By Loraine Ritchey
"Irish and Highland Dancing"
Celtic Fest Concert: First appeared in Dancer June 1998
Fate it seems has been kind. Last month I mentioned I would try and bring Dancers readers more on Irish Dancing. The North Coast Pipe Band's "Celtic Fest Concert" gave me the perfect opportunity as well as a wonderful and entertaining afternoon. Pipes and Drums of the highest caliber, the musical group "The Emigrants", and Highland and Irish dancing on one program.
The concert flowed beautifully from one idiom to the next thanks to the expertise of the stage crew J. Wall and J. Bannister (Brush Drama Dept.). Exits and entrances were meaningful and Smooth. The afternoon left the packed house clamoring for more. One number from the North Coast's part of the production reached across the footlights and grabbed the audience (both educated piping audience and the lay audience) by its collective soul. Simply titles "Song for Mary" (dedicated to Mary Conway) the tune and it's devastatingly beautiful rendition pulled the audience into the production and made them one with the performers, something every performer strives for but which happens infrequently.
The North Coast then played with the audiences emotions once again and took us to another level with the upbeat "Scotland the Brave" and Highland dancers, to be followed by the Slip Jig and Traditional Irish Hornpipe. This seemed to be the pattern for the afternoon. The audience would just start relishing one emotion to be pulled to another level and emotion before they became complacent. The staging was simple and elegant relying on the performers ability and the expertise of the stage crew. The focus then was directed to the musical and dancing abilities of the performers, a challenge that was answered and well met.
The stage was given over to the dancers (something else that infrequently happens). Irish dancer, Patrick J Campbell had the added pressure of dancing to the pipes. Patrick, at the time of writing is traveling to Ireland for the Irish World Championships. Patrick usually dances to the accordion, fiddle or tin whistle. Patrick placed 11th and 7th respectively in the Junior 1996 and Senior 1997 Senior Men's World Championship. He and his counterpart in the performance Catherine Leneghan , TCRG, ADCRG had never seen Highland dancing. "We were aware of it, and had seen some things on TV but had never experience it in the flesh" Catherine is the Director of the Leneghan Academy of Irish Dance, with over 100 students. She is also an adjudicator on the Irish competition circuit. Catherine and Patrick both studied with Masterson School of Irish Dance. Patrick watching the Highland dancers warm-up said, " I was impressed with their athleticism and the incredible strength they have in their legs and yet they were "soft" on their landing. The hand movements and the control of the upper body at the same time and how the dances reflected the culture was really interesting. I am glad that I was able to see Highland first hand. I hadn't really known what to expect but it was really awesome!" Catherine was also impressed with he Highland dancers strength but also " the arch of the foot and the discipline; there was a reason for every movement executed. They don't just do a movement or place a position just to place it."
So what are some of the differences in Irish dancing and Highland? Firstly, the use of the upper body; speaking to Irish dancers etc. the two main legends and stories that I have come across, so far, (I am sure my mailbox will be full of other reasons after this is printed) with regard to the holding of the arms. One "legend" has it that this style of dancing evolved so the dances could be performed in the narrow confines of the pub, as people were usually jammed in together. Another is that during the "troubles" with the English (remember them- they were the group that also banned piping and dancing etc. in Scotland in the 1700,s) the English considered "dancing" as anything that used a turn-out, use of the arms and upper body and "changes" done in the air. So to get around the ban, the Irish kept their arms at the side, brought in the turn out and so on. Which legend is accurate or if either is, I wouldn't like to say, but I would be interested in hearing others.
Apart from being banned by the English, Irish and Scottish dancers have other things in common. Both Groups have a competitive circuit. Usually the dancers start their dancing at the urging of their parents. There is a lot of hard work, traveling and costuming. A great deal of attention is paid to technique and competitions, use of live music for the dancers. However, in the competitive arena there are some differences between the Irish and Highland. Irish competitors do not as a rule have male and female dancers competing against each other. (Note this is Midwest USA) "The men, especially in the Midwest region, have their own competitions. They can dance in any plain colored kilt and velvet jacket of their choice, and now they can have the option of pants" Catherine goes on to tell me" there are regional variances where the male and female compete with one another. As an adjudicator it becomes more difficult because you have the flash and dash of the male dancer to compare with the technical difficulty of the female.
Irish dancers are judges basically on timing, execution, carriage of the body, difficulty of steps and overall ability. Competitions come under the Irish Dancing Commission, which is the world wide governing body. To dance in the Irish World Championship, which is held Easter week at a different sight in Ireland every year, a dancer must first qualify in the US or Canada, etc. Like Highland, the country is divided into different regions, East, Midwest, and South etc. However, unlike Highland, once a dancer becomes a teacher, he or she is considered a professional and can no longer compete. As in highland, the teacher, adjudicator has to pass various tests to earn a teaching or adjudicators certificate. "It seems that we (Irish dancers) are allowed much more artistic freedom when we compete, although the basics have to be in place and the steps-it is how we interpret those movements and the variations in the footwork. Sometimes an interpretation will come along to be followed by other dancers and Ireland will feel that it is not in accordance with their policy, but mainly it is up to the teacher and the dancer to decide how to show the judges their particular strengths. You can pretty much choreograph your own material and as a teacher adapt the dance to the talent of the individual"
In a Championship there are usually three judges and the dancers are judged on a scale from 0 to 100, but and Irish dancer, unlike their Highland counterpart, can have access to the results. The dancers at the end of the day or competition are given "judges notes". So you know why you were placed and why not. "As an adjudicator I try to give the dancer all I can. Sometimes when you have a very large competition or championship, you don't have a lot of time for comments. In those circumstances I try to at least give each dancer one good comment and one area where they need improvement. As a teacher I find these comments helpful when a student comes back to class with the comment "turn out toes", and although I have been saying it for months, it is good for them to hear from a judge. It helps to reinforce!"
"The advent of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance has certainly helped Irish dancing, as a male dancer it has made life easier. There are times when every male dancer goes through the teasing of his non dancing friends, but the friends I have met through dancing, the act that I was always in shape, no matter the sport I chose, and winning and traveling was always fun. Now with "Tap Dogs" and "Stomp" etc. they have helped get rid of some of the stereotypes." Patrick at this moment is considering a move to further his career with "Lord of the Dance", "but first I have to concentrate on this years World Championships"
Catherine Leneghan has graciously agreed to field any questions that "Dancer's" readers have on Irish dancing. She can be reached: Catherine Leneghan, The Leneghan Academy, 16801, Valleyview, Cleveland, Ohio. 44135 TEL 216.671.9434
NOTE: Patrick did go on to place in the Worlds and also performed in the Las Vegas Production of Lord of the Dance.
As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at
Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.