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Chapter Six-- Irish Step Dancing Dress, Authority, and Media

Chapter Six-- Irish Step Dancing Dress, Authority, and Media

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Published by Elizabeth Venable

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Published by: Elizabeth Venable on Jul 26, 2010
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05/12/2014

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Chapter Six
IRISH STEP DANCING DRESS, AUTHORITY, AND MEDIA

The process of learning how to be an Irish step dancer consists of more than
learning how to perform Irish step dancing movements. Irish step dancers must also learn
how to navigate the social worlds of Irish step dancing, from classroom to competition. In
addition, dancers learn how to style and dress themselves in ways that are quite unique to
Irish step dancing environments. In learning how to perform a certain type of Irishness
through both dancing technique and costume, participants are also learning how to
respond to a variety of types of structures and authority. The process and results of these
negotiations are rarely addressed directly in scholarship on Irish step dancing, and
scrutiny of them reveals some of the ideological work that competitive Irish step dancing
performs.

Dancers are subject to and constituents of various types of authority. Dancers’
teachers, adjudicators, and peers all help to create social worlds, with a variety of
expectations, with which dancers must interact. The desires, beliefs, and expectations of
dancers, dancing teachers, adjudicators, and other participants are also shaped in response
to the formal mandates and structure of An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha, one of the
major organizations that governs competitive Irish step dancing. Dancers shape their
behaviors and performances of self in response to these various matrices of authority.

In fashioning such behaviors and selves, dancers also consume and create a
variety of forms of media, such as magazines and messageboards. These mediums offer
information about Irish step dancing that may converge with, but may also contrast with,

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the information that is offered to them by their teachers and peers. Before the
introduction of these mediums, dancers were largely reliant upon teachers for information
on Irish step dancing. Dancers have gained increased opportunities to offer their own
perspectives on Irish step dancing through means such as the internet, where they can
share information, discuss issues, and learn about developments in Irish step dancing
worlds.

These two topics—authority and media—may seem far removed from discussions
of Irish step dancing costumes. However, both are distinctly relevant to the study of Irish
step dancing costuming. The choices that dancers make in styling themselves for
competitions and for performances is one expression of their relationships with these
types of authority. To learn how to dress for the effect they want to achieve (frequently,
victory in competition), dancers must learn to negotiate these authority matrices. Irish
step dancing costuming is bounded by a major constraint, rules. Dancers’ understandings
of what is appropriate or desirable in Irish step dancing costuming are shaped in part by
their interactions with both teachers and competition adjudicators. The focus on
competition as the main forum in which Irish step dancers can achieve acclaim and
success also exerts an effect on costuming choices.

Besides attending the local feis, the primary way dancers can learn about
costumes is through consumption of and interaction with media such as magazines and
the internet. Indeed, costuming is one of the most frequent subjects presented by both of
these forms of media. There are two principal Irish step dancing magazines, both of
which discuss Irish step dancing costumes. One, Irish Dancing Magazine,1 treats the

170
topic as entertainment, offering tips on how to achieve a championship look. The other,
Hornpipe Magazine, discusses more of the social issues revolving around Irish step

dancing dress. Through reading both magazines, Irish step dancers put together more
pieces of information and learn ways in which to shape their images for success in
dancing competitions. The topic of dancing costumes also elicits a great deal of online
conversation, some critical and some supportive of general trends. Dancers share
information on new trends and fashions on online messageboards. Through interacting
with these mediums, Irish step dancers learn of new ways of conceiving of dancing
costumes. Some of these ways of understanding reinforce the social norms supported by a
variety of authority figures. However, some of these media sources encourage dancers to
reconceive and debate Irish step dancing norms.

OVERVIEW OF IRISH STEP DANCING COSTUMING

Analyses in this thesis center almost entirely on a very specific form of Irish step
dancing costuming—dresses and accessories worn by female championship-level
dancers. The following sections devote very little attention to dancing costumes worn by
males. In addition, emphasis centers on dancing dresses worn for solo dancing
competitions, as opposed to dresses worn for team competitions. There are a number of
reasons why the focus has been limited, the first and foremost being the amount of
information that can be offered and critically discussed in one thesis. I find it more
possible, and probably more coherent, to address one costume topic fully than to address
numerous elements of the costume spectrum. Areas of Irish step dancing costuming not
fully addressed in this thesis afford grist for research by future scholars.

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