A Glance Into The Competitive World of Irish Dancing
I asked Pro Tem’s Editor in Chief, Camille Slaght, about her career as a competitive Irish dancer:
Q: When and why did you start irish dancing?
A: I started dancing twelve years ago. When I was nine, I saw my friend Olivia dancing in my elementary school’s talent show. I was drawn to her quick feet and to the buckles on her shoes, so I asked my parents to sign me up for Irish dancing. I am a very competitive person, so from the beginning, I loved the discipline it required.
Q: How often do you train?
A: I usually train 8 to 10 hours per week.
Q: Do you do other kinds of training besides dance?
A: I try to go to the gym a few times a week. It’s important to do both cardio and weights. I also do yoga, which helps with flexibility.
Q: What are the most prestigious placements you have achieved?
A: I have placed 11th at the World Championships, 7th in North America and 1st in Eastern Canada.
Q: Which competition did you last participate in? How did it go?
A: Saturday November 12th, I competed at the Eastern Canadian Irish Dance Championships. It was my first time competing in the Senior Ladies age group (21 and over), and I came 2nd, qualifying for the 2017 World Championships in Dublin, Ireland.
Q: Do you also participate in non-competitive performances?
A: Many dance schools do performances as well as competitions. I have performed at weddings, festivals, nursing homes, and an endless amount of Irish pubs during Saint Patrick’s Day. I have also performed twice at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, alongside the Barra MacNeils, a Canadian Celtic music group.
Q: What is a typical competition day like?
A: I usually have to wake up at 5:30am because at major competitions I am often scheduled to start at 8:30am. I like having two hours to get ready and one hour to warm up. I start with makeup, then do my hair, and I try to eat breakfast despite the nerves. On dance day, I always eat the same thing: Vector cereal for breakfast, grapes between rounds, and an energy bar before my set. Each round is spread out throughout the day, so I have to make sure that I eat to maintain my energy. I also take sips of a Red Bull right before I dance.
Once I have made my way to the venue, I say hi to my teachers and friends, and start taping my feet. I do a warm up in runners, then in my dance shoes. We perform three rounds in front of three to seven judges, depending on the competition. The first round is the hard shoe dance, then we do the soft shoe round, which is my favourite.
The scores from the first two rounds are tabulated, and the top 50% are “recalled” to do a third round called the set dance. This one is danced in hard shoe, alone, and is supposed to showcase all the things each dancer does best (if I could do my set in soft shoes, I would). At the end of the day, there is an awards ceremony where the world qualifiers are announced, and then places are announced. Recall medals are given out, and the top five dancers stand triumphantly on the podium, as friends and family cheer for them.
Q: I know that your costumes are very elaborate (and expensive)! Can you tell us a bit about what you wear to compete and the costumes worn by dancers in different levels?
A: There are six levels in Irish dancing, starting with Beginner and ending with Open Championship. At first, dancers wear school costumes, which are the same for everyone and usually have a school logo on them. When a dancer reaches a certain level, they get a “solo dress”. These are usually custom-made by designers in Ireland. We send them our measurements, prefered colours and designs, and wait anxiously for a big box to arrive at our doorstep.
Girls wear short, colourful long-sleeved dresses covered in thousands of Swarovski crystals, which we spend hours gluing on by hand. We wear white socks, and spray tan our legs to make our muscles look more defined. Boys usually wear embroidered vests (also covered in crystals) and dress pants. Girls also wear curly wigs and shiny tiaras for competitions. Our costumes are very glitzy and glamourous despite the traditional dance style.
Q: How do you deal with the stress associated with training, competing, and also being a university student?
A: I find that I use my time more efficiently when I am busy. Over the past four years at university, my professors have been very supportive and have even allowed me to reschedule exams if I have a competition overseas. However, I do have to make many sacrifices to train as much as I need to achieve my goals.
It’s really important for me to know that my friends and family support my dancing. Luckily, my friends all know how much dance means to me, so they also understand why I am always so busy. I dealt with a lot of performance anxiety over the years, and sought out help from sports therapists who helped me overcome my fears and perform to the best of my ability.
Q: What’s the most difficult part of Irish dancing?
A: Generally, the biggest setbacks for dancers are injuries. I have sprained an ankle over five times during my dance career, I have dealt with chronic hip problems, and even have osteoarthritis developing in my big toe joints. Luckily, I have a team of people who help me stay healthy, including a massage therapist, a physiotherapist, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, and a sports psychologist. Every time I had to take time off due to an injury, I was reminded how important dance was to me, and came back even stronger.
Q: What is your favourite thing about Irish dancing?
A: Dancing the soft shoe round has always been my favourite thing about dance. There is no other feeling like it in the world. The height and lift that I get, and the swiftness with which I make my way across a stage make me feel light and graceful. Another great thing about dance is the incredible friends I have made over the years. My teachers and peers have become family to me, and each and every one of them has helped to shape the person and dancer that I am today.