If you have a child who does Irish dancing, you will know that the Worlds are just around the corner. For those of you who don’t, let me explain (and read my book The Reel).
The Irish Dancing World Championships (often known simply as the Worlds) are held annually during the Easter Week. It is the biggest Irish Dancing competition in the World and the main goal of all Irish dancers. Until 1999, the Championships were held permanently in Ireland. Since 2000, however, they have been held in a number of countries including Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, the United States and Canada.
The World Championships have happened every year since 1970 except for 2001 which had to be cancelled due to a Foot-and-mouth outbreak in Ireland.
So how did Irish dancing become a World championship competition?
In 1927, Conradh na Gaelige, an organisation dedicated to promoting the Irish language, organised a enquiry into dance in Ireland. In 1930, the Commission presented its findings and established An Coimisiúno to carry out those recommendations.
The CLRG board was initially made up of 3 delegates from the Dublin Irish Dance Teachers, 3 from the Irish Music Society, and 18 delegates from Conradh na Gaelige. This under-representation of dancing teachers caused problems within the first few decades of CLRG’s existence.
In 1969, a group of Irish dance teachers, frustrated with the growing organisation, broke from CLRG and formed An Comhdháil na Múinteoirí le Rincí Gaelacha (English: The Congress of Irish Dance Teachers) to compete with CLRG.
Following the Split, CLRG decided to host Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne (the World Championships) for the first time in 1970 in a school in Dublin.
The effect of Riverdance
The next important development came with the 1994 Eurovision launch of Riverdance. This event, followed by the continuing success of the Irish dance troupe, (there have been 11,000 performances of “Riverdance”) led to a massive increase in global interest for Irish dance. Over the following 20 years, the number of competitors at the World Championships increased dramatically. The percentage of dancers competing from outside Ireland and the U.K. are now at 50%.
CLRG organises two major competitions each year: Oireachtas Rince Na Cruinne (the World Championships) and Oireachtas Rince na hÉireann (the All Ireland Championships). Oireachtas is the Gaelic term for championship, which also happens to be the name given to the Irish government!
The competitors all have a set time when they will be dancing. There are a lot of them. I went to the Worlds last year in Scotland and, although I have seen the film ‘Jig’, I was still not prepared for the huge crowds of dancers, parents, dance teachers, dressmakers, sales people and organisers that attend this each year. Every inch of space is covered in suitcases, dresses, wigs, shoes, dancers stretching out, dancers going through their routines, dancers trying to rest. It’s bedlam but organised bedlam.
Most of the dancers are there to do two dances and if they are recalled, they do their set routine. Although the dances are set ones, each routine is uniquely different, lovingly choreographed by their dance teachers to help them stand out and take their place on the podium. They get no higher accolade than winning the World championships and it’s what thousands of girls and boys strive for though their Irish dancing journey.
Between five and eight judges watch two competitors compete at the same time. The dancers are scored on many things but the main areas are technique, rhythm, and presentation. After the dancers have all danced, the scores are totalled and the top 50% are recalled to do their set dance. They perform this alone on the stage. Once the dancers have danced, the individual scores are collated with the help of a giant computer screen. Everyone can see who the top dancers are and, if they are any good at maths, can work out who the winner is before the computer ranks the dancers. Screams of delight and cheers from the audience drown out the weeping children who have missed out on their dream.
Why do Irish Dancing?
It might seem ridiculous that these kids get so upset about what is after all a competition. But just like other sports, Irish dancers are athletes. They have sacrificed a great deal to be the best they can be.
Continuously jumping and constantly lifting your legs builds incredible leg strength, balance, and coordination. The constant lifting also builds leg flexibility. Much of the dancing requires dancers’ arms to be held still against their sides. This often results in the misconception that Irish dancers have weak upper bodies as a result. This is not the case. Holding your arms with proper poise and posture demands great mental discipline, physical control, and arm and core strength.
The physical training they do is extreme and complex. Training is, in most cases, every day. Dancing, running, pilates and yoga are some of the activities that Irish dancers engage in. They don’t have time for the fun stuff of being a kid so competing is a big deal. After all, what was it all for, if not to win!
But if they don’t win, they can at least know that they are doing their bodies a favour. Studies show that dancing, in all its forms, comes with a variety of physical and mental health benefits: improved heart and lung condition, increased muscular strength, improved muscular tone, increased endurance and aerobic fitness, better coordination, agility and flexibility, weight management and even a decreased risk of osteoporosis. There is also the benefit of engaging the brain. Keeping this organ active may help with old age and diseases like Alzheimers.
This years World Championships take place in Dublin from 9th April to 17th April. Sadly, I will not be going but would like to wish all the competitors the very best of luck.
5 facts about the World Championships
- The World Championships have been held in Ennis in County Clare, Ireland more times than anywhere else.
- 6,000 dancers compete from over 30 countries worldwide.
- Michael Flatley was the first American to win the World Irish dancing championships in 1976 at the age of 17.
- Many of the designs on the Irish dancing dresses are from ‘The Book of Kells’ from the mid-eighth century, currently on display at Trinity College Library, Dublin.
- John is by far the most common name amongst male World Champions with ELEVEN winners bearing the name over the years.