1.) The dance.
2.) Before you start lessons.
3.) Shoes, costumes, and how care for them.
4.) The feis.
5.) The Irish Dance Dictionary

                              THE DANCE

        As a dancer.
        Basic dances.
        Figure dances.
        Céilí dances.
        Posture.

Irish dance is commonly (and erroneously) referred to as 'Riverdance' in ye olde post-1995 vernacular. No Irish dancer would ever, ever use that term outside of its proper use: a show. Riverdance is a show comprised of multiple dance forms. Irish step dance is a folk dance that evolved in Ireland and spread across the world due to, among other things, Irish immigration in the 19th and 20th century, and Riverdance's popularity in the 1990s. It is characterized by a lack of upper body movement, most notably arms at the sides, and dynamic rhythmic step dancing coupled with lighter softshoe.

Irish dance can be traced back about as far as ballet, if not a little further. Legend says Queen Elizabeth I had Irish dancers come to her court. How the dance form looked is up for debate. Unlike ballet, it was not danced by royalty, had no regulation, and so specific documentation doesn't exist until the age of the Dance Master in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Dance Master traveled across Ireland (and other locations) spreading the knowledge of dance to the masses. He knew every step and every dance and shared them with anyone willing to listen. There were many dance masters, but as the dance's popularity became more scattered with the Irish people, they faded into obscurity.

Google tells me that there's at least one person a month who wonders why Irish dancers don't use their arms. Unfortunately, there's no definitive reason, only theories. Again, most of the Irish people were heavily persecuted during the rise of the dance, and no one was documenting anything.

Popular theories are: a. the Irish dancers who performed in Elizabethan courts refused to raise their arms to the queen, b. to avoid being caught having too much fun by the mean old British soldiers, Irish people would keep their upper bodies still so that they wouldn't be noticeable, c. the Catholic Church didn't like provocative dancing, d. Dance Masters didn't want boys and girls having too much fun together such as what was exhibited in Sean nós dancing of the time (some accounts claim that small objects, such as stones, were held in their hands to keep them at their sides while other records say that dancers could place one or both hands on their hips).

Because Ireland was a conservative environment, the likelihood of a 'no touching', 'no wiggling' rule was probably fairly high, but we'll never know the true reason for the aesthetic. Especially interesting is how stiff the only paired dancing in Irish is. Arms are held away from the body and elbows are at ninety degree angles. céilí is wilder and looser, however, but is much more of a layperson's dance than Irish (that being céilí dancing was for parties and fun, while Irish was much more complex).

One of the oldest traditions in Irish dance is the feis (pronounced similar to 'fesh'; pl. feiseanna) or feile (pronounced similar to 'fayluh'). The feis is a competition more for the Irish dancer than for anyone else; but when it first began, and in order to be considered a feis and not a feile, it must have other competitions. Livestock, music, sewing, art, singing, and baking among them (and still seen today depending on the location). A feile, on the other hand, is only for dance. You'll rarely see this correctly used where it should be. Feis is the blanket term.

Feiseanna were once a man's domain. So was the hornpipe. These things have changed over the last century. As an aside, the reason for curled hair at a feis (now represented by a wig) was the fashion codes of the early 20th century for girls. Sausage curls were all the rage, so dancers wore them, and have worn them since.

Irish dance influenced much of the rhythmic dancing popularized in the 20th century, most predominantly tap dance. Without one, you wouldn't have the other.

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                        AS A DANCER

Irish dance is, for the most part, not an improvisational dance. While basic dances have choreography that, by rule, varies from school to school, every official dance that one can compete in has a name and time and a look and feel that must be preserved. Some of the dances with set choreography (of which there are a few dozen) are over a century or more old. I'm not listing everything. Google 'Irish set dances' or 'Irish céilí dances' to learn more specific history.

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                        BASIC DANCES

The basic repetoire learned by all dancers when they begin, in the order most commonly taught. Hardshoe is labeled with a little H.

        1.) Reel, 4/4 time

        2.) Light Jig: 6/8 time. Dropped in upper levels.

        3.) Single or Hop Jig: Danced in 6/8. Dropped in upper levels.

        4.) Slip Jig: 9/8 time. Danced only by females and (occasionally) younger boys.

        5.) Treble JigH: 6/8 time. Danced in two speeds: slower for advanced (to showcase more intricate steps) and faster for beginners.

        6.) HornpipeH: 4/4 time with accents on the first and third beat (ONE-and-a two-and-a three-and-a four-and-a). Danced in two speeds. Slower for advanced dancers and faster for beginners. Once only danced by males.

        7.) Traditional SetsH: Of varying times. Traditional sets are the first group of dances with set choreography dictated by the governing body (whichever you might be dancing under, the largest being An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha). These sets are (in order of speed) Saint Patrick's Day (jig), the Garden of Daisies (hornpipe), the Job of Journeywork (hornpipe), and the Blackbird (hornpipe).

        8.) Treble ReelH: 4/4 time, identical to softshoe reel. Rarely danced in competition. Primarily show pieces to demonstrate power in numbers (ie, Riverdance finale).

        9.) Non-Traditional SetsH: Of varying times. These are choreographed by each school or teacher and danced by advanced dancers. Popular choices for major competitions change every year. Here's a list of a few:

Jigs (6/8)
The Blackthorn Stick (66)
The Funny Tailor/The Drunken Gauger (66)
The Humours of Bandon (69)
The Hurling Boys (69)
Hurry the Jug (69)
Jockey to the Fair (69)
Miss Brown's Fancy (69)
The Orange Rogue (69)
Planxty Drury (69)
Rub the Bag (66)
The Three Sea Captains (66)

Jig & Slip Jig (6/8 and 9/8)
Is the Big Man Within?

