CONCLUSION In this thesis, I have aimed to explore several subjects that are largely absent in Irish step dancing

literature. First and foremost among these topics are developments in Irish step dancing costumes in the 1990s and 2000s, and some of the functions that Irish step dancing costumes currently serve. To explore Irish step dancing costumes, I also found it necessary to examine some Irish step dancing media sources and markets, and to analyze some of the growth in Irish dancing worldwide. As well, I have assessed developments in Irish dancing costumes, using optics of gender and childhood. In addition, I thought it was necessary to analyze developments in Irish step dancing in the context of the economic situation in Ireland in the 1990s, as well as concepts such as globalization. I have difficulty assessing Irish step dancing costumes of the 1990s and 2000s in a positive light. In my view, they present a barrier to participation in Irish step dancing in terms of class, because they are so costly. And, in my experience as a competitor, dancers seem to feel that they will not be able to advance in competition without wearing them. Perhaps if solo dresses did not carry a price tag of between US $10003000, and perhaps if dancers did not feel obligated to wear them, I might be able to credit the fun and pleasurable aspects they offer—the experimentation with colors, and shapes, and textures, as well as the increasing complexity of the designs. There may be multiple registers that adjudicators take into consideration for judging. Whereas appearance, as in neatness and a pleasant expression, may have always been an element in judging, it seems that, in the 1980s, an additional register began to be


added: intensity and complexity of costuming. The addition of this register complicates the assumed merit-based system of Irish dancing competition, because dancers who have greater access to monetary wealth may be more able to compete effectively in this area. Irish dancing dresses are perhaps distinct from other forms of fashion in that their silhouettes have seldom changed over time. While dancers may adorn, or even encrust, their dresses with any number of fabrics, appliqué designs, and trims, very few designers and dancers make alterations to the shape of the garment. The form of the dress features a dropped waist, a stiffened, flat, wide skirt that extends as a triangle from the waist, and a bodice that flattens and de-emphasizes the bust. Furthermore, An Coimisiún rules mandate that the dress cover most of the thigh, as well as the arms and the collarbones. The fact that there is a single silhouette that is applied to all bodies suggests that there is a single desired body type for Irish dancing. The dress design does not take into account different body types of dancers, be they endo-, ecto-, or mesomorphic, but rather tries to fit all bodies into the same shape. Further, Irish dancing costumes of the 1990s and 2000s continue to segregate dancers according to gender, and, beyond that, promote binary gender norms that constrain girls and women to a few types of ideals, instead of acknowledging the diversity of female dancers. These ideals include a veneration of a certain type of girlhood—one that emphasizes bounciness, a desexualized body, and bodily constraint. Irish dancing costumes also seem to me to express a disdain, in their design, for older female dancers and adult dancers. Dancers whose bodies do not readily conform to the childlike silhouettes of dancing costumes often end up looking unappealing and


unattractive according to competitive norms. The costuming clearly foregrounds an idealized body shape and size. It also reinforces expectations of normative heterosexual middle class femininities. To claim the stage, female dancers are required—or at the very least may assume they are required—to perform particular elements of a female girlhood. Irish step dancing costumes position dancers in a very limited girl role—even as dancing technique encourages them to articulate elements of femininity that might be seen as a challenge to normative expectations, by encouraging athleticism and a percussiveness that is more typically expected of boys. Although any causal relationship is difficult to prove, I have tried to gather data that shows the existence of a market for Irish dancing dresses, and some of the factors that have influenced its development. I argue that the development of Irish dancing media industries and internet chat sites has effected changes in the ways in which dancers interact with dresses. I have also tried to show an increase in the number of participants in Irish dancing, which, I argue, has intensified competition, which may have also intensified the drive to compete through costuming. I have also attempted to demonstrate the wide geographical spread of Irish step dancing, which I believe influences the way in which the market operates. Irish dancing is a practice that is not just experienced in the Republic of Ireland, but in a wide variety of diasporic areas, not the least of which are England, Scotland, the United States, Canada, and, to a lesser extent, Australia, New Zealand, mainland Europe, and South Africa. Some of the most influential Irish dancing dressmakers and manufacturing companies are located in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, such as Siopa


Rince, Gavin Doherty, and Elevation Design, in the 2000s, as well as the now-defunct Threads of Green in the 1990s. These designers’ dresses are among the most coveted and costly. However, it cannot be stressed enough that there are many, many other dressmakers and companies all around the world that participate in the market of Irish dancing and which also participate in the development of trends. Furthermore, a few regions’ dancers monopolize placements in the World Championships. For example, most of the dancers who place in the top ranks hail from Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, and, to a lesser extent, the United States and Canada. However, many other dancers all around the world participate in Irish dancing. Because, in my observation, many dress trends are influenced by the success of the dancers who wear them, dancers from some areas exert more power than others. Thus, I argue that, while influence over Irish dancing has become more regionally diffused, there are still “core” geographical areas and “periphery” geographic areas, whose members exercise different levels of impact on the direction of dress design. 1 Because decisions made by dancers from certain areas are more influential, the social, political, and economic circumstances of these areas become relevant for Irish dancing trends as a whole. The Republic of Ireland remains one of the most influential localities in Irish dancing, and I would argue that its socio-political and economic circumstances impact Irish dancing cultures. While Irish dancing is not representative of all of the multiple circumstances Irish people experience, it does seem to be connected to changes in Ireland with regards to economic development, income inequality, and shifting gender and sexual norms. What happens in Ireland is not completely


