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Dresses at £1,200, wigs from £80, plus travel expenses and fake tans...the price mums pay for their Irish dancing stars

Thousands will compete in the World Irish Dancing Championships which start in Belfast this weekend but, as Laura McGarrity finds out, it’s a costly business.

For many, Irish dancing conjures up images of bouncing heads of curls, the clatter of heavy shoes, bright sparkly dresses and maybe even a set of false eyelashes thrown in for good measure.

It’s a world that can seem glitzy, at times almost garish, but for insiders the glamour of elaborate costumes, fake tan and make-up is all part and parcel of what it takes to win.

This Saturday will see the 42nd World Championships for Irish Dancing opening in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall and St George’s Market for the fourth time. Aside from boosting the local economy by bringing thousands of dancers and their families to the city, it will also showcase the wealth of dancing talent and culture in Northern Ireland.

While the Celtic Tiger-era show Riverdance brought Irish dancing into the big time, dance troupe Prodijig’s recent success in winning Sky’s Got To Dance competition has once again shone the light on the art form, revitalising as well as modernising it — and maybe even making it cool once again.

Dancers often start early, sometimes as young as three, and for them Irish dancing is a way to see their friends, enjoy healthy competition and of course play ‘dress-up’ while carrying on a part of Irish culture that has now become famous the world over. Look deeper into the dancing world, however, and it becomes clear the amount of effort it takes to send a child to an Irish dancing school, often demanding three classes per week, on top of a weekly feis (festival), or competition, all of which eats into quality family time. In these austere days, a staggering amount of money is also needed to support the hobby. Classes are usually around£4 each, but travel to competitions and dresses that cost thousands of pounds soon see costs spiralling — all the more so if more than one daughter wants to dance.

To find out just what it is that makes Irish dancing so enduringly popular with local families, we spoke to a pair of local mums and a specialist dressmaker.

The family of dancers

Angela Bell (33) is a stay-at-home mum. She lives in Crumlin with |her husband Mark and their children Daniel (13), Katie Rose (8), Caoimhe (7) and Hannah (4). She says:

Katie Rose and Caoimhe have been dancing for two and a half years, while Hannah has been dancing for nine months. They all dance for the Lawrenson Toal Academy of Dancing. I come from a dancing family and we’ve all danced at some point. My brother did Irish dancing for years, although having boy dancers in the family never made me want my son Daniel to dance — not because he’s a boy, but he’s more into sports and wouldn’t be co-ordinated. Katie Rose used to go to tap classes from the age of three,but when she was five she didn’t like it anymore. I wasn’t going to force her so she left. An Irish dancing class had just started up in our area and Katie Rose decided to give it a go and Caoimhe went with her. Katie Rose and Caoimhe love dancing — even when they’re up in their room playing, it sounds like the ceiling is going to come down, because they’re dancing.

Katie Rose and Caoimhe dance three times a week for an hour or two and then there’s a feis every weekend. It can take up a lot of family time and costs a lot of money travelling to and fro. Each class is £4, so it could potentially cost me £36 a week, but since we have a family at the school we get a discount.

I’ve never forced my girls to go. With Hannah being only four, it wouldn’t be fair to make her do something she doesn’t want to, so some weeks she goes and others she’s too tired after nursery. With Hannah starting so young, she’ll learn the fundamentals early and that hopefully will help later. Being that bit older than Caoimhe, Katie Rose definitely understands how the feiseannna are competitive and will push herself because of that.

At the minute the girls have school dresses for competitions that cost a couple of hundred pounds. When they get a bit older and are in the under-10 age bracket they will have to get solo dresses. They usually start at about £500. The only upside is that I’m hoping they’ll be able to pass the dresses on. It is crazy money, but you can get caught up in the Irish dancing world. It wouldn’t be fair for kids to see other girls getting nice dresses and not to get the same.

It’s the same for wigs, tan and mak-up. In the Lawrenson Toal school they don’t have to wear tan, but my girls are so pale that if they are dancing beside girls with tan on, it really stands out. I put a light sun shimmer on their legs, but they don’t wear make-up. The sun shimmer costs £5 and is natural looking, plus you can just wash it off.

