Irish dancing teaches more than just dance steps, as Danielle Wright finds out.

There's a story circulating about the birth of Irish dancing. When the British occupied Ireland they stamped out gatherings, dancing and pretty much having any fun at all.

Not liking to be told what to do by the Brits, the clever Irish kept up their dancing to spite them, however, they kept their hands firmly by their sides in case any British soldiers peered through the window.

If this is a true story, those Irish eyes may well have been smiling at getting away with a bit of fun and that indomitable spirit can be found in the Irish dance scene here in New Zealand.

Ciara McGinn (12) has been Irish dancing since she was 5 and her sister Molly (8) started a couple of years ago. Their father Brian is from Cork and mother Nikki is a Kiwi with a "fully Irish" grandfather.


Nikki wanted her daughters to learn Irish dancing for the cultural aspect. "It's so hard as Pakeha New Zealanders to have an identity. We took the kids back to Ireland and to watch Ciara Irish dancing with her granddad there was very special."

Irish dancing entered the mainstream with the huge success of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Paula Doyle, who runs an Irish dancing academy said before that time it was always mistaken for Scottish or Highland dancing, which makes more use of the dancers' arms in routines.

"I remember how Irish dancing gave me a wonderful insight into my culture, it's such a unique dance form. The success of Riverdance made me very proud - everyone loves the look of it, it's very hard, technical and cool."

Several generations ago the costume was simply "Sunday Best" but now it's far more elaborate. Ciara tells me about some dresses costing more than the mothers' wedding dresses at up to $5000 each. Not to mention the Shirley Temple ringlet wigs and heavy makeup often seen at competitive dancing tournaments.

While many of the costumes still look traditional, there are some nods to modern culture and at the annual World Irish Dancing Championships last year, where 32 countries competed, dancers were warmed up in the same room thanks to iPods.

When the McGinns visited Ireland, Nikki realised: "My Kiwi girls are more Irish than their Irish cousins. They danced in the streets and had a great time.

"Audiences love the noise and rhythm of the hard shoes," says Paula. "To me, Irish dancing is an art form, a dance and a sport and not just for the Irish. Only about 25 per cent of my classes have Irish roots."

Ciara has also used dancing as a springboard into learning about her roots: "I'm proud of my Irish heritage because it's a culture that does stuff no one else can do - like accents!"

While you might not be able to hear the beautiful accents when watching Irish dancing, the dance really does show the essence of the Irish spirit come to life.

What to expect:

As a beginner, you'll start in soft shoes and depending upon ability, will move to hard shoes within six months to a year. Then there are options like Ceili, a team event, or a choreography syllabus where you make up your own dance. Competitive Irish dance can send you abroad for the world championships or there are classes that can help you make extra pocket money for those dancing at events around town. Doyle Academy has classes for all ages. Phone 021 736 951.