Wednesday 16 October 2019

20-hour-per-week rehearsals, strength and sprint training: what it's like to be an Irish dancer in 2019

Practising 20 hours a week, with extra strength and sprint training, not to mention fierce competition, Irish dancers these days are more like athletes. Unlike athletes, however, they receive no grants or government aid, they do it purely for the love of dance, writes Regina Lavelle

Top of the game: Six-time world champion Lauren Early. Photo: Mark Condren
Top of the game: Six-time world champion Lauren Early. Photo: Mark Condren
Taking flight: Students at the Holly & Kavanagh Dance School train around the clock. Photo: Kyle Tunney
All in the details: Pattern technician Brenda Kennedy works on dresses at Eire Design. Photo: Darren Kidd/Press Eye

Regina Lavelle

It is characterised by intense bursts of activity, exceptionally technical and powerful moves, all executed at a heart rate of 170 to 180 bpm.

To reach their peak of physical attainment, some train for 20 hours a week. Weekends are for competition. They compare the 60-90 second sessions to a sprint, total exertion and complete control. The penalty for error can be career-threatening injury.

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For its most accomplished exponents, Irish dancing is no more a hobby than county GAA. It is, for all intents and purposes, a sport; its protagonists, athletes. And the competition, merciless.

"Our training schedule is three two-hour classes a week. Most students will do another one or two private sessions, for an hour and a half. Every session includes warming up and stretching, which is core training, lunges, body resistance and power bands. It's all to elongate and strengthen the body," says Niall Holly, of the Holly and Kavanagh Dance School, a veteran of the Flatley circuit and previously lead on Lord of the Dance.

Taking flight: Students at the Holly & Kavanagh Dance School train around the clock. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Taking flight: Students at the Holly & Kavanagh Dance School train around the clock. Photo: Kyle Tunney

Dancers have little by way of social lives. They must watch their diet, not merely for their physicality, but because extra inches means costumes will require alteration.

It's a lifestyle that sounds decidedly spartan.

"I leave work in Fingal council at 5pm and come straight to dancing," says 20-year-old dancer Sean Mortalo. "That's me pretty much Monday to Friday. I wouldn't be out on weekends. I have my social life here and all my closest friends are through Irish dancing. These are the sacrifices. You can celebrate when you're finished at the World Championships. That's your glory."

Lauren Early, a six-time World Champion and holder of 12-consecutive Ulster titles, says she began working with a personal trainer in her mid-teens when she started to gain weight.

"I had got third in my first World Championship and that's when I went, 'Hold on. I actually might have some actual talent here.' Then when I hit around 15 or 16 I obviously started gaining weight and growing up," says Early, who founded Reaching New Heights, an online academy to teach dance and improve dancers' fitness and nutrition.

"That's when my mom went and found the personal trainer who's my co-worker now. The main training - sprint training, speed training, strength training, aerobic fitness - started kicking in around 16 when I got serious with nutrition and building up to the world titles."

Like her colleagues, this meant sacrificing the normal teenage rites of passage.

"It meant saying no to friends, no to parties. You had to be committed as a proper athlete."

Ciara Walshe grew up in Auckland. Her Irish grandfather bought her a video of Riverdance when she was three.

"I watched it over and over and I wore through the tape. So my mum had to get me another one and I wore through that as well," she recalls.

All in the details: Pattern technician Brenda Kennedy works on dresses at Eire Design. Photo: Darren Kidd/Press Eye
All in the details: Pattern technician Brenda Kennedy works on dresses at Eire Design. Photo: Darren Kidd/Press Eye

Having lobbied her mother with similar brio, Walshe started lessons. At "eight or nine" she began to compete, by 12 competing abroad. Her mother's reaction, she recalls, was along the lines of: "Remind me why we're doing this again."

At 16, Walshe spent two weeks in Dublin, testing the waters. Shortly after she upped sticks and moved, leaving her family in New Zealand. That was two years ago. She has twice since made the World Championships.

"Being here is more intense, definitely," she says. "The standards in class are a lot higher. It's motivating and beneficial because you're watching the other dancers and you're like, 'Oh wait, I want to do that. How are they doing it?' You're constantly pushing yourself. You're never comfortable."