Of course, you can start out saying you aren’t going to put any make-up or tan on your children, but the whole scene can suck you in. The younger ones aren’t allowed to wear any and don’t really need it. The teenagers do wear it, but it really depends on the child . Mostly those with a full face of make-up on to dance will wear that every day anyway..

Katie Rose and Caoimhe used to wear curly wigs around their buns, but Katie Rose bought a full head wig for her birthday last year for £80 and it makes her feel better about herself, especially since all the older dancers wear similar wigs on.

The proudest moment I’ve had was when Katie Rose and Caoimhe were in the Ulsters last year.

They’ve never come home from a competition without at least one medal, but I don’t really care how much they win, I’m just happy that they enjoy dancing.”

The £3,000 a year champion

Elaine Davis (43) is a part-time credit controller. She lives in Carryduff with her husband Stephen, who works for the Belfast Education and Library Board, and children Caolan (14) and Clodagh (11). She says:

I was an Irish dancer from the age of four to 21. I have great memories so when Clodagh was old enough I sent her to dancing. She has older cousins who went and she wanted to be like them.

I brought her to her first class when she was two years and 10 months. It sounds young, but you’re allowed to send toddlers from when they are potty-trained and she was at that age. From her first class she took to it and never looked back. Clodagh first joined a school in Belfast, then when she was six she moved to the McConomy School in Derry because we heard it was very good. But then my husband lost his job and we couldn’t afford to make the journey there a few times a week. That’s when she joined the Carson Academy in Belfast, and she loves it there.

Clodagh is very ambitious land works very hard. She goes to class three times a week, but coming up to big competitions she can be dancing up to five times a week as well as going over routines at home.

She practices constantly coming up to championships, but her hard work pays off. Clodagh has won the All-Ireland Championships two years in a row and because of that she is favourite to win the World Championships at the weekend for her age group.

When Clodagh started going to competitions she used to get very nervous, but she learnt to control her nerves and although she still gets a bit anxious it’s more excitement now. For the championships and competitions Clodagh goes for, children are allowed to wear make-up from when they are six. Because I’ve been involved in Irish dancing circles for so long the make- up, tan and wigs don’t faze me, I’m all for them. Clodagh has been wearing make-up and false tan to dance since she was six and it’s an important part of the competition. Looking well-groomed is part and parcel of performing and Clodagh loves getting glammed up.

The cost of Irish dancing is very serious — if Clodagh didn’t dance, I wouldn’t have to work, as my wage funds her dancing. We have to buy a solo dress for Clodagh twice a year, and selling them on helps fund the next one, but a dress costs on average £1,200.

The cost of dance classes adds up too, especially because there are so many in the run up to competitions. Then the competitions are more money, what with travelling to the locations. If it’s far away, we have to stay in a hotel, plus the entry fee can be up to £50. In all, I spend over £3,000 a year on dancing.

Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The ambition she has for her dancing has made her want to do well in school and her memory for dance routines helps her learn her school work. Dancing also keeps her very fit, and let’s her meet girls from all over the world.”

The dancing daughter and her proud mum

Katherine Fegan (30) is the owner of the Katherine Fegan Catering Company. She lives in Crumlin with her husband Michael Fegan (33), a computer engineer, and their three children Katie (9), Charlie (4) and nine-month-old Alfie. She says:

Katie has been dancing for a year and a half with the Lawrenson Toal Academy of Irish Dancing. It all started because she wanted to join a club in our area and she fancied Irish dancing as some friends already attended.

She loves the competition and winning medals, plus she likes learning something new that not a lot of her friends from school do.

Katie hates getting ready for a feis and can get nervous while waiting to dance.

At the Lawrenson Toal school the girls dance three times a week, once for an hour and twice for an hour and a half, but Katie would try and practise every day.

It’s demanding in terms of attending competitions, as most weekends there is a feis on somewhere in Ireland, but we limit ourselves and only try and attend the local ones.

