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Irish dancing: go back to basics for our kids’ sake

Irish dancing needs to ditch all the showbiz hype, get back to its roots and let children enjoy their heritage without being put under needless pressure.

That’s the verdict of Ireland Calling readers following the recent controversy over make-up, wigs, fake tans and expensive costumes.

Irish dancers. Photo Copyright - John Benson CC2 Image Ireland Calling

The Irish Dancing Association recently banned the use of make-up and false eyelashes for the under-10s.

The move led to a widespread debate with many of our readers saying the whole culture around Irish dancing needs to change because it has become too commercialised and strayed too far away from its roots.

Many parents say they can no longer send their children to Irish dance classes because the dresses and all the extras have become too expensive. They also complain that children are under too much pressure to look glamorous and an age when they hardly know what the word means.

Many people want to get back to basics when Irish dancing was both enjoyable and affordable.

Cindy Farrell said: “I wish it could be more about the dance and not about the costumes. I have 2 granddaughters who dance but do not do many feshes because the cost of the costumes. They are proud of their heritage but cannot afford to continue. One just made it to prizewinner but that is where it will have to end. I just wish the costumes were simpler so anyone who wants can participate. Simple beauty!”

Anne Kelly Devereux said: “I danced without all the props. It’s gone ridiculous. It’s enough to turn anyone off it. Let’s go back to the good old fashioned non-commercial way, and not this false Hollywood farce.

“Irish dance is beautiful, it’s an art and doesn’t need all the stupid extras, I detest seeing those wigs. It actually makes me angry, let children be children,”

Excessive pressure amounts to ‘child abuse’

Some readers blamed the parents and competition organisers, and some went so far as to say that putting children under so much pressure amounted to child abuse.

Helena Doheny Nolan said: “Let’s concentrate on the skill and natural looking. Children in a lot of this make-up and ridiculous wigs is the parents’ fault !!!! Shame!”

Kathy Wagle said: “I think requiring little girls to wear make-up and the ‘adult’ clothing (seen in our child pageants here in the States) is child abuse. Our children lose their innocence too fast in this world as it is, without parents and teachers pushing them down that road. Bravo for those parents who stood up to this ridiculous trend. Let children be children, naturally beautiful.

Anne Connolly Finnegan said: “I think it all looks ridiculous now. Even the dresses are so stiff and false looking. Then the wigs. There’s nothing nicer than natural hair. I used to love watching but now it’s so false.”

Danielle Cowart Jenkins said: “In the years Meg and Sarah danced we had to get them “spray tans” before the competitions. It was ridiculous. They would actually be marked down for having the Irish white legs God gave them.”

The Irish dancing authorities have so far made no comment about changing the approach to costumes, but the ban on make-up and false eye-lashes for the under-10s will be seen by many as a step in the right direction.

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39 comments

  1. kathleen cronin

    Back to the basics and natural beauty of these Irish lasses. That was always the allure of the Irish dancers natural beauty, lively dancing, and lively music. When you see the girls young and older with these huge wigs and costumes and makeup, it is not attractive but distracting. It is an expense that is not needed. Let’s change Irish dancing for the better and get back to our true Irish heritage of simplicity and natural beauty.

  2. What keeps people from starting dance companies of their own and establishing their own dress codes if the current trend in elaborate costuming & makeup offends them?

  3. Anonymous

    To my previous comment… world symbols not work symbols

  4. Anonymous

    The parents, girls and designers make the dresses crazy not the organisations. In fact the organisations have banned many things already such as: makeup on u10, coloured shoes, patent shoes, sparkly shoes, buckles beyond a certain size, feathers on dresses, names schools and works symbols on dresses. Also they keep to the health and safety, if your wig comes off or a hair piece comes off or your laces come undone you get marked down as a way of making Dancers make sure their stuff in on properly to avoid a hazard on stage.

  5. Anonymous

    I agree that many people take the Tan and makeup and wigs too far but it is not compulsory and you don’t get marked on costume. The bit about how you get marked down for having pale legs is total nonesense. Irish Dance is actually one of the only forms of dance popular in the western world that does not get a score for costume. Also the reason a lot of the girls have ridiculous tan and makeup is because their mums don’t know how to put it on properly and then the girls grow up doing that way too.

  6. Sheila

    Coimisiún dance teachers in our area came together to organize an all black feis were championship dancers just wore plain black dresses/skirts and tops. Some of the older girls even opted out of wigs etc. and it was beautiful to watch. For once you could concentrate on their feet and their steps. Unfortunately it only happened for a couple of years but my girls(I had 4 dancing then) loved it because they weren’t up against the bling. I have made all their costumes myself in the past but unfortunately now I have been told that to progress they’ll need “the real thing”. Bring back the all black feis so that for at least one day the natural beauty of the dance will shine, and not the crystals and rhinestones.

