The dancer’s costume was glittering under the lights as the first bars of the set began playing around the hall. With graceful poise, she extended her foot...
But then, no.
She hesitated. She stopped. A false start.
In the world of Irish dancing, this should be an instant disqualification.
Missing your cue at the start of a set is a mistake from which nobody, under the rules, can recover.
But somehow, the dancer managed to place in the competition.
It caused uproar.
Within days, she was stripped of her prize.
But while the dancer herself had her trophy taken off her, there is no evidence that there was any investigation into why some of the judges adjudicating the competition awarded her such high scores after such an obvious, unforgivable mistake.
This recent incident has become part of the lore supporting the growing theory that the multi-million euro, cut-throat world of global Irish dancing has a
While there was absolutely no suggestion of ‘feis-fixing’ in this incident, it attracted a lot of attention – because the world of Irish dancing has found itself in a constant state of suspicion.
In many cases, parents and their children who are competing are oblivious to the attempts to massage their scores.
The Irish Independent has spoken to a number of parents of dancers, to current and former dancers, and we have also spoken to current and former dance teachers – here in Ireland, in the UK, and in the United States – about the shocking allegations that are rocking An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (CLRG), the biggest Irish dance organisation in the world.
Every single person would only speak on the strict condition of anonymity, so terrified were they of the possible ‘backlash’ they or their students would face, if they were seen to be criticising powerful dance schools or teachers.
One former teacher said he was afraid his former students would lose their spots in world-famous shows such as Riverdance if he was seen to critique the powers-that-be.
Far from the quaint Irish dancing lessons in parish halls that some of us would have known as young children, the dance insiders painted a bleak portrait of a fiercely competitive and tight-knit industry – which more than one person, without prompting, compared to being “in the mafia”.
A former CLRG dance teacher, based in the United States, described how she was terrified to ever ask one of the alleged cheating judges for a favour.
“Because once you do, you’re indebted to them for life,” she said. “It’s like The Godfather.”
Another former star of Riverdance said that the world of Irish dancing was reminiscent of The Sopranos.
“Certain dance teachers and certain schools will pull together, until there is so much consolidated strength that eventually you end up with a ruling class of teachers,” the dancer said.
While the allegations of ‘feis-fixing’ have shocked, they haven’t necessarily surprised.
A number of parents were heavily critical of the ways that evolving rules around costumes can allow dancers to mark themselves out on stage as being from certain schools.
The theory is that dancers who have their world titles, their dance school, or their name somewhere on their costume are trying to indicate to judges that they’re one of the dancers that form part of an illicit understanding between teachers.
It will sound extremely Machiavellian to those of us who would have known Irish dancing to essentially be a children’s hobby.
Even the way that this scandal has emerged is mired in controversy.
It is understood that screenshots handed over to the CLRG all relate to text conversations between one teacher, who is based overseas, and about a dozen others.
It is understood that the specific dance teacher has been at the centre of an extremely serious and contentious allegation, and is deeply aggrieved at the way the matter was handled.
“It’s a scorched-earth policy,” said one teacher.
“They felt that if they were going down, they were bringing us all with them.”