Hornpipes (2/4 or 4/4)
The Ace and Deuce of Pipering (76)
Bonaparte's Retreat (76)
Downfall of Paris (76)
The Hunt (76)
Kilkenny Races (80)
King of the Fairies (80)
The Lodge Road (76)
Madame Bonaparte (80)
The Piper Through the Meadow Straying (76)
Planxty Davis (80)
The Rambling Rake (76)
Rodney's Glory (80)
The White Blanket (76)
Youghal Harbour (80)

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                        FIGURE DANCES

The team dances, or dances with arms. Separate and yet in the same vein as céilí dances.

Figure dances, unlike solo dances, have only two levels in competition: beginner and open (in North American scoring). Open is achieved when the majority of dancers in the figure are in a certain solo level (often Novice or Prizewinner in America).

Figure dances are named for the amount of people in them. 2-Hands have two people, 3-Hands have three, etc. They are usually reels in competitions (ergo, they're called 4-Hand, 6-Hand, 8-Hand reels), but for show they can be any time. The general size competed in feiseanna are 2-Hands, 3-Hands, 4-Hands, and 6-Hands. The most popular 6-Hand reel has a set choreography and is called the Fairy Reel. A popular 8-Hand is Trip to the Cottage. It's estimated to be from the 18th century. Figure dances can be choreographed by teachers.

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                        CÉILÍ DANCES

Like the name suggests, so long as you speak Irish. A céilí (or 'kay-lee') is a party.

Céilí dances are not a part of most competitive Irish dance. They are a part of the vernacular and are much more akin to what people think when presented with folk dance. Céilí dances are often extremely old and traditional, but designed to be danced at gatherings and to be known by everyone. Little technical skill is involved, as a result.

The Waves of Tory and the Seige of Ennis are two popular céilí dances.

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                        POSTURE

Tall and straight my father taught me, this is how we dance.

Okay, so I've now established that Irish dancers are well-aware we have little arm movement. I've even explained why this evolved. However, I've not broken it down.

It's not arms at the sides, back rigid, legs flailing.

The arms go slightly to the back, allowing the chest to come forward, the shoulders back and down, and the posture to be upright such as in ballet (use the Other String Theory; the imaginary string from your chest to the céilíng will guide you into proper posture). Hands should be neatly curled in loose fists, with the fingernails touching the thigh.

As for legs, they must always be crossed and turned out from the hip. The ideal is to dance entirely in fifth position as laid out in ballet, but this is a physical impossibility and never seen. However, dance as though you're trying to be the first.

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                        BEFORE YOU START LESSONS

        Your first class.

Consider the following: to compete, which is an essential part of Irish dance culture, you must have a certified teacher. Much like going to an accredited college, your school must be a part of an official organization in order to compete in any feis run by those organizations. And those organizations own the rights to all major championships, as well as dance guidelines and choreography.

In short, look for TCRG or ADCRG attached to your teacher's name. TCRG will be a more common certification, and it guarantees your right to compete. ADCRG is the certification for adjudicators, and is not as commonly sought after. TMRF is another certification, but for céilí dancing only.

If the school doesn't have the certification mentioned, ask them. If they don't know what you're talking about, keep searching. If they say their teacher is in the process of studying, ask them how soon they'll be certified. You don't want to be held back if you are truly out to compete.

Additionally, certification guarantees that your teacher knows a vast amount of history, choreography, and music that will come in wonderfully handy. A certified teacher is a prize.

Now, consider the following following: avoid places advertising "Celtic" dancing, unless it's clear that they are using this as a blanket term for both Highland and Irish, or some other combination of legitimate Celtic dance forms. Do not pursue a studio that uses Celtic as a synonym for Highland or Irish dance. That's a faulty assertion and shows that you might be entering a studio simply trying to make money.

Thankfully, in the years since Riverdance's peak, studios advertising for Celtic dance or Irish tap (avoid this at all costs, no matter what--it's almost insulting) have dropped off in number. Still, you want to search for an Irish dance or Irish step dance studio. They are most often only going to be offering Irish dance, not a mixture of many other dance forms. Remember to ask about certification.

Cost will vary from place to place, as will the supply lists. No teacher will expect you to show up all kitted out on the first day, however. And if they do expect this, they will tell you. Dancing in generic dance shoes is perfectly okay. Ghillies and hardshoes are not widely available and teachers know this.

So, generally speaking, nothing more than good socks, a t-shirt, shorts or pajama pants, jazz shoes and water bottle is necessary on the first day. You will not, traditionally, be learning hardshoe steps for some time. Some schools wait months, some wait over a year, and some go on a case-by-case, dance-by-dance basis. My teacher required us to know four basic softshoe steps comfortably. We started hardshoe after four or five months of dancing. I've come to discover that this is unusually fast. However, age plays a huge part. Younger children may have to wait years. I was thirteen and in a class of teenagers and preteens, so we advanced more quickly.

As your lessons progress, your school will likely determine what you need to bring, but a very general idea for an Irish dance bag contains the following items (items necessary only later or in special circumstances are starred*):

Band-Aids/plasters: Do not underestimate the amount of blisters you will get in one class.

        Moleskin or other blister prevention items*: For Americans, assuming this product is still available, Blister Relief is amazing.

        Ace bandages*

        Pain cream/medicine*

        Medical tape*

        Pen/pencil and some paper: For notes on directions or steps.

        Jazz shoes/sneakers/lyrical ghillies, black ballet slippers: Good for beginners and for situations where you don't want to wear your softshoes.

        Ghillies or reel shoes: Ghillies for ladies, reel shoes for gents.