  7. Máire Carlin

    Get rid of the wigs. Young girls should not have OTT makeup making them look much older than they are. It should be about the dance steps.

  8. Former dancer

    When the this trend was beginning, I was a teenager competing in a championship competition when my instructor was told by a judge that I would not go through to the next round due to my costume, not my dancing. When I heard this, I was done. My dress was designed by my mother and I. My mother hand embroidered it. I loved it ! It saddens me to see the extreme measures children are subjected to in order to compete. When I see adult Irish dancers, their costumes are plainer as the focus is on the amazing dance steps and other physical expressions of joy as they dance.

  9. Marie O'Connell

    As much as I have pronounced my dislike of the outfits, I would probably agree to wearing wigs as long as they weren’t too OTT. It would save the torture of hours of hair styling, rollers and ruining hair with heated wands and all kinds of products …

  10. Elizabeth

    I used to take Irish dance with Violet Moore in Vancouver before all this ridiculous tacky horrible business began. Most mothers embroidered simple shamrocks, harps, etc. on our costumes.They were simple, and lovely. The costumes each school had were elegant, and easy to dance in. But the main emphasis was on the quality of the dance. I know some people will say they don’t know how to sew or embroider or they don’t have time. The machine embroidery is the least of my concern.
    One day I looked and there it all was – curly wigs, stiff cardboard looking costumes, and glitter. Glitter? How did this become a thing anyway – was it Riverdance, I don’t know.

    Irish dancers work hard at their craft and it is a beautiful art form. That’s what the emphasis should be on. Shame on the authorities that allowed it to become a freak show of mountains of curly hair, make up, and glitter. It’s not the Miss World contest full of trashy looking females, and yet…..

  11. Maureen McGee

    I would just like to say in defense of the wigs , my daughter now an mother herself was part of the rollers to wigs transition and i as a mother have to say wigs were a godsend for me . I used to have to spent 2 hrs each on 2 girls the night before a competition putting in up to 150 rollers in each child’s head . ( This was a requirement , every child at higher levels had to have curly hair as part of the tradition ) The said rollers and products (to try and keep the curls set )had my daughters hair in shreds , not to mention they could nt get a wink of sleep the night before a competition because of the rollers . Being allowed to wear a wig instead was a godsend for me . I dont like the way irish dance is evolving , the tans , thick make up , fake eyelashes , dresses that have themes instead of traditional patterns , but i have to stand by the wigs .

  12. Starting to remind me of beauty pagents, you can take part in anything you like but if you want to win you need to be a ‘complete package’

  13. Marie O'Connell

    Try telling that to a little girl when she is up against all the others wearing the latest fashion/designer dresses etc…

  14. Marie O'Connell

    The organisations should get together and establish a dress code. By leaving it to the parents, you are opening the flood gates to who knows what depths with them all pushing the boundaries to outdo each other. It has now reached the point of being a fashion show taking away from the dancing. The orange costume in the title picture here is an example of how hideous the dresses have become. In my day there was a class dress and an individual one both more tasteful than those on show now!!

  15. Mike H

    As someone who is I00% Irish I can attest to the fact that all Irish are deeply tanned. White pale skin? Have never seen it. And what’s all the concern about the dresses and wigs. I will say that it is the dancing that is getting in the way. They should have at least one competition where the girls gets to parade in all their finery and not dance a step. We need to focus on what is truly important, image over substance. Hmmm. Maybe a school should sponsor a feis that announces no wigs, tans, makeup with only simple leotards and skirts allowed.

  16. Patricia

    My daughter is going the whole hog for the world’s this year, firstly because it seems to be compulsory and secondly because she’s curious to see how much difference a silly dress, slap and a tatty wig makes to her overall placing. Many people that I know have had to stop their children going to Irish dancing because they could not afford all the trappings that go with it, yet we bang the drum for Irish heritage and culture while the real essence of Irish dancing goes down the drain. A disgrace

  17. Marie O'Connell

    The dresses, wigs and makeup today are an insult to the wonderful art of Irish dancing. The dresses are garish and tacky using all kinds of feathers, fur and dreadfully mismatched colour combinations making them a laughing stock. The latest designer to join the bling bandwagon is Thelma who famously makes the “Big fat gypsy Wedding” outfits – so that says it all !! She is now going around to the competitions touting for dancers who will let her make their dresses !!! How much lower can the standards drop ? Irish design and culture is full of wonderful Celtic designs and patterns which could be incorporated in the costumes with taste and tradition. In contrast, Take a look at the Riverdance costuming- no wigs, tacky make-up etc …..just tasteful and appropriate unlike those monstrous ( very expensive ) get ups leaping across the “Worlds” stage every year. It’s time to pull the plug and bring class to enhance this amazing Irish talent ……..

