Tuesday, 8 March 2016



If you are not involved in Irish Dancing, you probably think like most other sports or hobbies that there is only one form of it.

In fact, to discombobulate non-Irish dancing folks even more, there are several different federations. An Coimisiún, an comhdhail, WIDA, CRDM, Festival, CRG and CRN are just a few different organisations I can name off the top of my head.

Within Northern Ireland, although there are several organisations, there are two very distinctive styles - Festival and Feis. There is rancour between the two sides and much debate about which style is better and what is ‘real’ Irish dancing.

Feis Irish dancing is that which you see when the world championships are held in the Waterfront Hall, known for the wigs, fake tan and fancy costumes. Festival Irish dancing originated in the 1950s when Patricia Mulholland broke away from the Irish Feis movement. At the time there had been arguments over who should be involved in Irish dancing. Some teachers had felt that it should only be a dance form for Catholics; however, Miss Mulholland wanted the art form to be open to both sides of the community. To this date, Feis dancers still at times refer to Festival dancing as ‘Protestant Irish Dancing’ (when I was in England, one of the teachers whom I transferred to automatically presumed I was a Protestant due to this!).

Cara Tan - Festival Irish dancer - Trevor Robinson Photography 

I have now experienced both styles, seeing the good, bad and ugly of each. Originally I was a Festival Irish dancer and later, when I was in my 20s, I transferred to An Coimisiún (the largest and most international Feis organisation). Between both I have won titles at local, national and international levels.

Claire Greaney - CLRG Feis World Champion- Jimmy McNulty photography 

Patricia Mulholland was known for her Irish Ballets and the style of dancing in Festival evolved around this. Festival dancing is more lyrical and puts greater emphasis on interpretation and individual style whilst Feis dancing is more athletic and greater emphasis is put on technique as well as appearance.

Morag Stewart-  Festival Irish Dancer 

There is much invidious criticism by Festival Irish dancers of the appearance of Feis dancers, which has been lacerated by the media. Originally, when I was a Festival dancer, I wasn’t the biggest fan either, but what I have noticed is that the makeup, big hair and dresses look different on stage. The Feis appearance is suited to the big stages in the big venues which the large international events take place on. Festival competitions are not as glamorous and do not take place in such big venues; they usually occur in a church or school hall.

The biggest trade-off between the two different organisations is the cost - Feis dancing is much more ostentatious. In Festival you are only required to wear your class costume which costs roughly £300; however, in Feis the girls' solo costume can cost £2000 and the boys' waistcoats may cost £500.

Morgan Comer CLRG   Feis  World Champion - Jimmy McNulty Photography 

The cost of the competitions in Feis are also more expensive. Since the organisation is international, when you are in the highest category you are encouraged to compete internationally. When I was a Festival dancer, apart from the European Championships held in England, the furthest I got to go was Portadown. Since transferring, I practically live a nomadic lifestyle, travelling to competitions all over the UK and Ireland as well as Boston and Montreal.

Lauren Early - CLRG Feis World Champion - Jimmy McNulty Photography 

I am now coming to the end of my competitive career and am going to have to make the choice between which federation I want to finish competing and teaching in. If it was possible, I would like to finish competing and teach in both. I do not see why Festival Irish Dancing could not have its own identity separate from Feis Irish dancing, then you could have dancers from both sides doing both styles without any conflict of interest. Festival dancing could gain Irish dancers from An Commision or An Comhdhail who are interested in learning a different style and vice versa; both could benefit.

Just like here in Northern Ireland where there has been an ongoing battle between Catholics and Protestants, there has been an ongoing feud between Festival and Feis; maybe the Irish dancers here should look to the peace process for inspiration. While the feud continues, neither side will benefit; we must learn to harmonize.

Adam Henry Magee

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