For those of you who weren’t convinced by my argument that Irish dance is a sport, I now have the proof to change your mind. Instant replay reversed a ruling at the World Championships this week! VAR-style controversy has to make it a sport, right?
At this week’s World Championships of Irish Dance—or in Irish, Oireachtas Rince Na Cruinne—the biggest and most exclusive Irish dance competition, a young dancer was stripped of her third-place trophy two days after her competition and awards ceremony because video replay showed she started her set dance late, which is a very known violation of the rules.
This is absolutely unheard of. Not a dancer missing their musical cue—that happens—but the fact that video evidence was consulted after the competition and changed the results. I had four different text threads going on about this last night, and they are all still going.
Let’s start from the beginning. I first heard about this drama because I follow every Irish dance school and Irish dance-related account on Instagram, and I saw a post from the school of the sixth-place finisher that said they had been notified that their dancer actually placed FIFTH, not sixth, and that she would be receiving her globe after all. (The top five dancers of every competition make the podium, and they all receive these beautiful shiny silver trophies in the shape of a globe. It’s a very important moment and they all hold them up over their head together at the end of the awards ceremony. Is me explaining the globes mostly an excuse to tell you that a dancer from my school won a globe and we are all pumped?! Maybe.)
Worlds is the event. It lasts for over a week, bringing in dancers from Ireland, the U.K, the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and even some other European countries with growing Irish dance communities like Poland and Germany, and before they were banned for this year, Russia. Worlds was canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the event. There are exhibition performances throughout the week in addition to as competitions—the best of the best North American dancers did an America-themed performance where they dressed as football players and cheerleaders this year). Worlds even has its own theme song, and this year, for the first time, there’s a broadcaster doing some extremely awkward post-game interviews.
So what the heck happened in Belfast that the results were changed long after those dancers had left the building? Before I could even investigate further, a friend who I grew up dancing with sent a screenshot of a message to our only-Irish-Dance-gossip Instagram group chat. It said that the third-place finisher in the under-12 girls age group started her set dance two bars late and, and by consulting footage from FeisTV, CLRG (the governing body of Irish dance) was able to confirm the mistake. Someone filed a protest with CLRG—if I had to guess, I’d say it was the sixth-place finisher’s teacher or parents, or both—and then two days later, everybody in the competition from third place down to 25 (where the third-place dancer wound up when her scores were corrected) moved up a spot. Damn!
I have never heard of anything like this before, which isn’t surprising because the live broadcasting of competitions is a relatively new feature. Back in 2011 in Dublin, at the only World Championships I ever danced at and my last competition ever, there was no video whatsoever. I do not own a single video of myself competing because filming with your own phone or a camera isn’t allowed, and there was no official videographer or livestream then. I remember waving at a camera backstage that only aired behind-the-scenes footage live, so family back in the U.S. or could see their dancers before they competed. So, given the lack of documentation, this type of judging error is probably nothing new. But this solution is very new! This is the very first World Championships broadcast live by FeisTV, a streaming service that only came about because of COVID-19 capacity restrictions for events.
So how did this controversy that stripped this unfortunate young dancer of her hard-earned globe unfold? (I won’t be using her name here because I’m sure she’s a very nice girl and I feel really bad for her. I don’t want her to be googlable for this very honest mistake! It’s not like doping or cheating or anything purposefully evil. As far as I know she isn’t match-fixing. We don’t have gambling on Irish dance competitions … yet).
In every major competition, there are three rounds: a softshoe round, a hardshoe round and then the top half of the field performs a set round. The set round is also in hard shoes, so it’s very rhythm-heavy. It’s the best round because you get to dance all by yourself and don’t have to share the stage with anyone getting in your way or blocking the judges from noticing you. The floor is all yours to show off your best moves and fanciest skills. It’s also the most personalized round because there are so many different set tunes to choose from, and many different speeds that you can dance them at. This is the round it’s all up to you.