        Hardshoes

        Elastics*: For your hardshoes and for your hair.

        Socks/poodle socks

        Sock glue

        Spare clothes

        Tights

        Bobby pins

        Water bottle

        Simple snack

        Extra change or a couple dollars

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                        YOUR FIRST CLASS

Because if you are anything like me, you want to know everything, even if you're guaranteed a completely different experience.

On the first day, I was in a class of Beginners between the ages of twelve and forty. The school was just expanding to my city from the tiny location it started at ten years earlier. As a result, they were renting studio space in another dance studio, and every class was beginner level, divided only by age group. My own age group (a generic adult level that would be siphoned into 'preteens and teens' within the year) had two classes. This won’t likely happen for most people.

The first thing we did was give our street shoe sizes and order softshoes. This is a normal procedure for many schools, because most don’t actively stock shoes or live in a city where there is a retailer (often they are ordered straight out of Ireland or England). How long it takes for the shoes to arrive depends on the availability and exactly where they are being shipped from (then they arrived, we did a series of fittings to make sure our sizes were correct).

Once sizes are taken, we started on basic movements, which is universal. Hops, threes and sevens are going to be the first items tackled, and if you’re really good, you’ll even learn a lead round of the basic reel. The beginner reel is generally the same with every school, and combines a circle of eight threes and a side down of sevens.

All Irish dances take off from the hops, threes and sevens, so mastering them is the most important step. Threes are perhaps the most complicated when you first learn them, but with practice they evolve into hanging leaps (birds) and define champion dancers.

Stretching was more heavily focused in the first year because we were all utterly inflexible. Turn out becomes the focus and touching toes becomes a goal. Our teacher was gently sympathetic.

The format of the class never changed for me. We often learned steps as a group, dancing together, then our teacher would ask us to execute them individually, or with a partner, so she could see how we looked. It's not nearly as terrifying as this might sound to you. After a few weeks, you'll be ready.

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        SHOES, COSTUMES, AND HOW TO CARE FOR THEM

        Shoes.
        Costumes.
        Costume care.

                        SHOES

Softshoes, also known as ghillies, gillies, pumps, or lights, if you're a girl. Reel shoes, if you’re a boy. They are the first type of shoe you will receive as a dancer.

Boys wear a jazz shoe-like softshoe with a heel (like a hardshoe) attached. Girls wear a more open and intricately laced version of a lyrical or Highland ghillie. The main difference between a lyrical ghillie and a softshoe is the toe. Irish ghillies have a much lower cut toe on the shoe, sometimes covering little more than the big toenail.

They are often compared to ballet slippers, but having worn both I feel that is an unfair comparison. Ghillies have a harder sole, usually made of thick leather, and have long, looping and cris-crossing laces. They are open nearly down to the toes and lace up the middle, and are always made from thick, black leather (though some are white for dying—these are usually only used in dance dramas). Often, it takes a dozen or more proper dance lessons to wear them in.

Reel shoes are often more flexible when received, except for a few new designs that are made from tougher leather (almost like a hardshoe without the front tip). They lace up like a tap or hardshoe, and from a distance are indistinguishable from either. Boys’ steps require hitting the heels for kicks and various leaps.

Softshoes are always worn in smaller sizes. Unlike many dance shoes, it's important to size down due to the amount of stretch your shoe will undergo. If your American shoe size was a seven, you would go for a ghillie between UK sizes two and four, but no larger (a four is about a size six). The smaller size will seem like a punishment--they really do hurt.

Below is a simple size chart for basic conversions:


Size in American Size in UK/Irish
10 8
9 7
8 6
7 5
6 4
5 3
4 2

When trying on ghillies, make sure there is no sagging in the toe or heel--if there is, they’re too big. As I said before, ghillies stretch. It’s not unusual to go through a pair or two a year due to stretching or other wear and tear. You want form-fitting shoes! A buckling big toe, however, is not the way to go. While the open toe look is popular, you do not want to have shoes so small that your toe comes out. Try them on while you are wearing thicker socks (poodle socks are preferable).

When you tie your ghillies, because the laces are so long, they will often need to be wound around your arches or ankles. Neatness is key, however, and most dancers (and teachers, as well as adjudicators) prefer you wrap the excess laces around the arch. This can actually damage the foot, so don’t tie them too tightly--and if the laces are causing problems, stop tying them that way immediately. (The ultimate point with the laces is to keep them almost invisible while dancing. How you go about doing this is at your discretion. I do not recommend cutting the laces.)

General dance supply stores won’t carry proper ghillies or hardshoes unless there is a local demand and they are specifically asked, so check there first but don't expect a lot of variety. They’ll likely give you lyrical ghillies, and until you see the real Irish ghillie in person, lyricals will probably look the same. Don’t be fooled, however--they’re not the same at all (even if the box says Irish or Celtic).

A popular brand for Irish dance shoes is Antonio Pacelli. Don’t let the name fool you; they know their Irish dance shoes! That site is a good approximation for how much your shoes will cost. Hardshoes cost about two or three times more than softshoes.

Other brands include Rutherford, InishFree and Hullachan Pros.

Hardshoes, jig shoes or heavies are worn by both male and female dancers after they have mastered softshoe dances. They are not like tap shoes in any way, so do not buy tap shoes, even for practice. Using tap shoes to familiarize yourself with hardshoe steps will only confuse you and set you back when you receive proper shoes.

The first difference is in the anatomy: hardshoes have a thick, steep heel and a thick, graduated tip made of wood, plastic or fiberglass. There are no metal taps and any use of metal taps is forbidden by An Coimisiun rules. The heavier materials used actually make a better, fuller sound.