determinative of Irish dancing cultures and dancing dress trends. However, because Ireland remains a strong hub of Irish dancing, its circumstances do seem to drive developments in these aspects. There is no one unified Irishness that Irish dancing can be said to portray. Indeed, political and historical contexts, as well as the norms of Irish step dancing, are constantly in flux. As wealth and status in Ireland has changed, new ways of experiencing Irishness, or new constructions of “Irishness,” have developed. However, these do not necessarily displace other or older influences shaping the conception or experience of Irishnesses, such as religious or nationalist forces. As noted in Chapter Four, Riverdance has been suggested as a representation of a less sexually restrained, neoliberal, glamorous Ireland. Irish dancing dresses seem to resonate with different elements of a neoliberal, developed Ireland, such as an intensification in wealth for some, but increasing inequality. It is my opinion that the ornate, costly costumes Irish dancers covet would not have come into vogue if Ireland’s economy had not experienced the boom of the 1990s, as enabled by an emphasis on high-tech industries and international investment. The Ireland of the 1990s and 2000s is markedly different from that of the 1960s, 1930s, or 1900s. Some cohorts of the Irish populace have experienced dramatic increases in wealth, and have the luxury of enjoying consuming in ways previously unavailable to them. Irish dancing dresses seem to be an expression of a new form of Irishness—one that is not shy about demonstrating wealth. One hallmark of the Celtic Tiger boom was increasing economic inequality and stratification. Another hallmark may be reluctance on the part of the government of the


Republic of Ireland to seriously address or mitigate these issues. That is, although the social welfare apparatus of the state may have been strengthened in the past few decades, no serious move to alter the course has been made. Similarly, there have been few movements within Irish step dancing organizations, or between Irish dancers themselves, to try to counter the trend I have observed, which is that dancers act as though they must compete not only through dancing, but also through costuming. Aside from informal conversations, postings on messageboards, and complaint letters or editorials in magazines, few official movements have surfaced to tell dancers that they don’t have to compete this way. Because this idea is not formally discouraged by An Coimisiún, it seems to be, in effect, informally sanctioned or even encouraged. Because many now attempt to compete in the second register of costume design, in addition to the register of technical merit, and because the most fashionable dresses are very costly, many dancers compete through expenditure, access to wealth, or ability to display wealth. Dancers of different classes do not have the same ability to compete. The addition of this second register disrupts the earlier meritocratic nature of the competition system. Irish step dancing dresses, as a representation of a very specific form of contemporary Irishness, articulate a view of ethnicity or citizenship that is more exclusionary than inclusive, and more limiting than freeing. Perhaps it is not the ultimate goal of organizations such as An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha to include all dancers in competitive practice regardless of their class status or their willingness to conform to gendered norms. Certainly, it should be noted that neither the early twentieth-century


nationalist independence movement in Ireland nor the early Irish state was fully receptive to either a commitment to class equality or gender equality. In addition, although gender inequality increasingly has been addressed by the Irish state at the end of the twentieth century, Ireland is not a gender-neutral or equal society. Perhaps, in light of the realities of the Republic of Ireland in the 1990s and 2000s, representations of any sort of Irishness should not be expected to promote ideals of either gender or class that might be considered “progressive.” However, it is my experience that some participants, both within Ireland and in other countries, do indeed desire inclusion of all dancers. Irish dancing costumes seem to represent a significant barrier to that inclusion. Irish step dancing may be said to be a representation of a particular conception of what it means to be Irish or Irish-American—less so, perhaps, in its particulars, and moreso in that so many American dancers seem to view it as being “authentically” Irish, and thus a straightforward representation of their heritage. In the United States, the notion that Irish step dancing, in its present set of forms, is unquestionable “authentic,” is stressed so often and profoundly that it has come to stand in for a notion of Irishness. It is my observation that many participants, especially in the United States, interact with Irish dancing culture as a means to connect with ideals of heritage and ethnicity. For many of these dancers, the practice seems meaningful—and shapes their understandings of what it means to be Irish-American. In the practice, the dresses still further articulate white middle or upper class identities in the United States. It needs to be stressed that while Ireland is one of the most economically unequal societies in the European Union, its level of inequality is surpassed by that of the United States. The United States, of


