Vulgarity of Irish dancing culture takes away from the terrific talent on display
Ditch the wigs, the make-up and the fake tan and focus on those flying feet, says Fionola Meredith
Nobody could fail to be impressed by the twinkling toes and high-kicking legs of the young competitors in the annual All Ireland Irish dancing Championships taking place this week at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.
The performances are not just a matter of skill or athleticism, though there's plenty of that on show. To compete at this international level also requires deep personal dedication to the cause in the form of hours and hours of practice every single day.
Clearly, it's a serious business. Why, then, is all that youthful talent hidden behind garish make-up clabbered on an inch thick, outsize wigs, and copious quantities of fake tan?
I'm talking about the girls, obviously: male competitors, definitely in the minority, make do with fancy waistcoats and a bit of gel in their hair.
Other forms of dance don't seem to be affected in the same way by this tacky tide of bling. You don't see nine-year-old ballet dancers or break dancers dyed a peculiar shade of orange, or wearing as much lurid eyeshadow as the renowned Belfast drag queen Titti Von Tramp.
The championships, established in 1932, are organised by the Irish Dancing Commission, which has regional councils worldwide promoting the preservation of Irish heritage and language through dance.
Safe to say that in the early days competitors were not expected to trick themselves out like show-ponies. Old photographs show plump and comely colleens in beautifully embroidered dresses and simple black tights. Even in more recent images from the early 1980s the outfits are more ornate, less traditional, but faces and legs are still a natural colour. After that - the deluge.
Speaking at the event in Belfast, Orfhlaith Ni Bhriain from the Irish Dancing Commission, admitted that "in conjunction with 21st century fashions, it has gone a little bit crazy".
It is difficult to say what is peculiarly Irish, or indeed how Irish heritage is preserved, by dressing children up this way. It seems about as far away from fresh-faced maidens dancing at the crossroads as Ru Paul's Drag Race. If anything, I think that the current trend for pumped-up bling actually diminishes that rich, light-footed tradition. It's certainly a distraction from the dancing itself. It makes it harder to appreciate the subtlety of those complex moves when you're thinking: why is a nine-year-old child dolled up like that?
You know what they say: follow the money. Somebody is paying for these extraordinary dresses, the wigs, the tan, the make-up, the sock glue - yes really, I didn't make that last one up. So if anyone is to blame for the way Irish dancing looks today, I'd say it's the pushy parents.
The words of a father of a young Irish dancer responding to an article in the New York Times recently caught my eye. "Irish dancers are unbelievably athletic, dedicated, hard-working, self-motivated, amazing young women," he wrote. "I am in awe of their strength and beauty. However, the parents, not the dancers, have created a world too bizarre to describe… sadly, it's not about the kids. Irish dance has become a culture of parents out-spending each other… and allowing your already-beautiful daughters to out-tan each other."
This is the difficulty at the heart of the issue: nobody wants to be the one to break ranks, even if you dislike the way that competitive Irish dancing is going. Indeed, I expect the stranglehold of bling is too powerful to be overcome at this stage.
What if an incredibly talented dancer came along who rejected the tan and the wigs and the faceful of slap?
Would she be rewarded for the sheer purity of her skill? Or would she fail because she refused to conform?
To be fair, it's not just Irish dancing that has caught the modern contagion of vulgarity and ostentatious glam. School formals used to mean the chance to have a big night out with your boyfriend while wearing a pretty dress. Now they are lavish occasions which require limousines and sub-Parisian couture. Weddings - well, what can I say. If you don't have an hour-long firework display and a Romeo and Juliet balcony then you're nobody.
Flaunting your apparent wealth, even if you're drowning in debt, is fashionable. Blame the Kardashians. But whether we're talking about Irish dancing or not, there's a lot to be said for keeping things simple.