  18. Ashlyn

    I personally love Irish dance. I am a teen dancer with An Comisiun in the States. Depending on who you dance for, you have the option of wearing no wig, tan, make up etc. I love the costumes and understand how hard it is to afford one. However, I have seen plenty of dancers who place a regional and nations wearing a simple black costume (or just a simple dress) and natural hair. On big stages, I think the tan and make up (at least a little) are helpful because they give definition to the dancer under the stage lights. I do not own a dress but I do wear a wig. Even if the big curly wigs were banned, I would wear some sort of wig because I would not be comfortable dancing with my natural hair. I think that people just need to know that dance isn’t about the costumes and they should let their children know. In the end, the winner is the best dancer, not the one with the biggest wig or prettiest dress. People can make their own choices about what they want to wear. We should not be told that we cannot wear something that we want to.

  19. Depends on what Organisation you dance for as to what is expected. An Comisiun and An Comhdhail seem very similar in having very expensive dresses and Bling and wigs. WIDA, CRDM, CAID and a few others lean more towards traditional roots. In fact WIDA asks for dresses to have celtic patterns and knotwork. I have danced with a number of organisations over the years (now adult dancing with CRDM) and I’ve never worn a wig, I don’t tan, my dress was £800 but I’ve had it years. It’s velvet and has traditional embroidery. Saying a teacher makes you do something is ridiculous. You have the choice and the power as the consumer buying and paying for the lessons and for everything else. It only takes one person to change a trend.

  20. NNKMelissa

    It should be incumbent upon the judges to encourage natural hair, simpler costumes, etc. They should be the ones to drive the trend……They should be rewarding natural hair & skin tone, simpler costumes & wonderful dance. Not flourescent coloured dresses topped with a bucket of makeup and unnatural wiggery.

  21. Pat O'Donnell

    That may well be true, but the parents and children have been led to believe that without all the ridiculous paraphernalia, they don’t have a chance of winning. This I blame on the teachers. There is absolutely nothing traditional about the outrageous costumes that are worn now. It is unbelievably annoying to to watch those ridiculous wigs bob up and down. The dancing has become the secondary part of this and the glitz and glitter have become the most important thing. Hopefully, at some point Irish dancing will get back to what it was and return to the beautiful art it once was. We can only hope.

  22. Marie Dormer

    I agree my great great Uncle would be turning in his grave. Father Larkin in 1920 successfully publicised traditional dance and made it popular again as a protest against the modern world of jazz and flapper dancing. I see history repeating itself.

  23. Parent

    This comment is not factual. Many TCRGs will NOT allow you to dance for their school if your child does NOT wear a costume, a wig, makeup, etc., thereby blackmailing you so that your only choice is (a) cave in or (b) have your child quit dancing altogether. None of the schools in our area will allow more advanced dancers to dance in leotards and black skirts, with no wig, and ours will not allow the girls over 10 to dance without makeup or without tans at least during the major events. This is the real (inconvenient) truth.

  24. My daughter danced festival, £450 quid for the class dress, not cheap, left as dance teacher told her off for not having hair curled for festival. Loving feis now as she can wear anything now to competition

  25. Ann McDonagh

    I agree that make and wigs should be banned on under 16’s, while I was an Irish dancer many moons ago, it was all about the dance, even back then I felt if you have q special dress you would get an extra point. I think it makes little girls look like “trash” and is a totally unnecessary expense.

  26. Pauline Baxter

    It breaks my heart to even read that the Irish dancing association has actually had to instigate a ban!!! When did this stop being about dance and become a platform by which the over sexualisation of young kids takes place. Surely parents are at fault here for allowing this to happen? A return to ‘normal’ children dancing the dance of their forefathers is required here – this has to be about the existence of the dance and not used as a platform for needy parents to make sure their child is the ‘prettiest’. Let’s get rid of the wigs, fake tan, make up and just dance!!!