Hardshoe dances are danced primarily on the balls of the feet, though you’d never realize it. Heels are kept off the ground unless a step or movement requires it. Usually heel clicks are the main purpose. Bubble heels, which are no longer manufactured, were forbidden--they made the heel wider and easier to hit. Good for dancers with poor turn out, bad for dancers who cheat.

Hardshoes buckle across the ankle and tie up the center. They have no supporting shank so they often make the wearer feel the need to walk "duck-footed" because of the angle the toes are turned over the tip. Some varieties have harder half-shanks, but those are broken immediately--flexible hardshoes are important for toe stands and pointing the feet cleanly.

Fitting hardshoes is more akin to fitting street shoes because they don’t stretch in the same way, so you want a comfortable fit, not a tight one, when you try them on. Some dancers wear elastics to keep them more snug and to secure the laces.

Decorative buckles are an optional feature but many champion dancers wear them to draw attention to their feet.

Poodle socks are worn by females only. They are so-named because of the textured fabric that, apparently, makes them look like the texture of poodle fur. That fabric, however, is designed to keep the sock up better than ordinary socks. No poodle sock stays up that well, though, so sock glue was invented to keep them stuck to your skin. Poodle socks are generally worn just a couple inches below the knee.

They can be purchased at any place selling Irish dance shoes, but most are acquired at feiseanna (competitions). Because they’re fairly cheap, some dancers have a dozen or more pairs (they wear out quickly if you wear them a lot).

Tights, usually black, are also popular, and different schools require different brands or denier, so it’s not safe to rely on a website like mine for that information--ask your teacher.

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                        COSTUMES

A school costume is usually provided for both boys and girls, and in some cases, different levels. The intricacy of the costume varies drastically between schools, and all schools have a different style. From a simple skirt and white blouse, to a pleated dress with machine-sewn knotwork, almost anything goes.

School costumes are worn in lower levels during competition, and by Novice (or the mid-level), many dancers opt to get their own solo costumes. But for the first levels, and always for figure/team dances, these uniforms are the only thing you wear.

There are many different ways that school costumes are issued--some students actually purchase them, while many students rent. Boys sometimes have to buy their own shirts or slacks, and have some sort of recognizable school piece that is included in the entire uniform (shirt color, vest, tie or a cummerbund are the most common aspects that the school controls).

Solo costumes are a sign of great achievement and are frequently purchased once a dancer is well into the Novice level, but higher levels are usually more common. Solo costumes help each dancer stand out in a competition that often includes thirty or more dancers.

For girls, the dress is usually very, very expensive and incorporates as many Irish dance trends (because there are a ton of those) as possible. Heavy velvet and light satin were once the most popular base materials, with sequins or rhinestones adorning various custom-made patterns. The dress has stiff panels of varying number (much to my dismay) and there is usually a crown or tiara to match. They vary so much that it is impossible to include any more information. (Please, however, make the dress incorporate Irish tradition. Leopard print should never happen again.)

Boys have a bit less variety. They often wear black shirts and slacks and a nice tie or cummerbund, sometimes both. A trend of the past that should be rekindled was that of a velvet jacket, tie, white shirt, plain kilt, and high socks that match the color of the jacket.

Many rules have been laid down about competition-appropriate costumes. The "princess style" that Riverdance made popular for performances is not allowed in competition. Skirts cannot be higher than four inches above the knee, but many dancers (taller ones, especially) evade this rule. Today, black tights are fighting for dominance over poodle socks probably due to this trend of short dresses.

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                        COSTUME CARE

To keep these expensive and gorgeous costumes looking their best, always make sure to follow these simple tips:

        If you must sit, don't lean back. If you must sit out of doors, make sure it's on a stool high enough off the ground to keep your dress from getting dusty. If possible, buy a wearable dress cover.

        Wear your costume only when you must!

        Don't eat messy foods or drink colored or sticky liquids while you are wearing it.

        Always have your dress/slacks/shirt in a protective bag when away from home.

        Never check your costumes if you are flying. No matter what the flight attendants may say, it is not at all suitable for an $800+ dress to be shipped in cargo.

        If paneled or stiff, store a solo or school dress flat before a feis or a performance to keep it in top condition. Placing it under your mattress is a good idea.

        Air it out before and after every feis or show by hanging it near an open window. Use a bit of fabric freshener to take out any distinct smells if you can’t get to a dry cleaner before using the costume again. There are underarm inserts that also help prevent staining. Invest in these temporary treatments.

        Always dry clean your costume. Follow any instructions you were given when you purchased or borrowed the dress. If there aren’t any, fill in the cleaner what material the dress is made of so they know how to handle it.

        For shoes, you should always polish any visibly worn areas before a feis or show. Broken heels and tips can be repaired, but it is recommended that you buy new onesif that happens because the repairs are often quite expensive.

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                        THE FEIS

        What you need to bring.
        The general list.
        The outdoor list.
        Additional feis tips.
        Your first feis.
        The oireachtas.

One of the first aspects of Irish dance I ever came across when I began my search for information was the mysterious 'feis'. It may be unsurprising that it was fairly soon after this that I found out what it was.

Irish dance and the feis (and competition in general), as I've stated in the history lesson, go hand-in-hand. One rose up with and around the other, and even though you can be a perfectly talented performance-based Irish dancer, you will never have the full cultural experience if you don't, at the very least, see one feis on your lifetime.

Granted, the look and feel of feiseanna have changed dramatically within the last decade alone, but if you ignore how awful so many dancers dress (I'm looking at you, wayward champion-level spray-tanners and boys in glitterball shirts and vests), you're going to meet dancers from across your country, your region, and the whole of the world. You'll see steps and choreography that you might not have known before. A feis shows you the Irish dance world that performing alone cannot provide.

