The “Olympics” of Irish dancing is set to attract thousands of elite dancers and supporters from around the world this week.
The 44th World Irish Dancing Championships open in London today, and with more than 5000 competitors battling it out to be crowned champions, there will be wigs, sequins, fake tan and high kicks galore.
Dancers will compete in solo, ceili, choreography and dance drama categories in a variety of age groups.
The host – An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha – has estimated that up to 15,000 relatives, friends, teachers and Irish dancing fans will descend on the city for the event at London Hilton Metropole.
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, said the event is a “vital boost to London’s economy”.
It is the first time the Irish dance extravaganza has been held in London and organisers are hailing it as “one of the greatest cultural events the city has seen for decades”.
Throughout the eight days of competition, champions will strive to defend titles and new ones will be crowned.
The organisers said spectators should expect “increasing athleticism” from this year’s dancers.
“The traditional aspects of Irish step dance will fuse with increasing athleticism, innovation in choreography and rhythm to bring us a modern and truly inspiring evolution of our cultural dance form,” they said.
Dedicated dancers – many of whom started dancing at a young age – will have spent months, or even years, preparing for their few minutes on the world stage.
Megan Brady, 18, from Belfast, said she missed out on her school formal – an act of commitment her friends found hard to fathom.
She went as far as to say her friends were “disgusted”, adding: “They thought it was mad.”
“The biggest thing I’ve ever missed is my school formal, which my friends didn’t understand, and I don’t think they will ever understand unless they’re Irish dancers, because they don’t realise the amount of commitment that you have to put in.”
As well as practising their moves, dancers also do extra exercise such as skipping, running and weights to build up fitness and strength.
Student David Bassett, 22, from Southampton, is competing in the Senior Men’s category and said people outside Irish dancing’s inner circle do not grasp the scale and prestige of the World Championships.
“I think, unless you’re an Irish dancer, I don’t think people really understand. When I’m explaining it to people, I try to compare it to our version of the Olympics so they get some perspective on the size of it and how hard it is.
“It does take over a lot. I work my life around it. I have to request certain lectures so I can go to class in the evening. The same with my shifts at work – I have to base it all around dancing.”
The world of competitive Irish dancing can be expensive, with girls’ costumes starting at around STG1,000 $A1,793) and increasing to about STG1,500 ($A2,689.86) depending on the extent of embellishment with crystals and sequins, Ms Brady said.
Irish dancing has attracted controversy in recent years due to the costumes becoming ever more sparkly and dancers wearing fake tan, make-up and wigs.
But Ms Brady dismissed the controversy, saying: “I find it really, really annoying, because people just think it’s just the make-up and the tan – people don’t realise that dancers are actually like athletes.”
She said the glamour enhances dancers’ confidence, and for many dancers it feels like they are “taking on a different persona”.
She added: “Dancers enjoy getting ready. It’s part of the whole dancing experience.”
Mr Johnson said: “It is brilliant news that this globally admired and historic aspect of Irish culture is dancing right to our doorstep in London.
“With thousands of people expected to come and soak up the atmosphere, the Championships will be a fantastic jamboree of dance and a vital boost to London’s economy.”
The World Irish Dancing Championships run from April 13 to 20.