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Colorful, Complex Creations Adorn Irish Dancers.

IRISH STEP DANCE HAS AMAZED audiences through the complex footwork that flies from the stage during shows such as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. It seems only fitting, then, that the competition costumes worn by champion dancers who fill the ranks of those shows are equally complex in their design. Performance costumes tend to be simpler in order to emphasize the unity and precision of a line of dancers and to give the stage shows a sleek, modern look. Competition costumes, however, are tailor-made for the individual female dancer, with heavy embroidery and elaborate applique intended to make her stand out. Obtaining such a dress, known as a solo costume, is a rite of passage within the world of competitive Irish dance because it signifies that a dancer has reached a certain level. At that point, she will work with her teacher and a costume designer to create a specific, individual look. [] Unlike artists in other forms of dance in which a costume may denote a character or mood, the Irish dancer need not portray anything other than her own personal tastes. As designer Mary Staffrey, who is based in Youngstown, Ohio, explains, "I encourage the dancers to pick out as much as they can. The dress needs to be a reflection of their personality, their being." [] There are several guidelines that direct this freedom, however. Generally speaking, "Competition costumes are based on the same dress pattern," explains Rhea McGarry, wardrobe mistress for the Chicago-based Trinity Irish Dance Company. "A circular skirt with a front panel and a regular bodice with a jewel neck. Always long sleeves, though they vary from straight to bell to puffy, and a shawl on the back--attached either on one or both shoulders."

Costume guidelines are established by the Dublin-based An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha, or the Irish Step Dancing Commission, which organizes competitions and serves as an arbiter of standard and tradition. Paddy Richardson, a London, Ontario-based designer, notes several more specific roles: "No V-neck, nothing lower than the collarbone, nothing shorter than four inches above the knee."

Such requirements may prevent competitions from turning into beauty pageants and ensure that costumes are age-appropriate for the many young girls who take part, but they also serve to remind the community of Ireland's history. The dress and shawl recall traditional Irish peasant dress, while the embroidered designs "take a look back at the history of Celtic art," explains Richardson. "The Celts decorated everything--jewelry, stone carvings, clothing, and illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells," a famous medieval Irish text of the Gospels.

During the Gaelic Revival at the turn of the last century, Celtic artwork, with its interlacing patterns, was esteemed as a symbol of Ireland's glorious, independent past. Driven by the desire to create an image of Irish nationhood with the hope to thereby establish Irish home rule, revivalists encouraged Irishmen to renew their cultural ties by enjoying traditional Irish dance, music, and language. Competitions were established in these areas to promote public interest and, eventually, Irish dance costumes--especially those that referenced Celtic designs, through ribbons, minimal embroidery, or a brooch that fastened the shawl--became a vehicle for nationalism. White and green were the preferred costume colors, while red was avoided because of its association with British soldiers. At one point, nationalist feelings were so intense that the Commission declared dancers were not allowed to compete unless all items worn were of Irish manufacture.

With the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921, the fervor of revivalists waned somewhat. Nevertheless, for a number of years, dancers drew many of their embroidered designs from the Book of Kells. Starting about thirty years ago, however, and escalating in the last fifteen, there has been great development in costume design, instigated by a constant flurry of new trends. One noticeable change is a movement away from embroidery based in Celtic zoomorphics and interlacing knotwork toward more geometric, abstract designs. Also, the overall amount of embroidery used on the costumes has dramatically increased. According to Molly Bennett, a Denver-based dressmaker and teacher, "The number of embroidered designs tripled from 1986 to 1996. Then, in the last five years, it has doubled again." Given the current amount of embroidery, "It is often hard to tell what the actual color of the dress is--the material hardly peeks through," claims Jo-Ann MacNeil, a designer from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

CHANGES IN THE AMOUNT and style of embroidered designs are trends that seem to be more a function of competition than nationalism. The nature of competition itself produces an inevitable escalation of technique and artistry, which is reflected in the ever-increasing complexity of both Irish dance steps and costumes. Most of the trends are said to originate from dressmakers in Ireland, where some of the more revered design houses are based. The demand for a costume from Ireland is so high that Threads of Green, a Kilkenny-based operation, is booked until August of 2005!