As I've mentioned in the first section and many times after, a feis is a dance competition (though to be a true feis it must also include music or art, baking or livestock competitions, as well--among other things). In the largest governing bodies, and in An Coimisiun itself (the largest), it is the stepping stone for advancement and the qualifiers for regional, national, and world competitions. To compete, your teacher must be certified. That means s/he must have passed the TCRG exam.

Feis season is generally considered summer through autumn, when most of the oireachtasi (regional competitions) start. Many are held out-of-doors on covered stages with live accordion, fiddle or whistle-players. Some are held indoors, such as in hotel ballrooms, gymnasiums and auditoriums. This will depend on your location. The most common type of feis in the Western Region seems to be the ballroom.

In a feis, competitions are divided by age and level, and sometimes by gender. Depending on the country and organization the feis is associated with, the levels may change. There are generally four or five, with some places in the US and Canada adding Pre-Beginner and Advanced Beginner.

How you place in each dance determines what level you will be in at the next feis. Unlike many competitive events, Irish dancers can be in several levels at once, but cannot progress past the level before championship (generally) until all dances are caught up and qualified.

For example (and I am going to use the North American levels for this: Beginner, Advanced Beginner, Novice, Prizewinner, Preliminary Championships and Open Championships):

You start in Beginner. Placing first, second or third will move you up into Advanced Beginner in each individual dance. If you failed to place high enough in, say, your light jig, that will remain in Beginner. Once you hit Prizewinner, you must level your dances off or place high enough in the ones that qualify (generally a softshoe dance and your set dance) in order to move up.

Championship competitions are run like regional competitions. Your scores from your solo dances are combined. You no longer dance light jig or single jig.

The procedure for competition is straight-forward. You line up and dance line two at a time, walking out when the previous pair has started their final eight count, and beginning when the previous pair has finished. You dance two full steps (meaning, right and left foot of two steps). Once finished, you point your foot and bow to the adjudicator, then go back in line. When every dancer has had their turn and the adjudicator is finished marking scores, he or she will nod and you will bow to them and to the musician, then walk off the stage in a line.

Some feiseanna also include team dancing competitions or may even have a very fun and relaxed céilí before or after the festivities.

There are also, of course, vendors. I can't stress enough how wonderful it is to try on shoes, so if you need a new pair, take advantage!

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                        WHAT YOU NEED TO BRING

In short: a lot. Of course, depending on how far you have to travel, where the feis is being held, and how many dances you'll be in, this list may lengthen or shorten.

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                        THE GENERAL LIST

        Registration information (if you need it--often, you won’t)

        Costume/costume bag

        Shoes

        Socks/sock glue (or tights)

        Water bottle

        Money

        Duct or electrical tape

        Hairspray

        Safety pins

        Number card

        Scissors

        Curlers and/or wig

        Snack

        Change of clothing

        Bobby pins/hair ties/comb or brush

        Deodorant

        First Aid

        Black shoe polish or black nail polish

        Practice music and a CD or MP3 player.

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                        THE OUTDOOR LIST

In addition to the items above, you’ll want to include the following.

        Camping stool: do not sit back in a regular chair or the dress will wrinkle. Camping stools help retain the shape of the dress and keep it clean.

        Mini fan: because some locations get exceptionally warm, especially in the summer, it is important to keep cool in any way you can.

        Small cooler w/ snacks: to keep your water cold and your energy high, always bring a small day cooler and fill it with energy bars, light sandwiches, fruit and extra water.

        Sunblock: when I went to my first official outdoor feis, I came back with horrible sunburns on my legs and face--don’t let that happen to you! Even though the stages were covered, I spent more time outside of them than under them. Mind that you apply the sunblock before putting on your costume, and check for wayward spots where it hasn't soaked in. You don't want to get grease stains on your costume.

Many feiseanna will probably extend overnight, especially if they are in large cities or indoors. Because of this, there are many tips that should always be remembered so you don’t find yourself buying out the vendors in a panic:

First, take into consideration just how you’re getting to your destination!

Flying: Absolutely, under any circumstance, take your dress and other expensive dance items with you on the plane. Do not check your costume or your shoes! While you can buy new poodle socks at the feis, it’s difficult to dance in new shoes and heartbreaking (not to mention wallet-breaking) to lose a costume. Check with the airline on their policy for clothes. Some have places you can hang items, especially for businessmen traveling with suits.

Driving: A long drive to a feis means a long, irritating wait. All of my feiseanna (save for one where, yes, we flew) required a five hour or more drive. A long car ride cramps up the body, so it’s a good idea to stretch after arriving so your body is ready for the competition, even if it’s a day later. Make sure your garment bag is hung up or laid flat. Keep your dance things in their own bag, away from usual overnight necessities--this keeps confusion at a minimum.

Nap if you can and snack on light foods if you have nerves. If you have curlers in, leave them in! The extra time in the car will make the curls extra bouncy. But if you’re running late or have to compete soon after arriving, take them out before you get to the hotel. As hair varies, you be the judge of how long your curls will hold.

The hotel: Many hotels offer -feis rates---discounted rooms for those attending the competition. Most teachers will inform their students if they are aware of this, so it’s up to you to find out! The feis is usually held in the ballrooms with vendors in their own area or along the halls.

When it comes right down to it, girls who compete over different days have it a bit rough. If you are curling your hair, touching up said curls becomes a chore you don't want to pursue, which is why most dancers break down and buy a wig. I'd recommend that. But if you are curling, sleep in a hairnet! Always, always sleep in a hairnet. It may feel disgusting to have layers of gel and spray in your hair for up to three or more days, but unless you can re-curl, that is the nature of the beast.

