But in recent years, image has become an increasingly important — and expensive — part of competitive Irish dancing. In addition to paying for lessons, some parents are spending up to the price of a used car to ensure that their daughter looks as well as she dances.
“Its become a sport for the rich I’m afraid,” according to Maureen O’Malley-Byrnes, founder of the Brooklyn-based O’Malley Irish Dance Academy.
“Students purchase costumes outright from us for $550 but we hold a fundraiser each year to try and give back some of the costs. But girls who go out for the solo competitions are becoming extremely extravagant. One of my students paid $1500 for a costume.”
“It’s getting out of hand,” agreed Niall O’Leary, who owns the O’Leary School of Dance, one of New York’s largest Irish dance schools.
“Costumes are costing $1500 to $2000. People have paid up to $1000 for a second hand dress. Ours [costumes] cost between $450 and $500.”
If that seems expensive, consider the fact that competitive dancers usually have at least two costumes; one for their school and a solo costume for competitions. In addition, students are becoming increasingly reluctant to wear the same outfit twice.
“You see top champion dancers getting a new costume every six months,” said O’Leary.
“Even if they’re getting a new costume every year, a dancer who starts early would probably go through 15, 20 costumes.”
“I’ve gone through at least four school costumes and this is my third solo costume,” according to 16-year-old Lisa Murphy, who has been dancing competitively since she was eight.
“I think appearance is very important. The dancing is a lot of it but it’s very much about how you look too.”
Carolyn Conroy has run the Irish Dancer Catalogue, a specialist clothing and accessory company for Irish dancers since 1980.
“At this point, some costumes have reached the point of ridiculousness,” she said.
“Its gone too Las Vegas. It’s absurd. You’ve got people buying raw silk costumes. They don’t last, so you can’t sell them on and they cost a fortune. Parents are putting their kids in full competition dresses when they barely know how to dance. People who pay that kind of money are basically doing it for bragging rights.”
Said O’Leary: “Solo costumes have gone completely awry form tradition. There’s been a move towards tight-fitting outfits. Competition rules state that costumes can be no more than four inches above the knee but many are taking that to be an Irish four inches. People are using leopard and jungle prints. There are no native leopards in Ireland. They’re very thought-provoking but display a lack of understanding of what its all about.”
Murphy describes her outfit as “very glittery.”
“It’s light blue with hot pink lines,” she said. “I helped design it. I wanted it very sparkly for competitions. I also have a crown that matches the colors in my dress.”
“Her latest costume cost $1300. We got it for a good price from a lady in New Jersey,” said Murphy’s mother, Lucille. “Her last one cost $1500 — we had it shipped in from England.”
In addition to the expense of one, or indeed several, costumes and pairs of shoes, there are also an increasing number of accessories to consider such as poodle socks, wigs and tiaras, some of which were never used in Ireland but have become integral to the U.S. circuit.
Wigs, which are used as a substitute for curly hair, start at around $30, but can cost up to $60. Tiaras range from $12 to $30.
“We started the wig thing,” admits Conroy.
“Parents were calling us with their kids in tears because they had to have rollers in their hair all night prior to a competition. Ours was a little Shirley Temple thing that went on top of the head. It was meant to help those who don’t have natural curls. Now you’re seeing kids of six years with six feet of hair. It was a good concept that went crazy.”
Noreen Tyburczy’s two daughters, 8-year-old Molly and 12-year-old Norah, have been dancing for three years. In addition to their school costumes, both girls have a competition dress. Molly’s cost $150, while Norah’s cost $200. Both were second-hand.
“They have small hair pieces — they cost $30,” said Tyburczy.
“I think the curls really add to it — they look beautiful. I set their hair for the first year and a half but its time-consuming, and if it gets wet, the curls just go wild.”
Murphy has gone through at least four wigs since she began dancing, each costing around $50 dollars. She also requires several different pairs of shoes for different dances.
“I would have spent at least $15,000 on her since she began,” her mother estimates roughly.
O’Leary disapproves of wigs.
“I have an unofficial rule that anyone who wants to wear a wig has to shave their heads!” he said.
“If a student has nice, long hair, why hide it? It’s about uniformity. Students going to the trouble of growing their hair and then getting these wigs, which often fall off because they’ve so much natural hair underneath.”
“Its about a uniform appearance,” agreed O’Malley-Byrnes.
“It’s the going look right now. Our girls wear a wig and a little crown on their head which is the same colors as the costume, poodle socks and shoes.”
Even socks have become more stylized in recent years, where the trend towards longer styles has prompted the widespread use of sock-glue.
“There’s a whole industry built around socks and wigs and accessories — its silly,” said O’Leary.
The increasing use of makeup and tanning creams in dancing competitions throughout Ireland led the Irish Dancing Commission to issue a statement in April banning their use in contestants under the age of 10.
“There were a lot of children wearing makeup and a lot of people were talking about it so we decided to bring in a rule,” according to a spokesperson for the Commission.
“Its usually the parents who put makeup on their children and not the teachers.”
It might seem as though parents who go to such expense have taken leave of their senses, however, most do it in the belief that the right outfit gives a competitive edge.
“I think that looks are a big part of it,” said Lucille Murphy. “It’s important to have the right dress and hair done the right way. You really can’t be in competitions without the look.”
O’Malley-Burns agrees that appearance can be a swaying factor for judges.
“I think if you had two dancers of equal measure, the dancer who looks better is more likely to win over the girl who just comes out in a ponytail and dress that’s less elaborate,” she said.
“Its all about the packaging. Your eye is drawn to the better-packaged dancer.”
But O’Leary believes that judges make their final decisions based on talent and not appearance.
“They do this all in the belief that a good-looking dancer will beat an ugly dancer. Its about confidence,” he said.
“Its almost a Vaudeville thing of trying to hide themselves behind a mask. Irish dancers don’t smile, they’re not enjoying it, they’re putting on these ridiculous costumes and stupid wigs and at the end of the day, the best dancer wins.”