Kathy, a mother of two from the US, has spent tens of thousands of dollars and years of hard work teaching her daughters to dance Irish.
We weren’t rich by any means, but in one year we spent $20,000 on travel, housing, competitions and clothes for the two girls,” she said.
Like many “dance moms,” she suspected that all was not well in the global world of An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelachas (CLRG) cutthroat dance schools and wild competitions.
“I knew all along there was cheating going on here, but I just let my daughter in there hoping she would get the score she deserved,” she said.
She had seen Feiseanna do strange things before: scores being altered, unsealed envelopes going from the judges’ tables to mysterious tablerooms.
But it would be a palaver over a dress that would show her that the dancing was “rigged to the extreme” and that some Irish dance teachers hid codes and signals for judges in children’s dance costumes.
When one of Kathy’s daughters was about eight years old, she was a contender for a major Irish dancing title. She and her daughter spent hours every week commuting to a prestigious dance school.
In the US, some teachers running Irish dance schools may not really have much experience with the niche sport and art form of Irish dancing. Some could not invent their own steps and ‘under the table’ ex-professional dancers who acted as a kind of ghost choreographer, blaming the teacher and the school for their steps.
So when Kathy found a school with a respected and justifiably brilliant teacher, she thought it was worth the long journey several times a week.
The teacher was strict. “As parents, we shouldn’t be sitting in the studio. You can either hang out on the sidewalk of the square or there was a bathroom. you could hear [the teacher] yelled at all the kids all the time. You’d think, “Well, that sounds very offensive,” she said.
It is not uncommon for Irish dance schools, particularly those perceived as elitist, to dictate to parents that they can only buy Irish dance dresses from a specific tailor.
In many cases, this can force parents to pay extra for expensive dance costumes. Some parents can be persuaded to participate if the school gives them access to exclusive seamstresses with long waiting lists.
Such was the case at Kathy’s daughter’s school, who made sure to buy a costume from a sought-after designer in Europe ahead of a major championship this year.
Her daughter’s measurements were sent to Europe and after a 27-hour journey, Kathy and her daughter picked her up ahead of the championship, which was being held in the UK. When she got to the clothing store, a bouncer was waiting with her name on a list. They went in “with the feeling that it was Christmas”.
“So they bring out the dress and it’s hideous,” she said. She described it as “like a clown costume”.
But even apart from the question of taste, the measured values were completely wrong. “My daughter said, ‘Mom, don’t waste your money, I’m not wearing that dress,'” Kathy said.
She saw no point in spending $3,500 on a dress her daughter wouldn’t wear, so she declined the purchase and decided to use a spare dress for the championship instead.
When they finally got to the venue, her daughter’s dance teacher was beside herself. She began berating Kathy and frantically begging her to buy the dress, which was now for sale at the venue from a stall run by the same seamstress.
Kathy said the teacher’s insistence made her deeply suspicious. “I’m not kidding, I can still remember her begging me as my daughter stood on the side of the stage to continue. She was still telling me to run upstairs to put the dress on her,” she said. Her daughter took the stage and competed in one of her older dresses.
“Well, you wouldn’t believe those results,” Kathy said dryly.
“She had a full tank, she was dead last.”
Her daughter, a highly decorated dancer, finished last – even after dancers who fell mid-competition or forgot their steps. She believes her daughter was “blacklisted” for not buying that dress, and she now believes schools used dresses to communicate with judges and get higher scores.
This is a claim backed by several current and former dancers, judges and teachers from Ireland, the US and the UK who have spoken to the Irish Independent over the past two weeks. A CLRG judge said emblems and patterns on clothes have been used to send signals to judges for years.
About a decade ago, a trend emerged where a small globe was sewn onto the back of an Irish dancer’s dress to indicate that she was a world champion.
A few years later this was banned due to concerns that the globe symbols were being used to signal to the judges that a dancer should be awarded or that she deserved to be on the podium. There is a popular story in Irish dancing lore about a good but average dancer who taped a globe to her dress ‘for fun’ and entered a competition for the first time in her life.
After the world ban, schools and seamstresses worked innovatively. Sometimes a dancer’s name, or even her school’s name, would appear on a dress, which many believed was a signal to judges who had ties to particular schools to care for a dancer.
Today, something as inconspicuous as a pattern or a specific design is often used to indicate that a dancer is either wearing a dress from a specific manufacturer or is dancing for a specific school. Now, before a championship, teachers often post pictures of their dancers in full costume on social media.
There is a suspicion that this is also a tactic to familiarize judges with certain dancers.
So while many schools maintain an outward business relationship with a seamstress, many dance professionals believe that it is more than that – that certain seamstresses and dance schools are linked and dresses are specifically designed to signal judges who may also be part of that allegiance, to tag a dancer.
Kathy said she was devastated on this trip back from Europe.
“I cried sometimes when my daughter wasn’t looking. Or on the way home, you know, on the plane?
“Tears would just roll down my face because I knew it. I knew it was fixed, that it had been tampered with, that there was something about that dress.
“And I knew because there were other dancers who fell and never came back to finish. They never came back and still placed higher than my daughter.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/mother-who-spent-20000-in-one-year-on-irish-dancing-i-knew-it-was-fixed-and-there-was-something-about-that-dress-42068510.html Irish dance scandal: Mom who spent $20,000 dancing in one year says ‘I knew it was fixed and there was something about that dress’