The set round is also the scariest round for exactly the same reason. If you black out up there under the lights, you’re all alone. No one is coming to save you. If you miss a click, everybody knows. Every competition features live musicians, and different musicians have different playing styles, so the same tune can sound really different on an accordion vs. a fiddle vs. a piano. But if the music sounds different or confusing than what you’re used to, too bad. Some sets, like Blackthorn Stick, are known for producing false starts; there’s a little dip in the tune that sounds like you should start dancing there, but the joke’s on you! Some of the sets have insanely long intros, so you’re standing up there, hanging out, trying not to fidget, for like 25 seconds. A lot of the time spent practicing sets is learning to count them, and understanding the structure of the song. Some teachers will make you sing your set, as a way to really drill it into your brain.
Because it’s a known hazard, the CLRG has strict rules on false or late starts. “Competitors beginning to dance before or after the stipulated set dance introduction will automatically receive ZERO marks and ZERO points from all adjudicators for that round.”
This dancer’s set is Youghal (pronounced “Yole”) Harbour. This set is extremely difficult, and only the best of the best would attempt it. (The fact that this dancer still earned 25th place after getting straight zeros in her third round tells you how good she is.) It’s a lesser-known set that has a very funky structure; the step part of the set is only six bars long instead of the more traditional eight bars. And to make it even more difficult, she dances Youghal Harbour at speed 76, the slowest you can possibly dance this little hornpipe tune. You’ll notice it barely even sounds like a song at all at this speed. It sounds like a slow-motion replay. The reason for doing a set this slow is you can choreograph more complicated rhythms to slower music, because you have more time to pack the beats in. My friend who is a musician who regularly performs at Irish dance competitions said that she dislikes the trend of dancers choosing these painfully slow speeds, because it’s really hard for her to keep time. These slower set speeds have as much room for human error by the musicians playing them, as by the dancers dancing them. But in this case, the musicians were the only ones on time.
So this poor nervous child, at her first World Championships, got confused by this kind of weird-sounding rendition of this already very weird set, and she missed the proper start. You’ll also notice she wasn’t quite sure when to point her toe (something we do at a specific count in the music before we start), which telegraphs the panic, and then she rushes into her dancing, realizing she’s missed her big starting move, which usually will be a jump or a bang, and in her case, was supposed to go “bang, rock, rock.” (A loud bang, followed by two bendy ankle leans).
In her defense, my friend the musician said that the musicians here really didn’t do her any favors because typically, a musician will do a nice obvious pause at the end of the introduction to help the dancer identify their cue.
The five judges on the panel either didn’t notice her miss the start (pretty unlikely), didn’t know or remember the rule, or were swayed by the ever-present politics that plague Irish dancing (pretty likely). None of the five judges gave her the zero points that the rules stipulate. Two judges gave her a 100, the “Irish points” value that means that those judges marked her in first place. The awards ceremony went on without issue (though I’m sure the gossip was spicy!), she got her globe, and then, at some point after the ceremony, somebody filed a protest, and CLRG reviewed the FeisTV video.
Two days later, they notified the competitors that the results were changing. And yesterday, CLRG posted an update to their Instagram feed.
CLRG has their comments turned off on most of their IG posts (this is how you know there’s been a lot of previous drama) but don’t worry, the Irish dance forums are all over this, with fingers pointing as fast as Youghal Harbor speed 111.
Some blame the musicians, others blame the parents, and still others found the correct entity that failed here: the judges!
“I thought the musicians in that hall that day were absolutely crap,& that this was part of the reason she started a few bars late. I know the set well but even I was finding it hard to count the bars. “
“The judges who gave 100s & 75s to this dancer in her set SHOULD BE FIRED IMMEDIATELY. It was clearly politics, nothing more. An Coiste Faire is a joke. CLRG is a joke. The most political Worlds EVER“
There’s a lot more where that came from.
How the entire panel missed a blatant late start is beyond the comprehension of any former Irish dancer who eats this tape. The most important conclusion here, though, is that now there is actual tape to eat, though the review may take roughly two days longer than the average NFL review. Roughly.