Dancers at the world championships in Citywest, Dublin yesterday. Right: Rebecca Heinhold. Below: President McAleese with Robert McAleese from Toronto, a distant cousin of her husband Martin. Martin Nolan/Colin Keegan
AT the tender age of five, President Mary McAleese took her first steps into the world of Irish dancing.
With ringlets in her hair, she danced reels and jigs at her local hall in Belfast.
Now 60, the President is continuing her passion by set dancing.
Mrs McAleese revealed her love of dance yesterday as she formally opened the World Irish Dancing Championships at the Citywest complex in Dublin.
The glitzy competition, which started in 1970 and is back in Dublin after many years abroad, began on Sunday and will run until Easter Sunday. At least 20,000 supporters are expected to watch 5,000 competitors in action.
Yesterday, the President recounted her own days as a dancer in front of a packed auditorium of ambitious young hopefuls.
"The most important thing about dancing is that you have got a whole new thrilling friend for life," she said. "I started dancing when I was five years old. I'm still set dancing at the age of 60."
The championships began in 1970 and the first competition was held over two days in an auditorium with less than 500 seats.
However, over the years it has grown and now requires an auditorium seating 1,500 and lasts eight days.
The style of dress for Irish dancers has also dramatically changed, with make-up, fake tan and curly wigs de rigueur for many of the girls.
Mrs McAleese pointed out that things were very different in her era.
"When I was dancing in St Mary's Hall in Belfast my grandmother, mother and I would crochet the gorgeous little collars we wore on our outfits weeks beforehand," she said. "Mums now seem to be busy with glue guns."
Dancers from Europe, Asia, America, Africa and Australia are set to participate in the event, which organisers estimate will bring in €10.7m for the local economy.
"There is a huge buzz, energy, enthusiasm and fun in this place today. If we could plug into that we wouldn't need to talk about renewable energy sources," said Mrs McAleese.
Dressed in a black dress with green sparkles, young American Danielle Kinney (13) was one of those nervously waiting to perform on stage yesterday.
"When I was younger I saw girls do Irish dancing during a St Patrick's Day parade in Washington," she said.
"After that I knew I wanted to take up Irish dancing."
Proud father Kevin Kinney was delighted.
"My great-great relatives left Ireland during the potato famine so it means a lot that my daughter is competing."
Roisin Naughten, from Shrule in Co Mayo, was one of those picked to dance in front of the President after she clinched second place in the under-12 competition.
"She has been dancing since the age of three," said her mother Catherine Coleman, who runs her own dancing school.