Irish these judges had a clue

I have just returned from this year’s Mid-America Irish Dance Championships. My 17-year-old sister Nicole is a competitive Irish dancer, and I have made the pilgrimage to this annual event for the past four years.

The event, which is called Oireachtas (pronounced “oh-ROCK-tis”), is held each year over the Thanksgiving weekend. Since we started attending, the venue has alternated between Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. This year it was in Columbus.

When Nic first got involved with Irish dance, I had no idea how big this thing actually was. I was familiar with Riverdance, and Michael Flatley’s heavily-oiled torso, but I never realized how many teens across the country were involved. Considering that Oireachtas is the best of the best, and that it featured nearly one thousand solo performers, there are a lot of kids doing this.

If you add in the team dancers, there were over two thousand participants. And their families. All staying in a single hotel. The greatest challenge at Oireachtas has nothing to do with the actual dancing – it’s getting an elevator.

If your child wants to take up Irish dancing, you’d better have a lot of free time for travel. Dancers qualify for Oireachtas by competing at a feis (pronounced “fesh”), a local festival where the dancers compete in smaller numbers and earn points if they place well. Feises (the proper plural form is “feisianna” but I don’t think anyone ever uses it) are held all over the country, and you’ll be spending a lot of weekends at these events.

You’d also better be financially solvent. This is an expensive undertaking. From the accessories such as shoes (soft- and hard-soled), wigs, and tiaras, to the dresses themselves, elaborate, ornate, hand-made affairs that often cost as much as a bridal gown, there’s an entire economy that has developed to support this hobby. In the four years I’ve attended Oireachtas, I have never seen an African-American dancer and only a handful of Hispanics. Even if the reasons are more cultural than economic, this is clearly a white, suburban, upper middle-class activity. You don’t necessarily have to be Irish Catholic, but it probably helps. (More on that later.)

It’s also a chick thing. Out of the over 900 solo competitors this year, less than 60 were males. Flatley has apparently failed to inspire his own gender to emulate him. If you’re a boy, and you like collecting medals and trophies, Irish dance is definitely for you. Some of the male competitions at Oireachtas had as few as three competitors in a given age category. Everyone’s a winner!

Being a spectator at Oireachtas is a remarkable experience. Once the dancers and their families arrive at the hotel, you must abandon all hope of walking anywhere in a straight line. Each dancer must be accompanied by an entourage at all times, primarily to schlep the dress bags and other accessories around. The dancers spend much of their time practicing between competitions. Practice stages are provided, but these usually fill up quickly and the girls practice wherever they can locate at least six feet of unused floor space. You quickly learn to exercise caution when rounding a blind corner, to avoid being kicked in the teeth.

The girls participating in the solo competitions are all between ten and twenty years old. They do not practice in their dresses. The dresses are bulky and generally uncomfortable, and are only put on immediately before being called out on stage. A first time spectator will experience a bit of a shock at the abbreviated attire the girls wear to practice – usually tight t-shirts and short shorts. It’s a pedophile’s fantasy come true.

For an aging pervert such as myself, I am more intrigued by the moms. This is MILF country, my friends. You will also notice that the most attractive and provocatively dressed women are the dance teachers. Many of them are former dancers themselves, and to put it mildly, they are hot.

But, you are here to see your sister compete, not to strike out pathetically with unobtainable women. Turning back to the task at hand, you purchase your wrist band ($10 for one day, $25 for the weekend), without which you are not allowed into the stage areas. You also want some idea of what’s going on and where, so you purchase a program ($15).

Now you move out into the main hallways leading to the meeting rooms where the stages are set up. The halls are filled with vendor booths. There’s the official t-shirt vendor, selling shirts, hats, sweatpants, and fleece zip-ups, all available with a variety of iron-on Oireachtas decals. A simple t-shirt goes for $20 to $45 depending on the number of decals applied.

Some of the vendors are selling useful dancer accessories such as shoes, socks, and tiaras. There are wig vendors selling the standard performing wig consisting entirely of tightly curled ringlets. The perm from hell, one might think as one walked past. Practically everything the modern Irish dancer needs is for sale here, even flooring systems for setting up a practice stage in your home.

The majority of vendors, however, are selling, for lack of a better description, Irish crap. Celtic CD’s, shamrock and leprechaun jewelry, Notre Dame paraphernalia, even imported Irish candy bars. One vendor has a display of Pig Pens, pink ballpoint pens with a battery-powered spinning pig head fan at the top, illuminated with colored LED lights.

Yes, of course I bought one. Did you even have to ask?

