Boston’s long, storied connection to the Emerald Isle is about to get even stronger when the World Irish Dancing Championships come to the city for eight days, March 24-31. It marks only the second time in the prestigious international competition’s more than 40-year history that it has been held outside Ireland or Scotland. Organizers say they expect the competition, the largest of the four major international Irish dance events, to draw as many as 20,000 people from across the globe.
For dance fans, the excitement is in the opportunity to see some of the finest Irish dancers in the world. Sponsored by the Irish Dancing Commission (An Coimisiún le Rinci Gaelacha), the World Irish Dancing Championships are the Olympics of the art form, often launching young performers into careers with popular touring shows like “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance.”
“So many people here follow Irish music and Irish dance and all things Irish,” says event vice chairman Liam Harney, a two-time world champion and the first ever from Boston. “This will be a magnet, the ultimate advertisement for Irish dancing. When you see all these Irish dancers in wigs and costumes walking around the city, it will spread the word that Irish dance is alive and kicking.”
Harney’s school, the 21-year-old Harney Academy in Walpole, teaches roughly 150 dance students around the Boston area, including Melissa McCarthy, 16, who is defending her championship title this year after winning the 17-and-under solo trophy in Belfast last year.
Based this year in the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, the Hynes Grand Ballroom, and the Sheraton Hotel Grand Ballroom, the competition has come a long way since its first iteration in 1970, a two-day affair that took place in Dublin in an auditorium with fewer than 500 seats. Last year’s event in Belfast was spread across three different venues, each seating roughly 3,000 patrons.
This year’s competition expects to host more than 5,000 competitors from around the world. Who knew there are talented Irish steppers in places as far-flung as New Zealand and South Africa? “The dance shows have brought Irish dance around the world, and you have expats all over Europe,” says Seamus O’Sé, the commission media representative. “There’s an enormous following that has no connection with Ireland. It’s absolutely open. The attraction is the excitement and the rhythm. All our light dancing is equally as good, but the attraction around the world is the hard-shoe dancing. That’s what’s caught the imagination.”
Competition events are categorized by dance style and age. The youngest performers are 10, the oldest generally in their 20s. In addition to a variety of team dancing categories, there will be separate male and female solo championship events for each age group almost every day. With three rooms of competitions running simultaneously, the general public can get a sample of many different Irish dance styles. Harney recommends targeting a day that features figure choreography, which he calls “show-stopping” and “very progressive, more freestyle.”
Harney says the dance drama competition is also a highlight. Fusing traditional Irish dance steps with an uncharacteristically expressive upper body, the style is put to the service of telling a story, complete with sets and an Irish music track. In addition, the opening ceremony on March 24 will offer a kaleidoscope of Irish dancing through the generations, from Brian Cunningham dancing the old-style sean-nós to traditional ceili dances to new-wave fusion with the group Hammerstep.
Harney says the hosting of the championships in Boston is a dream come true for area teachers, who have to be registered and certified by the commission in order for their students to compete. His school regularly produces up to 19 qualified soloists, but fewer than half can usually afford to attend the overseas events each year. He says he is more excited about nurturing a world championship dancer than having been one. “It’s such an honor to be a teacher,” he says. “It’s quite a journey. It’s so much self-driven, and unlike sports, you can’t see a goal in the net or better your best time at a swim meet. It takes a lot of training and a very honest approach to bring a dancer to the highest level.”
McCarthy concurs. Dancing since she was 4, the Norfolk resident takes three solo classes and two team practices every week, giving up after-school and weekend activities, parties, hanging out with friends. “But it’s definitely worth it,” she says. “I just love dance. It’s my passion and I always look forward to doing it. I get to travel, make friends from all over the world, and it teaches a lot of discipline and hard work, which also helps me in school.”
A junior at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham, McCarthy has attended seven world championships, and she’s been close to the top since she was 11. Last year’s win was a peak experience. “It meant everything to me,” she says. “It was so exciting to realize all my hard work and everything I put into it finally paid off.”
Terry Gillan, teacher and former world champion and the event’s chair for the past four years, calls high-level Irish dancing “a cross between dance and sport,” demanding optimal physical conditioning and requiring practice regimens akin to those of professional athletes. A competition judge as well, Gillan says he looks not just for execution of specific steps, but clear rhythm in time to the music, straight posture with a nice carriage of the head, and the overall visual effect. “That’s not to say just because you can fire onstage at 400 miles an hour and jump 25 feet in the air you’re a really good dancer. It’s all part and parcel of what we look at. We often get a lot of bad press about costume and makeup and wigs, but they’re just part of what we do.”
To Gillan, the wide appeal of Irish dance lies not just in its virtuosity but in its accessibility. “The rhythms, the color, the music . . . It’s a fantastic art form, very exciting to watch,” he says. “There’s something everyone can relate to. And at its base, it’s very affordable as a hobby for all ages, backgrounds. It’s open to everybody, very people-friendly. And everyone wants to be Irish on some level, don’t they?”