New trends are spotted at the annual World Irish Dance Championships and carried home via participating dancers. For the past thirty-one years, this event has been held in Ireland (although they were cancelled this year due to the threat of foot and mouth disease; see Presstime News, Dance Magazine, July, page 33). The establishment of the Worlds and the proliferation of trends in dressmaking seem to have a consequential rather than coincidental relationship.

One current trend is to make the skirt panels extremely stiff. Many dressmakers use vilene, a thick, firm material similar to cardboard that is manufactured in Ireland solely for this purpose. While stiffener facilitates the display of intricate embroidery, it also makes the costume a little unwieldy. In the most extreme cases, explains Pat MacKinnon, another designer from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, "Dancers have to go through the door sideways. They put their shoes and bloomers on first because they can't bend over or sit down, except to perch on a stool." Regarding the trend toward stiffness, MacNeil remarks, "The dresses I make can stand up on the floor by themselves--it looks like someone is in them."

The combination of vilene and the velvet material that dresses frequently are made from adds up to a very heavy costume. Richardson notes that a velvet costume she recently shipped to a customer weighed eight pounds, while MacNeil's most recent design was seven and one-half pounds. Given the weight of velvet, the latest inclination is to make costumes from silk. Though lighter to wear, silk is not as durable as velvet, particularly when confronted with thousands of embroidery stitches. Metallic fabrics, referred to as glitter ball or disco dots because of the multiple glued-on sequins, also have become popular in recent years. The problem with metallics, however, is that they can't be dry-cleaned, nor are these hand-crafted costumes machine washable. Indeed, as McGarry says, "There is nothing more high maintenance than a solo costume."

Perhaps the most convenient development of late is the wigs that dancers wear. Traditionally, girls slept with a head full of tied rags in order to achieve the idealized image of a curly-haired Irish lass. Today, that look can be instantaneous, thanks to the help of a tightly curled wig. Although this accessory can cost up to $150, dancers and costumers alike proclaim that a better night's sleep, as well as the chance to cool off in the pool during a competition held at a hotel, makes a wig well worth the price.

A dancer's costume can greatly affect her poise and confidence. As MacKinnon points out, "Stage presence counts; it is not just a dress, it is a costume. If a girl is not feeling good about what she is wearing, she is not going to dance well. The fancier the costume, the better she'll feel about herself. It often happens that in a brand-new dress, a dancer will win first. She'll be flying!"

While dancers may view a new costume as a source of pride and as an individual statement, parents often regard solo dresses as an investment. The cost starts around $900 and can run as high as $1,500, depending on the design's complexity. It is not unheard of for top-level dancers to receive a new costume nearly every year. Parents must factor in the cost of a dancer's school costume, a more uniform dress bearing the specific designs of her school that is required for team competitions. School costumes also have become more elaborate, averaging around $500. Fortunately, there is a large market for second-hand dresses!

After doing the math, it is clear that parents with sons involved in Irish dance have reason to be relieved. The standard male costume is simply trousers, a shirt, and maybe a cummerbund with a bit of embroidery (although, before Michael Flatley popularized this look through Riverdance, men wore the more traditional Celtic kilt).

Female solo costumes might seem overpriced until you consider that a dressmaker spends 80 to 120 hours on a single costume. One of Staffrey's designs, for example, included approximately 800 pieces of applique. "When you have that many pieces, they are not very big, and many of them look alike--it's like putting a jigsaw puzzle together!" she explains. Staffrey named that costume, as she does all of her designs, calling it "Color My World." That Staffrey names her costumes is testament to the fact that the dresses are not only individual to each dancer, but are unique creations in and of themselves. They are undeniably "works of art," says McGarry, "which is why the people who make them are artists."

Darrah Carr is a New York City-based writer, choreographer, and teacher, active in the modern and Irish dance communities.
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Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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