The girls compete by age categories, determined by their age as of January 1. The solo competitions range from U10 (Under 10) up to U20. Nicole is competing in U17. Each of the girls performs two dances, one soft-shoe and one hard-shoe, before a panel of three judges. The judges are treated with reverence. Many are actually from Ireland, and all of them have unassailable credentials, at least according to the official program.

Each dancer is assigned a number, and then a starting number is drawn at random for each competition. Three judges are positioned at evenly spaced tables at the front of the stage. The soft-shoe dance is either a reel or a slip jig, and the hard-shoe dance is a hornpipe or treble jig, depending on the age category. The dancers come on stage, two at a time, and perform simultaneously for the judges.

If you’ve never seen traditional Irish dance, it looks very much like someone trying to stomp cockroaches without moving their upper bodies. The hard-shoe dance looks pretty much the same, except that it’s accompanied by the sound of small arms fire. I know the history of Irish dance is steeped in tradition and rebellion, and that over the years, invading Vikings and Anglo-Saxons tried mightily to stamp out bothersome Irish traditions such as dancing and Catholicism. While modern Irish dancers keep their hands firmly at their sides, I suspect in the distant past Irish dancing actually involved the use of the arms and hands, if only to make rude gestures at their oppressors.

Each competition is accompanied by live music, almost always an accordion plus a piano or violin. It must take considerable stamina for these musicians to play this improvised Celtic music for over an hour at a stretch – nearly as much stamina as it takes to sit in the audience and listen to it for that long.

The dancers have to focus on their routine, keeping time with the music, and most importantly, avoiding collisions with each other. This is quite important because each dancer is performing independently; there is no coordination with the other dancer. They just happen to occupy the same stage. Frequently they will cross in front of each other and one dancer is temporarily screened from view. Nicole tells me that the dancers are not coached to deliberately upstage their dancing partner, but I have seen instances where that is clearly happening.

The magic question is how to differentiate yourself from the others in your age range, good, qualified dancers all. A dancer in her mid-teens will find herself pitted against upwards of a hundred others. This year Nic was in a field of about 70 girls. Last year it was 160.

The judges assign points to each dancer for the soft-shoe and hard-shoe performances. The girls are then ranked and the top fifty percent of each age group are recalled. They go on to perform a solo dance for the final scoring. The dancers who are not recalled are out of the competition.

Now, Nicole is no slouch. She is very good at this, and her feis record is excellent. But as far as Oireachtas is concerned, she is snakebit. She has never recalled, and this year was no exception. And each year, we wonder what she has to do differently.

I’m sure it’s a major challenge to judge these events, and I can’t imagine how you can carefully watch over a hundred girls perform the same dance without glazing over. But one would assume there are objective criteria for evaluating these performances. And one would expect to see a consistency in the judges’ marks depending on that performance.

One would be wrong.

Saturday, the day after Nicole’s performance, the scoring results were made available ($5 a copy). As usual, Nicole’s marks were all over the place. One judge would rank her in the 20’s while the other two rated her 50th place or worse for the same dance. And a review of the judges’ marks for the other girls showed pretty much the same thing for the majority of them.

So, are the criteria truly objective, or is the judging more arbitrary, or worse, subjective?

Perhaps this is just sour grapes, but I smell a rat. And he’s wearing green.

Nic has begun to take these Oireachtas defeats in stride, but the first few were devastating. She has a good friend, Rory, who is in her dance school and the same age, so they have competed together in each Oireachtas I have attended. Neither of them has recalled once. It broke my heart to see them in 2002 and 2003, utterly dejected at the announcement of the results. So I started a tradition.

After Oireachtas 2003, I made them each t-shirts with my own iron-on decal:

The girls were delighted with them. The 2004 shirts read “Oireachtas still blows.”

This year I brought the decals with me. So as not to jinx the girls, I printed a positive one (“Oireachtas kicks butt”) and a negative (“Oireachtas blows again”). Once the recalls were announced, and we took some time to commiserate with the girls, I dashed out of the room, bought two blank t-shirts from the vendor, and ironed the decals on in my hotel room. The girls had the shirts within twenty minutes. Nicole wore hers on Saturday while waiting in line to pick up the score sheets.

That afternoon, as we waited to check out, we met up with Rory and her family in the lobby of the hotel. Rory told us that she was talking with some girls from another dance school while the team dancing was in progress. One of the girls told her, “We heard there’s some guy selling ‘Oireachtas blows’ t-shirts! We gotta get some of those!”

Rory said, “Um, I have one.”

I don’t remember when I’ve been more pleased. Not just because I’ve managed to inject a significant subversive element into this whole affair (which is like my favorite activity ever), but now my mind is reeling with ways to make this a profitable venture.

Oireachtas will be in Chicago in 2006. I’d better look into getting a booth.

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