ARTS AND FEATURES — 07 February 2014

By Shelley Marsden

IRISH dancing bosses say the Irish Dancing Commission’s recent ban on make-up is a small but important step, while others say it’s not gone far enough.

The Irish Dancing Commission – an Coimisiun le Rinnci Gaelacha – brought in a ban last week that includes make-up and fake eyelashes for girls competing up to under-10 level, but didn’t extend it to fake tan on their legs and faces.

The commission confirmed that competitors’ use of tan in open level competition would still be allowed, even for under-10 level (a ban is already in place for its use in beginners and novice grade-level dancers up to 12 years of age).

Coming into effect from March 1, they have however introduced a blanket ban on the wearing of make-up by all children under the age of 10, an age deemed a suitable cut-off point as it was felt that, from 11 onwards, girls would start dabbling with make-up regardless.

Commission public relations officer, Dearbhla Lennon, a former female lead dancer in Lord of the Dance and a world medallist, personally put the commission forward.  She told the Irish World that a ban on fake tan is something the Commission would like to aim towards, but like everything, change would need to be introduced gradually.

“I decided to start with a ban on make-up for very young children as a starting point”, she said. “I felt like, if we lump everything in there and ask to get rid of wigs, tan, make-up, the motion could fall and you’d be left with nothing. Let’s take steps in the right direction, and get a little of what we want.”

Dearbhla Lennon

Dearbhla, who has just returned from judging a feisanna in Galway, says the fake tan element of the debate only applies to the top tier of dancers and is not seen all the time.

“You get the heavy fake tan with top-level performers, but you have to remember they’ll be performing on stages that would akin to arena stages, with heavy lighting. Under those lights, it never looks as bad as it does in daylight – when it can look very bad.”

She agrees that some competitors go over the top when they apply the fake tan, but for the most part girls apply it with caution while others, such as the younger children in her own classes, simply put on tan tights.

In the latter half of her own career as a competitive dancer, from aged fourteen, Dearbhla experimented in fake tan herself, but says it’s a question of taste: “You can put some fake tan on and make legs look nice and healthy under bright lights, or you can apply so much that you look like you’re from a Caribbean nation.”

There are those that criticise Irish dancing paraphernalia in the same way they criticise the practise of young women who plaster on make-up, wigs and fake tan to take part in US beauty pageants. Dearbhla believes there is no comparison, and that with Irish dancing, there is a lot of substance behind the aesthetic.

She said: “I would appeal to people to open their minds a little and stop bashing Irish dancers; they’re really, really skilled kids. The people that take part in Irish dancing competitions are incredibly talented. You’re not comparing like with like; our children are not dressed up to go on stage and look pretty; they’re performing incredibly intricate footwork to intricate rhythms.

Trends come and go and, according to Derbhla, the trend right now is a move away from big curly wigs and lashings of fake tan, the more ‘showy’ aspects of the tradition.

“I’d say 90% of our dancers always look natural and tasteful and there has been miminal opposition to these new rules. There’s always going to be that 10% that go OTT. They’re the ones the photojournalist will capture, though. There’s a great appetite for sensationalism when it comes to Irish dancing.

“It’s skill and talent we should focus on– and safeguarding the continuation of an incredible art form that could have been dead hundreds of years ago. By putting a few rules in place now, and hopefully a few more down the line, we will keep it alive.”

The wearing of wigs and the application of fake tan and make-up has never been enforced in the world of Irish dancing; they have always been entirely at a parent’s discretion and have become cultural norms in the Irish dancing world.

For Roisin Mullins, Director of London-based Irish dance group Raven Dance and judge of Sky’s A Gypsy Life For Me TV (currently on TV3 in Ireland), the changes, and any future ban on fake tan could are a bad move. She worries that, in what is already an extremely competitive world, pushy parents will just take things a step further.

She said: “There’s no end to how far some parents and their children will go to win, especially at world championship level. If you ban fake tan, you’ll get the next level of extremism – like kids going on sun-beds, which is far more dangerous. You might get parents jetting off on a last-minute holiday so their kids get a tanned face and legs, or they could use permanent make-up that can’t be removed after a performance.”

The former Lord of the Dance star added: “I think it would push parents to extreme. This isn’t make-up for everyday use; it was born as stage make-up – it’s only for competitions! It’s replicating what dancers on big shows like Lord of the Dance use. Also, there are people whose businesses will already suffer from the no make-up ban as they sell stage-appropriate make-up and tan at feis’s.”

For the full article, see this week’s Irish World (issue 5 Feb 2014).

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