Irish Dancing in a pandemic

17 October 2020

Written by: Madisson Ball

The competitive sport has taken a hit during 2020, but dancers are keeping spirits alight for International Irish Dancing Day.

She takes a breath before lifting her head, straightening her posture and walking onto the stage. The lights are bright and hot, but she’s used to it. Her dress sparkles, with its fluoro pink Celtic designs. She dances. Every hour of training comes down to three minutes. The judges who sit before her nod, smile, and ring the bell after she finishes. She leaves the stage, exhilarated.

Just like Gaelic football and hurling, Irish dancing is an important part of the rich heritage of Ireland. When Riverdance eventually leapt onto the world stage in 1994, Irish dancing became even more popular across the globe. However, it was around long before Michael Flatley captured the eyes of the world.

The 2020 World Irish Dancing Championships were intended to be a significant celebration in the history of its culture, marking 50 years. As the world continued to face the challenges of COVID-19, the championships were cancelled, leaving dancers devastated.

Shannon Gore has danced for close to 20 years, since she was 4 years old. She “couldn’t imagine [her] life without it”. Yet, this is the first time her and her peers have had to pause not just competitions, but also training; as the pandemic closed dance halls. The restrictions in Melbourne now mean that Victorian dancers are just about the only people in the Irish dancing community who can’t return to class.

“I’ve missed the feeling of being able to move across the floor and get your anger out in your hard shoes. I’ve missed the support of my teachers pushing me to be my best. I’ve missed seeing all my friends four times a week … and so, so much more,” Gore told upstart.

When you sit amongst the dancing audience, occasionally there is a person, or a group of well-dressed people, standing at the back of the auditorium. More often than not, they will be standing with perfect posture, their head held strong and high, as if to copy the stance of the dancer. They focus intently on the dancer on stage, with arms firmly folded.

These people are the teachers.

Christine Ayres, an internationally renowned Irish dancing adjudicator, is the principal of one of the most successful dancing schools in Australia, the Christine Ayres School of Irish Dancing; in Melbourne.

“When I work with a dancer, my role is to provide them with tools and opportunities to attain their best possible result,” Ayres told upstart.

“This not only is the work I put in with the dancer at class, but the guidance and work ethic instilled in that dancer to be motivated to work outside of class.”

Ayres says the restrictions have been incredibly difficult for all involved, in particular the Irish dancers in Melbourne.

“This is mainly due to the fact that they can’t attend classes in person, spend time with their peers and compete in various competitions,” Ayres said.

“It’s especially hard for them when they see dancers from other states in Australia and dancers around the world recommencing classes and entering competitions.”

With the recent reminder of International Irish Dance Day, a celebration of Celtic tradition and appreciation; those of the Melbourne Irish dancing community can only hope for a safe day to re-join the world of curly wigs, makeup, and the sparkly dresses that is long competition days. In the meantime, the community is still finding ways to connect through Zoom.

However, Ayres says that teaching alternatives on Zoom can only achieve so much, and some dancers are fearing for their fitness levels due to tight two-hour exercise limits.

Shannon Gore is one of these dancers.

“It’s been hard as I now have to try to find another form of exercise to do to keep me healthy, which I don’t really have the will power for. I feel as though my physical and mental health have declined and like I am losing muscle tone in my body,” Gore said.

So, for the time being and for the celebration of International Irish Dance Day, many Irish Dancers of Melbourne are celebrating what they have been able to achieve over time.

Leading a team through unknown territory can be daunting. Nonetheless, Ayres’ hard-earned experience of success is important when approaching a new unprecedented challenge; her school claiming top spots in local, state, national and world champion titles.

“To know that my school is making history within the Irish dancing world is something that makes me realise that with much hard work and determination and an amazing team of dancers and families, anything is possible, and dreams do come true.” Ayres said.


Article: Madisson Ball is a second year Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @MadissonBall.

Photo: Shannon Gore Irish dancing by Winkipop, paid and provided by Shannon Gore and used under a Creative Commons Attribution. The image has been modified.