  27. Collette

    I am new to the whole community of Irish Dancing, feis etc and love it. I have two girls, one who is 7 has no desire to wear make up, wigs or fancy dresses. She has natural beautiful curly hair which we wash and leave, she wears a simple and cheap class dress and looks gorgeous and very cute. For her it is all about the dancing and she no longer walks anywhere but hops and skips!! No pressure and she loves it. However my older girl is fourteen at the last feis I saw the confidence drain out of her because she didn’t have a posh frock or daft wig. After six months she is already in pre-open and we are very proud of her but peer pressure is what it is all about unfortunately at that age, no matter what we say. Luckily we have an amazing teacher who has given her one of her old dresses and she is delighted. I am putting my foot down about wigs, fake tan and false eyelashes and will not entertain them, my daughter is beautiful and talented without all those awful accessories!!

  28. Geraldine Swierzy

    Of course anyone can dance in any manner of clothes – but if children in Irish dancing wish to compete in this day and age – the ridiculous costumes, complete with wigs, makeup etc., are absolutely essential! What happened to the simple elegance of the dance and the understated but beautifully embroidered linen dresses and capes of yesteryear? I know – I was a Champion Irish dancer – in Ireland, more than fifty years ago! We still had tons of fun competing without the pressure of a fashion parade. In those days, each dancing school had its own colours and embroidery patterns. Most importantly, we stayed true to the traditional Irish dances – unlike the ridiculous cabaret style entertainment which sadly this beautiful and ancient art form has become…

  29. Irish Dance Teacher

    This article is not factual. If you cannot afford a costume, you may wear a simple black skirt and leotard. If you dislike wigs, you may wear your hair down or in a bun. You can also choose not to wear makeup. I teach plenty of children who never purchase an expensive costume and dance happily for many years.

  30. Brooklyn J

    Coming from a dancer who has a simple dress and can’t afford to get all the fancy stuff for Irish dance and has to get a job to be able to go to oireachtas, I really don’t like this article at all!!! If you can afford to do all of that then great and if you can’t afford it but really love it, you can find a way and calling the recent feis look “fake” and saying “it’s not all about the dancing anymore” is crazy! Have you watched some of those dancers at worlds? I can only watch their feet when they dance I don’t know how you had the time to judge their appearance when they are dancing so incredibly! And people spend hours and hours practicing dance and so when dancers see this, its hurtful!! Yeah feises are crazy and weird but us dancers love it! Oh and calling it child abuse is a little bit too extreme in my opinion!

  31. my daughters danced for years but were festival dancers they wore no make up no fake tan etc they had to be clean and tidy hair well groomed costume and either white bubble socks or heavey black tights depending on the age so yes i agree let the dancing be seen for what it is and none of the muck

  32. Sheila McCarthy

    I have three daughters and I didn’t send them to Irish dancing class because of all the make-up and ringlets and expensive dresses,instead they went to set-dancing ,no frills just dance.

  33. Anne-Marie Fair

    Ditch the wigs, makeup and elaborate costumes and don’t make older girls look like little girls.

  34. shauna caldwell

    Irish Festival dancers do not wear wigs, fake tan and make up in not allowed until under 13 age group and is also a unique form of irish dance due to its elegance. Dancers compete in the dress of their school. However an item never included in these articles is the fact that all dancing is a fantastic for children for fitness and health but yes as a festival irish dancer and now teacher i find wigs, fake tan, heavy make up and expensive dresses unnecessary.

  35. I have not watched the Irish dancers for many years because they now remind me of the Jon Benet group. I took my granddaughter for lessons for four years or more when there were no wigs and you had to be at a certain level to wear something other than the school dress. The glitzy costumes take away from the footwork because some are ugly, too blingy, etc.

  36. Danny Ryan

    With all the Irish dancing I watched, and really enjoyed, never once did I stop to think, “Are they wearing wigs, makeup, and sporting fake tans? Never! Not till someone mentioned it. Maureen (?) tells it like it is: ….’all is lost with the phony glitz and glamor’, I make a motion, that ye let those talented dancers look like they’ve just stepped out of a hot shower. By all means, keep those beautiful costumes, and Shirley Temple curls. I live in the Pennsylvania hard coal region. My ancestors were brought over to work in the mines. Ireland Forever!!

  37. Maureen

    I too agree. I would like to it go back to the basics. The dance and the history of the dance is lovely. But all is lost with the phony glitz and glamor.

  38. Moira Heffron

    I could not agree more! I have granddaughters and I would love for them to have some experience with Irish dancing because it is our heritage and it is fun; but the extreme artifice makes no sense!

  39. Helen M. Jacobs

    I agree that the make-up and costuming goes too far. I have a granddaughter and niece and both are in love with Irish dancing and have been in many competitions, including the most recent one in London. The cost is prohibitive for most. The girls want to dance but how long their families will be able to keep it up is a question. Follow the KISS principle, “keep it simple stupid”

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