With their fast -moving feet and their rigid upper bodies, combined with often elaborate costumes and wigs, Irish dancing is a highly distinctive style of performance.
In the past 20 years there has been a surge in popularity of the form thanks to Riverdance and subsequent Lord of The Dance shows here in the UK – now you can find classes in most towns and cities.
But back in its home country it has been a mainstay of the culture going back hundreds of years.
Alice Boyle O’Dowda runs the Boyle O’Dowda Academy of Irish Dancing with her daughter Ailis.
Started here in 1972 when Alice moved from Ireland to England with her late husband, the famous Irish tenor Brendan O’Dowda, she runs classes in Fareham, Portsmouth and all around Hampshire.
‘I had won the All Irish Championships – which is like the world championships – so I was at the top of the game,’ recalls Alice.
I’ve carried on and carried on, you don’t retire from this – you carry on for as long as you’ve got a pair of legs underneath you.Alice Boyle O’Dowda
‘I started my Irish dancing career when I was three in Dublin. Then I did a lot of shows myself – in those days it was more like cabaret shows.
‘I did enjoy it from the start. It’s like a disease, when it gets hold of you there’s no cure for it, it’s just a passion, a love of music, a love of dance.
‘I always say about it too, I look at the classes, and I’ve carried on and carried on, you don’t retire from this – you carry on for as long as you’ve got a pair of legs underneath you.
‘When I started there wasn’t much at all. There was a teacher here originally from Derry who’d come here because her husband was in the navy and she taught in the Irish centre, but then she moved away. She left in 1969, so when I came here I was approached by someone who asked if I was interested in teaching and it grew from there.
‘Then as I got the youngsters to a standard where they could do little shows, more people saw them and wanted to get involved.
‘Now I’ve got grandchildren coming in of those who I taught years ago.’
And Alice is proud of the fact that it has not only taught her pupils how to dance, but also helped them mature. ‘The nicest thing about it that the parents often say they’re grateful for the Irish dancing as it’s given them discipline and mixing with their peers. There’s no hanging around street corners – they’re dedicated to this, and they get to travel all over the world.
‘If you’ve done nothing else, you’ve hopefully steered a few of those teenagers through those awkward times and they’ve hopefully come out the other end better people. I’ve never had anyone in the class that I didn’t want there because they were disruptive.’
The competitions, or feis, are a big part of the Irish dancing world, with regular contests at a local, national and international level.
‘A lot of the dancers now have no Irish in them at all at this stage, but they’re very involved and very dedicated,’ says Alice, who lives in Fareham.
‘We’re constantly fundraising – the world championships are coming this Easter. This time we’ve got 40 competing, you try to do your best to help the parents along with it, but it’s difficult.
‘We always say there’s one thing for sure, Irish dance teachers will never die with a fortune behind them – but it’s the passion of it. You can’t look at it is a job as such, as you’d never survive on it.
‘It’s those extras, making the costumes, selling the wigs, the shoes, all of that, that’s the side that makes it expensive and the parents have to be dedicated and prepared to put everything into it as well.’
At the top level, dancers have to practice and train every day – and they often have to rely on the help of their parents.
‘Those at the top level need to work all the time, if they’re not with us, they’re at home doing their work outs.
‘Those that are qualifying for the world championships, they’d go to class four times a week, one day of fitness, then they’re away at competitions at the weekend, so you’ve got to be dedicated.
‘Unfortunately you get children sometimes with great talent, but the parents aren’t interested. You want to push them along, but the parents don’t want to know.’
Professional Irish dancer and founder of the all-female Raven dance troupe Roisin Mullins says of the feis: ‘They’re fiercely competitive, the costumes are out of this world, they’re all super-colourful, embroidered and crystals and all the rest of it, that’s the world I grew up in.
‘That’s a big international thing, and I travelled all over the world doing those. That’s pretty standard for most Irish dancers – you’ve got to do the competition side.’
Roisin, who now lives in Portsmouth, adds: ‘We never had expensive holidays, everything we had went into the dancing and that was our life – if we went on holiday it was because of a competition or a show.
‘You do give you your life for it. It is a sacrifice when you’re young. There wasn’t much watching TV!’
The Boyle O’Dowda Academy runs classes in Portsmouth on Monday and Fareham on Wednesday. Go to boyleodowda.com. For more on Roisin Mullins, go to roisinmullins.co.uk.
Róisín’s ravens take centre stage
Róisín Mullins has become a world-renowned Irish dancer, but she’s equally at home teaching schoolkids in Portsmouth as she is dancing on The X Factor.
Coming from a family in County Cork with Romany roots, Róisín began dancing at four and won her first competition just a year later.
After winning literally hundreds of competitions, she went to the Brit School of Performing Arts before being invited to join The Lord of The Dance troupe at 21.
Since leaving the show she has created her own troupe, the much-in-demand, all-female Raven dance troupe.
‘I’ve been very fortunate that people have been so interested.
‘Where it’s an all-female troupe, it’s just that little bit different, and we seem to have become the ones to call for something on TV, or a celebrity who wants to get involved with a bit of Irish dancing, which is how we’ve done stuff with Declan Donnelly, Paddy McGuinness, Louis Walsh.
‘It’s been really great,’ says the 34-year-old.
‘The big highlight for me recently was The X Factor.’
But she still makes time to teach pupils at St Swithun’s Catholic Primary School in Southsea.
‘It’s all a lot of juggling. To be successful with any of these performing arts, you’ve got to do a bit of everything - performing, teaching, judging contests.
‘It’s been really popular - and not all of the kids are from Irish backgrounds.
‘I’ve got a good few years yet.
‘But when you’re a professional dancer, you do feel at some point that you won’t be able to carry on forever and you want to be able to pass that knowledge on.’
The modern rise of Irish dancing was helped by Eurovision
Irish dancing has its roots in the 18th century, but it was only with the explosion of Riverdance in the 1990s that the rest of the world woke up to its appeal.
Riverdance was famously created as the half-time entertainment for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest as a seven-minute performance.
That show’s star Michael Flatley has turned it into a global phenomenon with his own Lord of The Dance spectacles, playing to millions of people.
Alice Boyle O’Dowda says: ‘We’d get people come to us saying ‘‘I want to learn Riverdance, or I want to learn Lord of the Dance’’, but I’d have to say I’m sorry, you’ve got to start with the basics.
‘Every dancer you see in these shows are properly-trained Irish dancers - you’ve got to be a proper Irish dancer before you get to the standard it is in the shows today.
‘You can look at some of the other shows and at a glance you can see that they’re not properly trained - they might be tap dancers, ballet dancers, or show dancers trying to do Irish dancing, and they might look all right, but to a trained eye it’s like: “Oh my God!”