet on the day?'
"And the mums and dads that put in the extra hours to pay for these fancy costumes. And the guy who stitched them up.
"So much, so much goes into this," he said.
With more than 5,000 competitors battling it out to be crowned champions, there are wigs, sequins, fake tan and high kicks galore.
Dancers will compete in solo, ceili, choreography and dance drama categories in a variety of age groups.
The host - An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha - has estimated that up to 15,000 relatives, friends, teachers and Irish dancing fans will descend on the city for the event at London Hilton Metropole.
Boris Johnson, mayor of London, said the event is a "vital boost to London's economy".
It is the first time the Irish dance extravaganza has been held in London and organisers are hailing it as "one of the greatest cultural events the city has seen for decades".
They said spectators should expect great things from this year's dancers.
"The traditional aspects of Irish step dance will fuse with increasing athleticism, innovation in choreography and rhythm to bring us a modern and truly inspiring evolution of our cultural dance form," they said.
Dedicated dancers - many of whom started performing at a young age - will have spent months, or even years, preparing for their few minutes on the world stage.
Megan Brady, 18, from Belfast, said she missed out on her school prom - an act of commitment her friends found hard to fathom.
The A-level student went so far as to say her friends were "disgusted", adding: "They thought it was mad."
She said: "My friends find it very hard to understand dancing. This year I missed my (school) formal for dancing, so you have to be really committed. You do miss loads of stuff like birthdays and parties.
"The biggest thing I've ever missed is my school formal, which my friends didn't understand, and I don't think they will ever understand unless they're Irish dancers, because they don't realise the amount of commitment that you have to put in."
As well as practising their moves, dancers also carry out extra exercises such as skipping, running and weights to build up fitness and strength.
Student David Bassett, 22, from Southampton, is competing in the Senior Men's category and said people outside Irish dancing's inner circle do not grasp the scale and prestige of the World Championships.
"I think, unless you're an Irish dancer, I don't think people really understand. When I'm explaining it to people, I try to compare it to our version of the Olympics so they get some perspective on the size of it and how hard it is.
"It does take over a lot. I work my life around it. I have to request certain lectures so I can go to class in the evening. The same with my shifts at work - I have to base it all around dancing."
The world of competitive Irish dancing can be expensive, with girls' costumes starting at around £1,000 and increasing to around £1,500 depending on the extent of embellishment with crystals and sequins, Ms Brady said.
Irish dancing has attracted controversy in recent years due to the costumes becoming ever more sparkly and dancers wearing fake tan, make-up and wigs.
But Ms Brady dismissed the controversy, saying: "I find it really, really annoying, because people just think it's just the make-up and the tan - people don't realise that dancers are actually like athletes."
She said the glamour enhances dancers' confidence, and for many dancers it feels like they are "taking on a different persona".
She added: "Dancers enjoy getting ready. It's part of the whole dancing experience."
Mr Johnson said: "It is brilliant news that this globally admired and historic aspect of Irish culture is dancing right to our doorstep in London.
"With thousands of people expected to come and soak up the atmosphere, the Championships will be a fantastic jamboree of dance and a vital boost to London's economy."
The World Irish Dancing Championships run from April 13 to 20.