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                        ADDITIONAL FEIS TIPS

Eating healthy is another important, yet overlooked aspect for pre-competition preparation. Ditch candy bars and, especially, carbonated drinks. Drink milk or water or juice instead and pack in the carbs the day before! Muffins, pasta, bread, don't be afraid! You’ll work it all off in competition.

If you get a blister or a cut on your feet due to the extra practicing or bad ill-fitting shoes, don't panic! Air it out for a night to help it heal, then cover it with a thick bandage or two and medical tape on the day of competition. Then, once the first day is over, air out the cut again, put a healing lotion on it, and the next day repeat the bandage process.

To prevent blisters altogether, wear thick socks and comfortable shoes. Extra practice will obviously cause irritation, so place moleskin over areas of high contact (thus, likely areas for blisters to form).

Clip your nails! There is nothing more brutal than having your palm impaled on long nails during team dances or cracking a toenail during a hit or toestand.

Look over your costumes; make sure they are all in one piece and well-pressed. As I said before, adjudicators look at the entire package, not just the dancing, so you want to look put-together.

        Put your costume in a garment bag or a large trash bag with a hole at the top for a hanger to go through. If it’s long enough, tie the end. If not, make sure it covers the entire skirt or trouser legs. No sense getting any part of the costume dirty.

        If you have a dress bag with pockets, and you are female, put your crown/tiara/headband and bloomers in those pockets. If you are a boy, put your shirt or tie or cummerbund (or any other part of your costume) together, as well. As always, make sure nothing is wrinkled. If there is a chance something will, bring an iron or ask if the hotel or location you are going to will have one.

        When you receive your number, it is better to purchase a number card than to pin it on. Number cards are plastic rectangles that you slide your number into. A ribbon or string ties through holes punched in the plastic and ties around your waist. Most feiseanna will have them for sale at one or more vendors. Buy one! If you have to pin, use safety pins and pin at the waist of the dress, making sure there will be no visible holes when the pins are removed.

        Polish your shoes. Scuffed and rough-looking shoes will not get you any high marks at a competition. Visible duct tape looks sloppy and is frowned upon. Black electrical tape is the best for the tips, and black polish will take care of the scuffmarks. Even softshoes can take a bit of polish, so don’t hesitate. Remember to tuck all laces in—if you have hardshoes, wearing black elastics helps keep them looking neat and also secures them to your feet. If your shoes will barely make it past the feis, or you need a new sizes, buy them there! I don’t recommend competing in brand new shoes, but if it’s a desperate situation, new shoes are better than no shoes at all.

        The night before, take a warm bath and pamper your feet! Massage the arches and apply lotion to your legs. They deserve a reward, after all! Go over the steps in your head. Review trouble spots until you have it down (it’s best for your nerves to know you can handle the difficult steps before the day of the feis). Curl your hair then if you don’t use a wig and attempt to sleep. Soft Spike Curlers are the best for this! This may seem like a lot, and for beginners it is, but remember, the most important thing is to have fun. As you progress and attend more and more competitions, you will fall naturally into the routines that work for you, and the only work will be executing the steps properly and keeping a smile on your face as you do it.

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                        YOUR FIRST FEIS

The one thing I wanted more than any advice was what to expect at my first feis. What to do and how to do it. The things that, really, you can only learn by experience! So what I am about to offer is not universal feis advice of a universal feis experience. Every competition is different and every school has a different policy for practice and arrival. It's always safest to move forward on your own.

Despite what anyone may tell you, removing curlers five hours early is not the end of the world and will not cause a freakish hair mishap by default. As long as you used enough spray and good enough curlers, of course. Test how your hair holds curls before you do the official curling for the feis. At my first feis, I removed mine spike curlers on the evening of figure dances (before practice began). The curls lasted the entire weekend. However, I knew someone who could not hold a curl even if they used an entire jar of gel and several bags of spike curlers, so don’t take my experience for it. Form your own!

Change into your dress before your competition. Wear a tank top underneath so you can unzip the top of the dress between dances in order to keep cool. Put your number on and fix your hair and make up (don't wear too much--it's ugly). You can put your shoes on right before you dance, so there is no need to wear them right away. Bring your dance bag.

When you arrive at the hall or the ballroom or wherever the feis is being held, you will be given a book of competitions and corresponding stages and the competitors in each dance. The back of your number card may also have your dances and stages printed on it, in order. Always double check the stages to see if your dances are still there and haven’t been moved. Listen to any announcements. Chances are, things will stay as planned, with one exception…

Feiseanna are notorious for running behind. Sometimes they run early, but a feis running on time is as rare as a plane arriving on time, so do not rely on the schedules they give you! Always go down an hour earlier than your first dance to see how things are moving along to and to check the progress of the dances before yours. Most of this will make sense when you are actually there, but on the wall behind the stage is usually a row or two or three or four or five of numbers. Those numbers are competitions at that stage. Your competition numbers will be at their assigned stages.

With an hour to kill, stretch. Make sure you aren't going to wrinkle your dress, but sit on the floor somewhere clean and stretch, stretch, stretch. Do a small warm up and run-through of the dances, browse the vendors, and wait.

Here's a tip: watch the competitions before yours, if there are any. You’ll see exactly what is expected of you in a way far better than a few paragraphs on a website.

Before dancing, double or triple-knot your shoes and tuck the laces in. Have a parent, teacher or friend look you over for anything out-of-place and go line up along the side of the stage with the other dancers (really, line up where you see your fellow competitors mingling before the dance).

Something that worried me was knowing when my competition was up. You will know! They will most likely announce it and even call for absent dancers once everyone is lined up. What you do when your competition is announced is to go to the side of the stage and find the person with the clipboard (or they will find you). Get your name checked off and wait until you are cleared to walk onto the stage.

