Siobhan was very active in Irish Dancing from age 5 to age 18. She described a typical dance competition to me.
The two most common kinds of dances are soft shoe, or the reel, and hard shoe. Soft shoe dances are bouncy and fast paced. They use leather shoes, that criss cross at the front. Hard shoe dances like the horn pipe are danced using trebles and clicks. Trebles are when the dancer brushes their foot backwards and forwards and clicks are when the dancer hits their heels together to make a clicking noise.
Siobhan described a couple of narratives that were represented through choreography. A group dance represented the weaving of an Irish cloth. Another dance features boy and girl pairings and centers around Irish women and their sailor husbands who are leaving for sea.
The competitors are judged on technique, energy and stamina. Judges look to see that the soft and hard shoe dances are properly executed, like the “turn out” with feet crossed over and turned in. Dancers must maintain energy, exhibited by high jumping and high kicks. Although the dances are generally short, they take endurance, so stamina is another category to be judged.
The music they dance to is typically live music consisting of accordions, fiddles and keyboards. The music is lively, fluid and constant throughout the competition.
Irish dresses typically have Celtic designs, each with its own unique narrative behind it. However, Siobhan has noticed a trend in competitions recently to stray from the natural and traditional and towards a beauty pageant atmosphere. Girls now have sequined dresses and wigs instead of traditional Celtic designs and natural curly hair.
Local competitions are usually held in ballrooms of hotels, with a stage set up near the front. Regional or national competitions are held in larger hotels with multiple ballrooms or convention centers. World competitions are held in either Ireland or Scotland and occasionally in the US.
Audience members include families of dancers, dance teachers, other students from dance schools of Irish dance and any interested public in the area.
Siobhan noted that Irish dance is not exclusive to ethnically Irish individuals. She has met Asian, African American and South African people at Irish dance competitions. Siobhan noted that the experience fostered a sense of diversity.