course, unlike most European countries, has few strong social welfare nets. The little support for working class and poor people that does exist in this country has been steadily eroded since the 1980s. In addition, income inequality in the United States has been steadily increasing in the 2000s. 2 It is not surprising to me that the “ethnic” expression of a white group such as Irish-Americans, or, to couch the terms in a more limited manner, Irish-American competitive Irish step dancers, would tolerate, if not promote, competition through display of material wealth, and ignore the question of whether all dancers have the ability to compete on this basis. The present economic situation in the United States, however, does not preclude Americans from maintaining a certain belief in concepts like fair play, equal access, and rewards based on merit. Regardless of the fact that some of the evidence on the ground seems to contradict the ideology, Americans still seem to have a tendency to believe that if someone works hard enough, he or she will be rewarded for their efforts, regardless of their class or economic status. As evidenced by comments and statements in Irish step dancing magazines and websites, dancers do seem to believe that they should be rewarded in competition according to their efforts, and not their dresses. However, frustration with the reality or perception that this may not actually play out in competition has not lead to a large-scale refusal to participate in the system, or efforts to change it. Rather, dancers find innovative means, such as purchasing used dresses, with which to accommodate the standard. Ultimately, personal refusal of the expectation is very difficult for dancers, because they must navigate a variety of social forces seemingly encouraging them not to do so. Dancers who do not want to ruin their chances


at moving up the ranks ultimately may not find it in their personal interest to address the issue. However, it would be inappropriate to suggest that dancers exercise no agency in the creation and reinforcement of certain costuming norms. As I have argued, dancers engage in a wide variety of debates in forums such as the internet and magazines. In addition, their choices over what to wear, and how to conceptualize costume, are sometimes different from the expectations of authority figures. Dancers thus balance constraints of structure and their own agency when they interact with costuming cultures. Struggles over gender norms and representations have continually influenced battles over issues of nationalism and nation. So too, have interests of the Catholic Church and nationalist movements, in the twentieth century, served to constrain the bodies of Irish dancers into appropriate forms. These cultures and institutions have promoted a specific set of roles for women and girls, and cemented them in documents such as the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland—which clearly promoted the image of woman as homemaker. However, recent upheavals, such as growing legal protections for women in the workforce and the decriminalization of homosexuality in the 1990s, offer different models for Irish femininities and sexualities. Irish dancing dresses, because of their strict promotion of a single type of femininity, one which is clearly distinguishable from masculinity, and which desexualizes the bodies of competitors, may show an adherence to older, Catholic, and nationalist models of Irishness.

Current and Future Dialogues


A critical dialogue exists on the subject of Irish step dancing costumes—one that, it seems, will be ongoing within Irish dancing communities and among dancers, but which has received markedly little scholarly assessment. Indeed, it is a dialogue that I passionately participated in when I was a dancing competitor—from 1992 to 2003. In addition, I find the subject particularly interesting because the topic is quite contentious within Irish step dancing communities. Irish step dancers, dancing teachers, adjudicators, and other participants hold a wide variety of often-contradictory opinions on the subject of costumes. Some participants are highly critical of recent developments in costuming, while others find immense amounts of joy in their design and in the creativity that dancers and others express in wearing them. In 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s scholarship on Irish dancing, I have witnessed a certain reluctance to engage with some of the day-to-day issues that Irish step dancing competitors raise—costuming being one of them. However, it is my hopeful impression that the lack of scholarship on these areas may be a result of the fact that scholarship on competitive Irish step dancing is still in the early stages of development. Irish step dancing as a topic has only recently received serious scholarly attention. Most of the texts on the subject were written in the 1990s and 2000s. Irish step dancing writing is a brand-new field that now includes professional academics, expert performers and teachers, and self-designated historians. In such a short period of time, it has not been possible for writers to analyze Irish dancing through every available theoretical lens. Furthermore, a self-reflexive critique has not been developed across all Irish dancing focii of interest.


Some topics addressed by extant Irish dancing scholarship, such as the relations between Irish dancing and cultural nationalism or elements of gender relations have been well addressed. Scholarship on phenomena such as Riverdance has been relatively well explored. However, many other topics remain to be analyzed, and with this concluding paragraph I suggest several that bear promise for future research. For example, Irish dancing has only been portrayed as “international” or “global” only in a limited sense. In addition, with the exception of local ethnographies or works dealing with stage shows, it appears to me that present-day trajectories of Irish step dancing remain to be addressed. Irish dance scholars as yet rarely integrate economic, commodity, or media theories into their works—except when they address topics such as Riverdance. It is my impression that perhaps the least theorized topic in Irish step dancing is the relation between Irish step dancing practices and class. Another area that I recommend for further research is sean nós dancing. Finally, scholarship on the Irish dancing of diaspora communities seems particularly needed. Noting, for example, the high number of dancers from Great Britain placing in the top of the World Championships in the past decade, I am particularly surprised that Irish dancing in England and Scotland has received so little scrutiny. Additional investigations into dancing in Australia and New Zealand, or even the newer dancing communities in areas such as Mexico, Russia, or South Africa, might yield very interesting information.


ENDNOTES 1 The terms “core” and “periphery” are associated with world-systems theory, which is further explored in Christopher Chase-Dunn and Peter Grimes’ paper, “World-Systems Analysis,” Annual Review of Sociology, 21 (1995): 389. 2 For more information on the growth of income inequality in the United States in the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, please see the United States Census Bureau’s “Selected Measures of Household Income Dispersion: 1967 to 2005,” United States Census Bureau, 2006, 17 Mar 2008, < >. The table lists the Gini index of income inequality figures, a common economic measure of income inequality. According to the table, income inequality in the United States has increased consistently from 1980 onward.


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