Our First Feis

“Poodle” socks, curly wigs, sock glue? They’re just part of the scene that greets us when we enter the Horticulture Building at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, where my 12-year-old daughter Natalie is competing in her first Irish stepdance competition or Feis (pronounced fesh).

There is an air of excitement and a flurry of activity as dancers prepare to perform. I see that eight different stages are set up in this large open space. Musicians play live on each stage where colorful groups of dancers compete. Other dancers are “on deck” waiting their turn to take the stage. More dancers are scattered throughout the venue stretching, jumping, and kicking their way through their practices, perhaps scoping out the competition.

They carefully ready their attire. Makeup is applied, hairpieces are put in place and yes, many dancers glue their socks to their legs so they won’t fall down during their dance. These boys and girls, competing in age categories organized from “8 and under” to “17 and over” are dedicated, excited and confident. I watch them all and when one in particular catches my eye I think, How can someone jump so high from a standing position?

The beginning
We can thank Michael Flatley and his “Riverdance” for this busy spectacle. Since the first performance in 1994, the popularity of Irish stepdancing has exploded around the world.

Its roots here in the U.S. date back to 1890s, when Irish immigrants in New York City danced and established schools there. The city hosted a Feis as early as 1911, and a U.S. championship in 1927.

As an art, Irish stepdancing is learned orally and by demonstration. It is passed on in genealogical fashion from teacher to student. Here in Upstate New York, Irish stepdance instruction is available in most major towns and cities, from Buffalo to Albany. My daughter is enrolled in the Young School of Irish Dance based in Rochester. It’s a sanctioned institution registered with An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha in Dublin, Ireland. Dancers Charles Young and his wife Rachel Burke Young founded the school 15 years ago. They and Rachel’s sister Paula are the school’s only instructors. They teach 270 students in Canandaigua, Greece, Honeoye Falls, Rochester and Webster. Following the Irish tradition, the teacher travels to the students, not the other way around.

The Feis
When Natalie and I check in, we note with some relief that both her dances are on the same stage. She gets her number and we work our way through the crowd to the stage. We tell the stage manager that number 1219 is there and ready, and all of a sudden the room gets quiet. The national anthems of America, Canada and Ireland are sung, and the Feis begins.

“Whoa,” says Natalie, noticing the seriousness of the musicians, the stage manager and especially the judges. I’m nervous, too, imagining her neatly pinned bun tumbling down as she dances, 50 or so Bobby pins falling out of her slippery hair.

Here’s how the competition works. A group of dancers files onto the stage. They step forward two at a time to dance, then return to the lineup. When everyone in the line has danced, they bow as a group and file off. Dancers are judged individually on the turnout of their feet, the crossing of their feet, posture, how high they lift off of the floor, and how well they dance on their toes. Each dancer begins with the same number of points; deductions are taken for missteps and other errors, in timing and execution, for example.

Each stage features a board listing all of the dances scheduled there during the day, along with a “next” and “now” sign. I glance at the board, and we check hair and shoelaces one last time. Armed with words of encouragement, my daughter is now on deck. The sign changes to now. She takes a deep breath and walks onto the stage with a smile. The music begins and she starts to dance. Heel and a heel and a back 2, 3…

She looks good, I think, but I don’t know the steps well enough to spot mistakes. The judges watch intently and make their marks. The time seems to go by quickly and the young dancers bow and file off.

Later we find the results board, locate her dance “Beginner Reel,” and look for her number. It’s there – third place! My daughter leaves her first Feis with a medal, a souvenir T-shirt and a sense of accomplishment.

The dance
Irish stepdancing is high-energy competition at its best. The dancers combine hops, sidesteps and intricate footwork as their arms remain glued to their sides, their hands in a loose fist. They’re graceful, elegant and fast. As the dancers learn and memorize the steps, they count them off something like this: “Switch and a point, kick back 2, 3, slice 1, kick 2, step over 2, 3.”

Why don’t they move their arms? A variety of interesting theories and legends attempt to explain that. Some trace it back to when the English suppressed Irish dance, music and culture, and dancing had to be practiced in secret. Passersby looking in the windows of homes or pubs would not be able to tell that the people inside were dancing since their arms weren’t moving.

Others attribute it to the Catholic church’s disapproval of dancing. The priests felt that “arms at the side” dancing was more chaste and restrained.

Another explanation comes from dancing in crowded or small, enclosed areas. Traveling dance masters would unhinge the door of a small home and use it as a temporary dance floor. The dancers kept their arms at their sides to avoid hitting the dancers next to them.

It may even be by design. The straight arms help with posture, and allow the dancer to concentrate on learning the foot movements.

Jigs, reels and slip jigs are performed in soft, black leather shoes with criss-crossed laces, called Ghillies. The treble jig, treble reel, fast hornpipe, and slow hornpipe are done in hard shoes, a bulkier version of tap shoes, but with a different tip and heel to produce a unique sound. Both kinds of shoes are made in Ireland.

The costume
Each Irish dance school has its own distinctive dress. For the Young School, it’s a black velvet dress with a fitted bodice and crocheted lace trim, a stiffened skirt, a white Celtic design embroidered on the panels, and a matching sash. Boys wear black pants, a white shirt, and a tie featuring the same Celtic design.

All of the dresses are custom made by the same seamstress.

Advanced dancers can wear a custom-made, one-of-a kind solo dress. Each one is elaborate and artistic. They’re often embellished with Celtic designs similar to those found in The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript from the middle ages and a masterwork of Celtic design.

Dresses are worn with white bumpy knit socks called poodle socks. The dancers also wear a wig of traditional tightly curled ringlets, and a crown or tiara.

Because of Natalie’s Irish stepdancing, our family – Italian on one side, Irish on the other – is now better acquainted with Irish culture. By competing and performing, Natalie has learned how to be comfortable in front of an audience, how to be a good loser and a gracious winner, and how to stick with the classes held every Sunday afternoon, even when she’d rather be doing something else. She dances in the kitchen and sometimes in the aisles at Wegmans and Walmart, knowing that practice makes perfect. It’s a special connection to her Irish heritage. Out of all my daughter’s activities, I like Irish Dance the best.

To find our more information about the Young School of Irish Dance, visit www.youngschoolirishdance.com.

Socks and Stockings
Originally, women danced barefoot in Ireland. It gave them the grace and lightness Feis participants still strive for today. Ghillies were introduced in the 1920s. White poodle socks (or bubble socks or popcorn socks, as they are sometimes called) replaced dancers’ black stockings, which were forbidden by the church for being too seductive. The white socks contrast nicely with the black shoes, and are very popular for competitions. Appearing more and more often, though, are tights, especially for more theatrical productions.

by Rhonda Trainor

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