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Anatomy of an Irish step dancing costume

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Melissa McCarthy, 15, is the 2012 World Irish Dancing Champion in the girls 15-16 age group.

For the fully attired Irish step dancer, these are the essential accoutrements.


Every competitive Irish dancer wears a synthetic wig of ringlet curls. Dancers get about 10 wears out of one wig. Putting one on can take 30 minutes. Preparing before a competition can take 2 to 3 hours.


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Dancers wear headbands, tiaras, or headpieces with jewels, flowers, and even feathers.


As in a beauty pageant, dancers wear makeup of elongated eyelashes, bright lips, rosy cheeks, and tan legs. But dancers insist there is a big difference between the two. “People probably don’t understand how serious and athletic this can be,” says Melissa McCarthy (left).


The dress is the crowning glory of the costume.

As young dancers, students will wear the dress of their school. As they move up the ranks, solo dresses express more style, use more color and embellishment, and cost a lot more. Solo dresses differ in style, but have long sleeves, a high collar, a fitted bodice, and a dropped waist skirt.

McCarthy’s dress was made for her by the premier Irish step dancing dress designer, Gavin Doherty, based in Belfast. Doherty’s dresses can cost as much as $5,000.


“Poodle socks” come to the mid-calf and are kept up with “sock glue,” a sticky adhesive that keeps them at the proper height while dancing.


There are two types: soft shoes, known as gillies (shown here), are black lace-up shoes used in reels and slip jigs. Hard shoes, essentially tap shoes, are used in jigs and hornpipes.

Maureen Quinlan

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