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Stepping up for St Pat's

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Last week, the St Patrick’s Day Irish dancing competition was held on yet another unseasonably warm March day, causing all the girls to sweat in their black leotards and diamanté-laden dresses. But in that community centre on the outskirts of Sydney, we all felt the heat, both competitors and audience alike. And not just because of the weather. 

‘I can feel my heart rate go up,’ said Jack, one of the dads next to me in the hall. ‘It’s funny because nothing I do in my own life makes me feel as anxious as this.’ I knew exactly how he felt because I was also a bundle of nerves as I waited for my daughter to go on stage. Watching your child perform and be judged is a sure way to make you feel ‘all the feels’. Yet this is what happens every month throughout Australia at feis — Irish dancing competitions.

Welcome to the world of competitive Irish dancing, which reaches peak visibility around this time of year because of St Patrick’s Day. Thousands of students learn at about 80 Irish dancing schools and many will perform at local celebrations around the country. You probably don’t ever hear much about it otherwise because it’s a niche pastime. I certainly didn’t, until it suddenly became a big part of our lives. 

In our case, TikTok and The Wiggles are partly to blame. I had enjoyed a viral TikTok clip of a black Irish dancer in America, which led me to enthusiastically take up the offer of a free trial class advertised in the local mums Facebook group. With another family at our school, their gateway was the legendary 1994 Eurovision segment that introduced Michael Flatley, Jean Butler and Riverdance to the world — and to their kid, who watched it on YouTube more than a quarter of a century later.

My then-5 year old daughter was keen to try out Irish dancing because she knew about it from The Wiggles. After the free class, we signed up for the term. Once we forked out for the uniform and shoes, there was no backing out of it. Actually, my daughter did try to back out of it a few months later, but I refused to let her quit until she had given it a proper go. So she kept going — and Irish dancing has turned out to be something she enjoys doing and is good at. It’s building her confidence as well as teaching her valuable skills, like how to win and lose with grace.

Growing up in Australia in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was impossible not to be aware of the Irish. Racist jokes about the Irish were so commonplace that even recent transplants like me found them funny. From the mid-90s, those jokes revolved around Michael Flatley and his infamous sex life. Then no one joked about the Irish anymore, because there were a lot of new migrant groups to pick on — including the one I was a part of.


'Irish dancing has become an intrinsic part of Australian culture, given so many young people learning like my daughter do not have Irish heritage. Perhaps what this shows is when you open up a traditional artform and invite people in, it can help it strengthen and grow.'


I’ve always loved Irish culture, what I thought it was anyway. I was mad about The Corrs and novels by Maeve Binchy. The Cranberries kept topping the charts, though I’m not sure if most of us understood what ‘Zombie’ was actually about. Later, I became obsessed with The Frames, seeing them live in Sydney on every tour, even interviewing frontman Glen Hansard. When I finally visited Dublin ten years ago, the unexpected familiarity of the city helped me to finally understood how deep the influence of Irish culture was on my hometown. After all, where I grew up and still live in Sydney’s south-west was once known as ‘Irishtown’ — a matter of fact given the Irish population, but it’s a bit of a pejorative moniker too.  

All of which is to say that absolutely none of this exposure to Irish culture prepared me for what it’s been like with Irish dancing, which has been a real education. Whenever we attend a local feis, I watch the young dancers with awe, admiring their skill and determination. I also appreciate the huge amount of organisation required behind the scenes. The women who run these feis could surely run the country — with delicious baked goods. At the recent St Patrick’s Day feis, this included peach crumble cake, pineapple upside down cake and chewy chocolate chip cookies.

Irish dancing began as a folk pastime in the villages of Ireland many centuries ago. Over time it evolved into an artform that is highly technical, with complicated routines that can be graded and certified. Last year, a day before the Australian Irish Dancing Championships, my daughter’s dancing teacher called unexpectedly as the dance they’d been learning for months had to change at the last minute. ‘Tell her she’ll actually be dancing to 113. The first step of the reel just needs to be swapped for the first part of the single jig.’ She might as well have been speaking Martian. I knew what a reel and a jig was (well, sort of), but suggested they speak directly. Later, when I put my daughter on the phone and the same instructions were repeated, she nodded because she understood perfectly. 

Of course, there is a pageantry aspect to Irish dancing which I find uncomfortable, with expensive sparkly dresses, big wigs and fake tan. I’m out of my comfort zone being a dance mum, unused to hand-sewing diamantes onto leotards, hunting down ribbons to match dresses. If anyone has ever seen how bad I am at doing my own hair, you would not be surprised at how messy my daughter’s buns always are. Having children seems to constantly involve doing things I don’t really want to do, but the overall push and pull of parenthood keeps enlargening my world in surprising ways.

Irish dancing has become an intrinsic part of Australian culture, given so many young people learning like my daughter do not have Irish heritage. Perhaps what this shows is when you open up a traditional artform and invite people in, it can help it strengthen and grow. I always think how delightful it is to see someone like my daughter up on stage: a Vietnamese Australian girl in soft black shoes, flying around the stage, dancing a light jig.





Sheila Ngoc Pham is a writer, editor, producer and curator working across the arts, media and public health. She is currently completing her PhD on women’s healthcare experiences at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation. Sheila lives on Dharug land with her husband and two children.

Topic tags: Sheila Ngoc Pham, Irish, Dance, Competitions, St Patrick's Day



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Existing comments

There’s nowhere to hide on stage and your daughter will feel she can fly when you are watching and supporting her, Sheila. Irish dancing competition parents - take a bow.

Pam | 14 March 2024  

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