Like Mortalo, Walshe trains at least five times a week. If she's not competing on the weekends, she's in the studio.

The impact of Riverdance and Michael Flatley has been seismic. A generation of teachers graduated from World Championships to Flatley's shows and returned as teachers with new vigour. Now a dancing career could continue into your thirties, instead of petering out in your teens. The promise of longevity brought with it an imperative for physical discipline.

Cheryl Nolan, who runs the Nolan-Bailey School of Dancing, competed in the All-Irelands and Worlds in the mid-1990s. She later went on, via the 'Flying Squad' - a promotional troupe, to perform in Riverdance.

"Before Riverdance there weren't the strength and conditioning components that are now necessary to compete," says Nolan. "In Riverdance there was a big emphasis on preparing the bodies to give the best possible performance."

This transformation was not accidental but a deliberate act of professionalising the next generation.

"Riverdance did revolutionise Irish dancing in 1994 because it was put on the world stage," says Marie Duffy, dance director of Lord of the Dance and "Michael Flatley's right-hand woman for 22 years". Marie adjudicates at the senior competition for CLRG, An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, the Irish Dancing Commission, and runs the Marie Duffy Foundation, which offers scholarships and bursaries for Irish dance, music and language.

It was through her former students at the Marie Duffy Irish Dance School, who became part of the original Riverdance line-up, that she met Michael Flatley. She was at a preview in London when he spoke to her about a new show, Lord of the Dance.

"At the beginning of Lord of the Dance I would take training sessions with the dancers - who were the crème de la crème - and their attitude was, 'Ugh. You have to be joking. What is this about?' Especially the guys," she recalls.

"It was a whole mindset of retraining. 'If you want to do this, guys, if you want to make it a professional career, you've got to look after your bodies.' The biggest battle was to get them to take the stretching, warm-ups, and the cool-downs seriously. Now that's become a norm everywhere. The level of fitness is that of a top level athlete."

Often, these physical advancements are overshadowed by the noisy controversy over aesthetics. Parents aghast at the sight of bejewelled and bewigged young dancers have become a hardy perennial of feis season. Their concerns have not gone entirely unheeded. In 2014 the CLRG, the largest governing body for Irish dancing worldwide, issued new guidelines for competitions, including banning makeup and false eyelashes for under-tens.

Certainly the dresses can be outré. Perhaps more apropos are matters of cost - dresses for top dancers reach €2,000 and over.

Thankfully, there are ways of economising.

The micro-economy operates thusly: The most competitive dancers invest in the custom dresses. These are mostly worn for less than a season, before being sold into the resale market, often eBay. Niall Holly compares the initial outlay as being like buying your first car.

"Your first one is always the most expensive. After that you can start trading in."

eBay has dresses for every budget, and taste, selling everything from mini versions of the green velvet A-line dress popularised by Jean Butler - yours for €25-€35 - to bejewelled velvet numbers with intricate Celtic embroidery.

Even here, there is a hierarchy - there is a dress, and then, there is a "Gavin".

Gavin is Gavin Doherty, CEO of Eire Designs. He started designing at his mother's knee when she used to make Irish dancing dresses. She was a traditional dressmaker, but he began sketching elaborate designs for increasingly adventurous clients. Unsurprisingly, after a degree in mathematical statistics and computers, he started his company Eire Designs.

His factory in Belfast now employs 35, including a team of four whose focus is to apply crystals. A former dancer himself, he also teaches dancing at the Doherty Petri School of Irish Dancing.

The dresses sell from €70-€100 up for beginners' costumes and €600 upward for championship competition costumes. As befits the price, the creative process is involved.

"After I have okayed the design, five, ten, 15 sketches can go back and forth between us and the teacher and customer before production. A process called digitising turns the graphics into stitches, and then to the embroidery machines. And then it's made up. We'll usually have a fitting for body shape on site and then it goes for crystals."

Can a dress advantage a dancer?

"You don't officially get points for your dress. But often at the tippy-top, there can be very little separating the top five dancers who are trying to win the World Championships.

"If someone has a dress that really complements their style of dancing, that fits and flows with the movements, and it's eye-catching, do I think it can make a difference between first and second? I do absolutely."

