Origins of Irish Dance: Volume V
Levels and Competitions, Part 2
Many of our parents and dancers here at SRL are fully aware of all the ins and outs of Irish dance, and this post isn’t really for them (unless they’ve always been a little fuzzy on some of it—we won’t tell! It’s complicated!) This post is for our Beginner parents, our dancers just getting excited about maybe competing, or even the parent just checking out our website for the first time. (If that’s you, maybe check out our five previous posts in the series to catch you up to the present in Irish dance’s history!)
Note: the following is a general overview and varies by region—this guide is for our region, New England, USA. Your dancer’s instructor is always the best authority on any and all information pertaining to the competitive track in your area and your dancer’s level, specifically. Competition level names and our class level names may share similar terms, but are not directly related.
There’s a quote written on the mirror in the larger studio here at SRL: “You earn your medals in class, you pick them up at competition.” Today, we’re going to lay out how the levels work on the Irish dance competitive circuit, but these levels aren’t about the shiny dresses and big hair—they’re about the discipline, hard work, and practice, practice, practice. The CLRG says it best:
The purpose…is to provide a structured framework within which dancers can progress towards an achievable goal. [It] provide[s] a strong foundation in Irish Dance by developing a candidate’s physical skills, stamina, expression, musicality and an appreciation and knowledge of the traditional dances and culture.
But, the competition must go on! To explain this all in the most basic way: competing and placing in a feis (check out Part 1 if this term is new to you!) is how dancers move up from one level to another. But the rules and regulations involving that movement are anything but simple.
Let’s take a closer look at the lower and intermediate levels, usually called “grades”:
Beginner Grade: This level is for dancers ages 6+ that are brand new to competing for their first calendar year in the competitive circuit. Once a dancer has learned the necessary skills and steps at class—two steps of reel and light jig—they are eligible to take part in their first feis at the Beginner level. It’s always exciting to get on stage with the possibility of earning a medal for their hard work in class!
Advanced Beginner Grade: Students remain at this level until they place 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in a competition of at least 5 competitors. They move up when competing in the next calendar year and only within the type of dance they placed in—i.e. a dancer can be a Novice in the Slip Jig, but still an Advanced Beginner in the Reel. You are not considered in the next level fully until you move up in all your dances.
Novice Grade: This is the level where things begin to get more complicated—the steps get more difficult, and the tempo of the music may be slowed in order to fit more and more advanced steps into the dancer’s performance. Novice dancers move up only if they place 1st in a competition of 5 or more dancers, though groupings of 20 or more dancers will move 1st and 2nd place up to the next level in that specific dance. This is the level where solo costumes (as opposed to your school’s costume) are allowed.
Prizewinner Grade: An advanced level competitor that has placed fully out of Novice Grade, but is working on rising to the level of Preliminary Championship Grade. The regional minimum to advance requires a dancer to place 1st in both a hard shoe and soft shoe dance in order to move up, but, as the final grade before Championships, SRL dancers are required to win all their Prizewinner dances in order to advance.
Now, let’s explore the championship levels, where the dancing is extremely advanced and dancers begin to compete at the regional, national, and international levels:
Preliminary Championship: Competitors at this level generally perform three dances: soft shoe, hard shoe, and a set dance. At the championship levels, the soft and hard shoe dances get longer than they were in the grade level—this requires more stamina and strength. At Preliminary Championship level dancers are invited to represent SRL at the regional championships held each November. A dancer must win 1st place twice in order to advance to the top level of Irish dancing—Open Championship—and qualify for Nationals.
Open Championship: The highest competitive level. Similar to the prelim level, dancers perform a longer soft shoe dance and a longer hard shoe dance, along with a set dance. Set dances are a dancer’s solo piece that showcases their best strengths, impeccable rhythm, and musicality. If a dancer wins a 1st at this level, they may never return to competing in Prelim. Open Championship dancers are pursuing high placements at regional and national championships and working to qualify for the world championships (often competing at major championships--The All-Irelands, The All-Scotlands, The Great Britains, etc.—though this past year saw the cancellation of many.)
While most Irish dancers start young and finish their competitive careers by their early twenties, many feiseanna offer competitions for older age ranges, as well! SRL offers recreational adult classes in six-week night sessions—perfect for dipping your toe in the Irish dance world! Feiseanna are competitive, but they’re also a cultural touchstone—bringing together people of every walk of life to celebrate painstakingly developed skills that bring alive Ireland’s vibrant history and culture.
This post is part of a series. Read Part 1 of Levels and Competitions here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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