You will line up at the back, single file, facing the adjudicator's table in front. No two dancers from the same school are ever allowed to stand together in line--this prevents the adjudicator from judging the same steps at the same time.

Once you are in line and standing in fifth position, do not talk, fidget or fix your hair or your shoes or your dress. The competition has begun! You can double-check that your number is okay, but otherwise, make sure your primping is already finished. You will likely be marked down for obnoxious or distracting behavior in line.

The dancing will start from the adjudicator's left, two at a time, and they will indicate when you are to step out. Stepping out was the part that made me nervous--knowing when to start if I wasn't first or second in line was hard to remember. It requires you to listen closely to the music and to pay attention. If both you and the person next to you aren’t listening, you'll both be late. It's happened many times.

On the last bar of the second step, walk out. Stand near the back, in front of the dancers, with your foot pointed and ready for action. When the bar ends and begins again, start dancing! Once finished, bow to the adjudicator and walk back to the spot in line that you were in before. Make sure your number is still visible by discretely looking down at it (when wearing a number card, it can sometimes flip up), and stand in fifth position again.

Sometimes adjudicators aren't clear about how they want you to walk out, and some may make you wait--but he or she will indicate this and you will not be marked down for attempting to start or any other mistake as a result of confusion. Beginner dancers will sometimes receive two claps before they start, and if you aren't prepared for it, it can be a bit distracting.

When everyone has danced, the adjudicator will finish scoring and then indicate when he or she wants you to leave. When they do, bow to the adjudicator then to the musician and walk off in single file.

Remember, messing up is totally natural and happens to everyone. It happened to me, in fact. A lot. And not just at my first feis.

Obviously, lining up differs for figure dancing and trophy dances, but your teacher will instruct you how the former works, and the latter merely requires everyone to line up in a U-shape, with each person dancing solo from the adjudicator’s left. One full step is all you usually dance.

Once every dance is over, it's a good idea to check the awards room or the area they have designated for receiving your awards. There will be scoreboards up or some form of notification, and each competition will be listed with the top dancers' numbers below. If you see yours, go to the table where they are handing out the awards and go to the appropriate area (some competitions divide things up by odd numbers and even numbers). They will likely have you sign for your award, so give them the competition number and your number (make sure it's with you) and they will give you the medal.

Trophy dances are usually announced and handed out on stage after most of the competitions have ended.

Once you have your awards (or maybe you didn't luck out this time), congratulate yourself for surviving your first feis! Here's to many more.

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                        THE OIREACHTAS

An oireachtas (pronounced 'oh-ROCK-tus') is an Irish dance competition/championship that is held annually in various designated regions. For example, the Western Regional Oireachtas serves the west coast of the United States.

The oireachtas is something that only championship-level dancers can attend and compete in. There are solo dances, figure dances and sometimes dance dramas (a story told through dance). Scoring in the top ten generally qualifies you for Nationals and Worlds, but it depends on how many dancers there are in your competition, so something as select as the top four is possible.

Oireachtasi (plural for oireachtas, pronounced 'oh-ROCK-tah-shy') divides competitors up by gender, something that regular feiseanna do not. They usually take place over an entire weekend at a large hotel in a big city where dancers from all over the region fly, drive or walk to.

The World Championships (Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, pronounced 'oh-ROCK-tus rin-ka na crin(ya)') is the ultimate goal for many dancers. It takes place around Easter in Ireland (though it has taken place in Scotland before) and lasts for over a week. Like the oireachtas, Worlds competitions are set up differently than a normal feis.

Dancers are divided by gender and age. The softshoe round is first for all ages and genders, thus it takes a very long time to finish. Girls dance a reel or slip jig, boys dance a reel. They go two at a time, but generally do not line up on stage, so the music starts over for each competing dancer. Two full steps are usually danced (sometimes more) and multiple adjudicators are used at once.

Then, the hardshoe round begins. Either a hornpipe or treble jig is danced, and each dancer can specify the speed. One this is finished, the scores are tallied and added and if a dancer makes it in the top 50% of his or her group, they recall.

For the recall, dancers do a solo set dance. From there, the winners are chosen.

There are many other championships, such as the All Irelands, but for US dancers, qualifying at your own regional oireachtas is the best way to get there. The Oireachtas also qualifies you for Nationals.

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                        DANCE TIPS

        Warm-Ups and cool-downs
        Endurance exercises

                        WARM-UPS AND COOL-DOWNS

Irish dance is as much of a sport as soccer or baseball, and just as the players of those games need to warm up to prevent injuries, so do Irish dancers.

Irish is a high-impact sport, meaning the body makes forceful contact with the ground. Because of this, dancers are susceptible to many ailments, such as shin splits and inflamed joints, both of which I have.

Many Irish dancers attend a feis every two weeks! Some perform weekly or monthly. And between those, dancers can attended up to six hours or more in classes a week. That's a lot of work and a lot of strain on the body. If they aren’t warming up and cooling down, that strain will case permanent damage.

Surprisingly, cool-downs are almost entirely forgotten when dance class ends. Studies in athletic magazines have shown that this is not smart--that cool-downs are just as important as warm-ups. It is essential to prepare your body before you begin dancing in order to prevent injury. A full fifteen minutes of stretching allows the dancer to reach his or her full potential in class. But merely stretching is not enough.

When you arrive at class or at a feis or performance, before you even begin stretching, walk around or jog in place to warm up your body and get the blood flowing, then stretch.