The use of wigs also attracts criticism, although as one parent points out, they offer a practical alternative to what went before.

"My memory of dancing was sitting with rollers in your hair. Being dragged off to feises that were finishing at three in the morning," says Bernadette Barry, whose daughter, Maddie, nine, modelled a wig which now bears her name.

The Maddie costs £85 and is a Camelia Rose, a company started by Rosey Jackson, previously a criminal lawyer in Scotland. Wigs range in price from £20-£30 up to the most expensive at £115.

"We have an appointment basis where the dancers book to get wig and makeup done. They look the part and they feel confident, partly because it's teachers and ex-dancers doing it," says Jackson.

What is clear is that if your child is a talented dancer, prepare to open your purse. There are ways of minimising cost and schools, to their credit, provide a fundraising architecture for students travelling to competitions, so that families are not always coughing up.

"It's very expensive because it's private and it's not like we get money back to help our parents," says Lauren Early.

"My mum and dad are normal working people, my dad makes car alloys and my mum is a store manager, and they had three girls doing the competitions, the World Championships, the Americans, the All-Scots. And we were getting the top, best dresses because we had the best dressmaker. Now I always say to my mum and dad that I remember struggling through it growing up and the family being tight. I had my mum on a podcast recently and she said, 'Lauren, I don't know how we got through it'."

Next year Irish families will have a reprieve from travelling since the Convention Centre will host the 50th anniversary of the World Championships. Although this is the third time in 10 years Dublin has had the event, 2011 and 2017 were both held in Citywest.

In the past five years it has been hosted in Montreal, Glasgow, Citywest, Glasgow again and Greensboro, North Carolina. But as with anything in the capital, there is a premium. And, most likely, this will be picked up by parents.

"We have had World Championships in many countries," says James McCutcheon, chairman Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, CLRG. "If we take it to Belfast, they give us a subvention. If we come to Glasgow, there's something similar. When we bring 20,000 visitors for 20 days of competition, there is a huge benefit to the local area."

To date, the CLRG has not received any Government funding for this event (nor is there any state funding for general administration of CLRG). They have received €50,000 for the 2020 World Championships and the same for the 2017 event from Fáilte Ireland International Events Financial Support Scheme. Additionally, some money was received from South Dublin County Council for the Citywest event. As a result, says McCutcheon, it looks certain that next year's event will be "far more expensive for attendees, at least double to other venues.

"With no/little subvention from Government, the cost of the event falls on the attendees with any shortfall from CLRG reserves."

A spokesman for the Department of Heritage, Culture and the Gaeltacht says: "The Arts Council supports a number of professional not-for-profit dance organisations". However as the World Championships is a competition, it is not covered.

He added: "A small number of traditional organisations involved in the preservation and promotion of Irish music and dance, and include dance in their activities such as Siamsa Tire and Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Eireann receive funding from the Department."

Some Irish dancing is supported by Government then. But competitions like the Worlds, really, aren't.

"Ireland is the worst to its own. It doesn't give grants. It doesn't give funding. The likes of Belfast and Glasgow are fantastic with the grants they offer," says Niall Holly.

Despite the success and increasing popularisation of Irish dancing, some feel that it is perhaps not as well regarded as other art forms. One of the examples cited is that Irish dancing lessons attract VAT at the higher rate, whereas ballet classes, for example, are zero rated.

This is partly because of the inflexibility of EU VAT law - it wasn't listed for exemption in 1991 when the directive was drafted - but still, this kind of irritating anomaly should not be insurmountable. The issue has been raised several times both in the Dáil and the Seanad, but the VAT rate remains unchanged.

What is certain is that Irish dancing is becoming stronger. And certainly it has no shortage of dancers, domestically and internationally, signing up.

Increasingly dancers are themselves pushing for more recognition of their efforts, although it is no mean feat.

"You'll always have people that either love or hate football," says Lauren Early. "Dance is just the same. There will always be those people with that negativity. I did an interview with the BBC not long ago and I was saying, 'I feel Irish dancing is definitely a sport because we train and behave like professional sportspeople. Then someone wrote underneath, 'Oh please, you just swing your legs in the air'."

That's what they're up against...

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