When Katie started dancing we said we weren’t going to allow Katie to wear tan because she has eczema and it wouldn’t be good for her skin, but all her friends wear it. I used to put her hair in rollers the night before a feis, but a friend recommended a wig, so we decided to buy her a small bun-sized wig. It looks natural and saves so much time. It cost £30, which is about average, but the full head wigs start at £70 and go up from there.

We bought Katie’s first dress last September — it was a newly designed dress for her class and looks amazing on her.

Going to the competitions we get to see all the different dancing schools and there are all sorts of dresses. Some of them are nice but some can be crazy, Katie’s school’s dress is green and white, and is one of the simpler ones.

Katie is due to get a solo dress next January, but it will cost a lot of money and because of that I have been thinking about making her a dress myself. She’s very specific about colours and designs.

Of course, sometimes it can feel like Irish dancing is taking up too much of our lives; taking her to class three times a week, sitting there for an hour and a half and then taking her to a feis which can last for four or five hours. But Katie loves dancing and because it makes her happy, it is all worth it. Seeing her get placed and win a medal is even better.

My proudest moment was the first time I saw Katie on stage at her first feis; I was so thrilled to see her getting up in front of everyone and doing what her amazing teachers had taught her.”

The dressmaker

Orfhlaith Taylor (24) is single and lives in Belfast. She owns Taylor Dresses with her mother Geraldine and sister Dearbhla. She says:

My mum, my sister and I set up Taylor dresses in 2008. Dearbhla and I used to dance, but my mum couldn’t afford to buy the dresses so she started messing around with dress patterns and taught herself. Mummy had worked in a stitching factory when she was younger, so she already knew the basics.

When I left school at 16 mum taught my sister and I how to make dresses and we started our business two years later. We’re still quite new, but it’s going well.

With the World and other major championships coming up, we are run off our feet, but we take the rushes when we have them because it can be quiet during the summer and at Christmas.

Irish dancing is all about who you know and word of mouth — that’s how we get most of our orders. My sister and I run our own dance school, so we make our dresses, we supply other local dance schools and then we also make solo dresses.

Through our website we’ve been able to make dresses for all over the world — the furthest order came from Australia. Dearbhla designs the dresses and makes the patterns on the computer, then mum and I make the dresses.

Every year trends come and go. New fabrics come out and new shapes for skirts become more popular than others, so our dresses are always changing. At the minute glitter fabrics and soft skirts are very popular.

When we are making a dress for a little girl we sit down with her and her mum and talk about what she likes, maybe something like butterflies, which Dearbhla can work into our designs. Then we take her height into consideration when thinking about the shape of the dress.

Our dresses for solo performances start at £650 and that’s for a very young girl. The price can run into thousands, depending on the design and fabric. It can be very expensive and a lot of mums make their dresses themselves.

They probably look the same as other dresses when the kids are on stage, but up close you can tell the difference between them and our dresses.

I know people can think the dresses look over the top, but it’s the way it looks on stage that counts. When a girl is dancing under the lights the more diamante, the better it looks.

A girl we designed a dress for earlier this year went on to be crowned All-Ireland champion. With a win like that people naturally talk about her dress and that also brings in orders.”

The Irish Dancing World Championships take place from this Saturday, March 31, until April 8 in the Waterfront Hall and St George’s Market, Belfast. See www.waterfront.co.uk for details.

dancing down the centuries ...

  • The Irish Dancing World Championships are now in their 42nd year.
  • Around 4,500 competitors will take part across 24 categories, cover a variety of ages.
  • There are around 150 teachers of Irish dance in Northern Ireland.
  • Irish dancing has been around for centuries, although it has evolved, creating hybrid offshoots represented in the three main types around today: social dance, including céilí and set dancing; seán-nós or solo Irish dancing; and step dancing.
  • The Gaelic League was set up in 1893 to preserve all aspects of Irish culture, including dance, and the Commission, as it was known, developed qualifications for teachers and adjudicators. Branches exist in Israel, Australia, Slovakia and England.
  • The Riverdance phenomenon, based on Irish step dancing, began with the now famous interval performance at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, spawned numerous shows under Michael Flatley and brought a pop version of Irish dance to a new audience.

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