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For young Irish dancers, makeup no longer in the spotlight

Irish Step Dancing class at the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/Boston Globe
Jacqueline (left) and Abigail McGonigle out of costume at home in Braintree. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/Boston Globe

The McGonigle home in Braintree is a microcosm of the debate surrounding the new makeup ban for young Irish step dancers.

Eight-year-old Jackie was relieved to hear that the Irish Dancing Commission’s new ruling, which went into effect March 1, prohibits her from wearing cosmetics in competitions.

“I don’t like wearing the stuff. I think it looks bad,” said the second grader, who has been dancing at Dunleavy-Shaffer School of Irish Dance in Norwell since she was 3. “The lipstick is the worst part.”

But Jackie’s older sister, Abigail, was disappointed. “I think it just makes me look more pretty. I think I look better and the judges can see me better,” said the 9-year-old, who competes for top prizes regionally.


The makeup ban, which also includes false eyelashes and tinted moisturizer, prohibits children in the Under 10 group and younger from wearing it for solo and group competitions. Dearbhla Lennon, spokeswoman for the IDC, the Dublin-based organization that governs competitive Irish dancing worldwide, announced the ruling “in an effort to bring the conversation back to the skill and not purely the aesthetic.”

“I suppose the public perception of Irish dancing had changed dramatically. It’s an incredible art form, and often the skill was not the talking point,” Lennon said. “We felt it was important to strip it back.”

Jacqueline in makeup and costume. Family Handout

Makeup bans already existed for novice and beginner dancers, but the explosion of competitive Irish dancing in the last 20 years — “It’s being performed on much bigger stages with brighter lights,” said Lennon — prompted the organization to extend it to young children who were competing at high levels previously exempt from the ban.

“I don’t think we were influenced by [reality show] ‘Toddlers & Tiaras,’ but the general influence of modern time,” said Lennon. “We’ve seen an increase in the amount of makeup children are wearing.”


The ruling has prompted families and dance school instructors to rethink what’s appropriate for a generation that has grown up with influences ranging from theatrical productions such as “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance,” to TV shows like “Dance Moms.”

Irish step dancing has been popular in the Boston area since the early 1960s, but “Riverdance,” which premiered in 1994, gave Irish dancing an international stage.

“I think it changed it for the better. More people know about it. It’s gotten much more athletic and competitive. I danced as a child, but what I did was very different from what they do now. The costumes got fancier, then the wigs, then the makeup,” said Lisa Chaplin, owner of O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance.

“The dance and the training should speak for itself,” said Kate McGonigle, Jackie and Abigail’s mom, who is relieved about the ruling. “These little girls are meant to be little girls who are carrying on our heritage and culture, and are out there to have fun.”

Abigail in makeup and costume. Family Handout

But Attracta Quinn, who runs her dance school, Scoil Rince Naomh Attracta, in the Boston/Metrowest area, said makeup isn’t the problem. It’s the small group of overly enthusiastic parents who paint their kids’ faces with a heavy cosmetics brush.

“It’s because of the few people who go overboard,” said Quinn, who performed in “Lord of the Dance” before opening her school in 2008. “Some people take it too far, but it’s called a costume for a reason. The makeup just finishes off the costume.”


And what a contemporary outfit it’s become. Quinn, who also judges several feis (Gaelic for competitions, pronounced fesh), said glittery costumes, elaborate curled wigs, and sparkly tiaras are all part of today’s performance package. Leaving the makeup out of the equation makes the ensemble out of balance.

“When you look up at the stage with bright lights, it’s a big stage and it’s hard to see people’s faces,” she said.

The artistic aspect of Irish step is what makes Julie Meringer so torn about the ban. A mother of three champion dancers and a teacher at O’Shea-Chaplin, Meringer believes the dress/wig/makeup combination makes competitions more democratic.

“You can have a child with great technicality, and put a wig and makeup on them and they will have all that,” she said. “You can have another child who’s not as savvy. You put them in the package and it equalizes them on stage.”

The Belmont mom thinks the ban is, in part, a response to step dancing’s increased intensity that rivals playing on a club soccer team or dancing at Boston Ballet school.

“ ‘This cult’ my husband likes to call it,” she said. “It’s not a 3-month-a-year or a 6-month-a-year sport. It’s yearround. You have to be fit. You have to be cross trained.”

Her 9-year-old daughter Kylie, who ranks third in New England in her age group, likes the competitiveness — though the makeup she is happy to do without.

“It just gets so annoying with it on your face,” said Kylie, who will start to wear makeup again next year when she turns 10. “I know a couple of kids are bummed out, but I’m like, ‘Woo hoo! No makeup.’ ’’


Abigail (left) and Jacqueline at a competition. Family Handout

Chaplin shared the third grader’s ebullience.

“I was kind of happy about it. In the Midwest, they’ve actually gone back to more traditional costumes,” she said. “We need to hold onto the roots of Irish dancing.”

Chaplin, who judges competitions around the world, and whose mother, Rita O’Shea, serves on the governing board of the Irish Dancing Commission, said the refocus on Irish heritage is taking many forms. There is a push to speak more Gaelic and to teach more traditional footwork in dance schools. And new stage shows like “Heartbeat of Home,” playing in Boston through April 6, show the progression of Irish dance, but in a distilled form.

“They don’t wear a lot of makeup. The focus is on their dancing ability,” she said.

Which brings the makeup debate down to the legs, where self-tanner is still allowed.

“It matters about my legs because that’s really where I cross and point and stay on my toe,” said Abigail McGonigle, who usually starts applying tanner on her legs two or three days before she competes.

Though McGonigle hopes body tanner doesn’t get the boot, Maureen Haley, owner of Haley School, wouldn’t mind if it did. The South Shore dance school owner, who has taught for 40 years, said the IDC has other changes in the works including a prohibition of embroidered school initials on competition dresses. She is happy to see young children freed from extra pressures and distractions.


“Personally, I’d prefer if it’d go even younger,” she said.

Jill Radsken can be reached at