Helpful hints? Release a rigorous stretch (such as splits) slowly so that muscles don't cramp or get pulled. This relaxes the muscle carefully and releases all of the tension. Also, to prevent Achilles tendonitis and to help keep shin splints under control, before and after class, sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you as if you were going to touch your toes. Pull your feet back is if you were tugging at string tied to your toes and hold for one minute. Because Irish dancers are constantly on their toes, this is a very important exercise.

To strengthen your ankles (and to help learn those fast tricks), sit on the floor with your legs bent in front of you. Cross one leg over the other and in the air, write the alphabet with your toes. Only move your foot, not your entire leg. Do this with both feet. Make sweeping movements, not tight ones. Big letters are the best way to go.

Below is a list of most common causes of injury, taken from Antonio Pacelli.com.

Most Common Causes of Injury:

        Lack of warm up/cool down

        Misunderstanding of technique/choreographical demands

        Abrupt change in workload

        Fatigue/illness

        Unsuitable floor/environment

        Ignoring early warning signs

        Lack of general fitness/health

        Structural Imbalance

Here are some simple stretches to help prevent injury:

        Toe touches. Try them with your toes facing inward, outwards, and straight ahead, to reach all the muscle groups.

        Toe reaches*. These you do sitting down. Try to get your elbows to the ground whilst doing them; just remember not to push yourself. Relax your muscles. Next, point your toes hard and reach, then pull them back, and reach, then turn your legs out at the hip, and reach. Don't bounce!

        V-Stretches. Spread your legs apart in a "V" shape, and put your hands under your knees. Push up with your hands, and down with your knees. Then, bend down and try to get your elbows to the ground. Relax all your muscles, and you'll just keep going down. Don't push yourself!

        Ballet sit-ups. Lay flat on the floor, then lift yourself into a "V" shape (legs straight up, upper body straight up), bring your legs in, then extend them again, then lower yourself. Make sure to have your legs on the ground at the same time as your upper body, to prevent injury.

        Curl downs. Sit up with your knees bent and brought close to your body, then lower yourself down, very slowly. Don't fall when you reach the point where it hard not to. Then go back up without letting your feet off of the ground.

        Quads*. Stand up. Bend your knee and hold it behind you. Pull gently. You should stretch your quad muscle in your legs.

        Pull backs*. Do as mentioned above. Sit down with your legs extended out in front of you like in the toe reaches, but pull your feet towards your upper body. Hold for one full minute.

        Alphabet*. Do as described above. Sit with one knee bent up, and put your other leg across it. With your foot and ankle (NOT knee) write each letter of the alphabet. Make them large. Repeat with both legs.

        Ankle rolls*. Roll your ankles clockwise and counter-clockwise.

        Split stretches. Do a lunge (one knee bent while the back leg is straight behind), but hold and go down a little farther, then come back and get in a bird leap position (one leg bent under, one leg straight out), and bend your upper body towards your knee. Repeat with both legs.

        Back twists. Sit with one knee under you, and one knee up, and hold on to it and twist your back in the same direction (i.e. if your right leg is up, then twist to the right.). Repeat with both legs.

        Leg presses. Sit on the floor with both legs bent and your feet touching and brought close to you. Press your legs down and try to get them to touch the floor. It's very hard, and takes lots of practice, so don't expect them to touch right away.

Try these stretches before class (thirty seconds to one minute each leg), and those denoted with an asterisk (*) after class, to prevent injury.

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                        ENDURANCE EXERCISES

Endurance, or stamina, is the most important thing for any athlete, not just Irish dancers. Having strong endurance kept dancers like Jean Butler or Bernadette Flynn from collapsing after months and months (and years) of touring with popular shows. It keeps championship dancers going for full two minutes of high-impact dancing in competition. It keeps you going in class and going for life.

But it's not entirely natural to have high endurance. Humans have enough to allow for bursts of speed without passing out, but to go for several minutes without feeling light-headed or miserable takes practice and training, just like everything else.

The first step in creating and maintaining high endurance and good stamina is to set goals. For instance, start one week with twenty crunches, and add five or ten every week following until you can make it to one hundred or two hundred! Pushing yourself gradually is what improves both stamina and endurance.

Instead of getting a ride to school, if it’s close by, why not walk? I walked to and from middle school for two years which equaled about ten miles a week. It truly helped prepare me for the extensive amount of dancing I soon began to take. If walking is impossible or unappealing, try using stairs. Just a few minutes a day, until your heart is racing steadily, is enough to help gain endurance. It’s as simple as that! Lift your knees a little higher, go a little faster. Or jog after school for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Increase your running time or distance each week. It's all about training your muscles and lungs to keep up with your body.

If you have room and a little time, there is a series of exercises we learned in PE, of all places, that really helped:

Stand across from a wall that's at least fifteen or twenty feet away (being outside could work). You want a clear path to the wall because what you do next is run normally to the wall and back to your starting point again.

Then, skip there and back, pushing higher off the ground than you normally would.

Next, do high-knees, which is running with your knees lifted up waist-high with every movement.

Next, do the grapevine. Move your right leg in front of your left, then move your left in front of your right and son on and so forth. You will be running sideways, not forward, so face the adjacent wall and keep your shoulders square to it.

When you reach the wall, run backwards half-way, then run back to the wall normally, then run back again.

Next, do something all Irish dancers need to know how to execute perfectly: butt-kickers! Run, but with each step, kick your bum.

Then, stop at the wall and don't come back. Turn and do lunges to the middle of the room. If you’re not worn out or you want more to do, get down and do a series of crunches, increasing the amount each week. Then, turn and do push-ups (again, increase the amount each week), then toe-reaches.

And you're done!

I also highly recommend the New York City Ballet's Work Out DVD. It takes only a few minutes of your day, but it works on your core through inventive techniques that their ballet dancers use.

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