THE Irish dancers in Ciara D’Arcy’s class look and move like gymnasts. Years of dance practice have made them lithe and supple.
As they leap and twist through the complex jigs and reels it’s clear to see that they are not only good at what they do, but they enjoy it as well.
Irish dancing itself has been enjoying a revival over the past decade – fuelled by the popularity of stage shows such as Lord of the Dance and Riverdance.
Ciara, 29, who began Irish dancing as a toddler and now runs her own academy in the Huddersfield area, says iconic figures such as Michael Flatley have given the artform a new lease of life.
“People are a lot more aware of what Irish dancing is now,” she said. “Before Riverdance and Lord of the Dance people thought it was more like Morris dancing and everyone wore heavily embroidered traditional costumes.”
In fact, today’s young dancers are just as likely to wear short, ice-skating-style costumes.
A qualified fitness instructor, Ciara began her own classes six years ago but has only recently achieved teaching qualifications for Irish dance which means that her pupils are now able to take part in national and international competitions.
At their first major competition (feis in Gaelic) last weekend in Warrington they came away with four first prizes.
As with many competitive activities, there’s a certain commitment of time and money by the parents of the aspiring dancers.
Contemporary Irish dancing has become a glamorous affair.
Girls are spray-tanned and heavily made-up, their dresses can cost hundreds, even thousands of pounds, and they wear elaborate wigs of curly hair.
“You can pay £600 or more for a competition dress,” says Ciara.
Michelle Ward from Birchencliffe, whose two daughters, Kaitlyn, nine, and Chloe, 13, are both Irish dancers, has double the expense but says it’s absolutely worth it.
The girls were among Ciara’s first students and initially joined because their Irish grandfather wanted them to experience part of their cultural heritage.
They enjoyed it so much they are now more than happy to take classes three times a week. Michelle herself has become so involved that she makes the uniform costumes worn by members of the Ciara’s dancing academy and Chloe is now teaching some of the younger pupils.
While it’s true that most of Ciara’s elite dancers – nine from a total of around 90 youngsters in her academy – are either Irish or part Irish, some have no Irish connections at all.
The only boy in her elite group, Sam Mindham, for example, has no Irish ancestry. He simply enjoys the dancing.
“It’s very energetic,” he said.
Nine-year-old Sam from Lindley first tried Irish dancing when he was a pupil at Lindley Infants School where Ciara takes an after-school class.
“Ciara came into school and offered to do an hour after school with the children,” said Sam’s mother, Helen. “They did a performance at the Lawrence Batley Theatre and she asked him if he’d like to join her academy. That was two years ago and he loves it.”
Sam is also a keen footballer, cricketer and tennis player – activities that he shares with his older brother.
Eight-year-old Evie Jo Lord from Rastrick has an Irish grandfather and has been dancing for two years. She fell in love with Irish dancing when she saw a display at her school, Carr Green Primary.
Her mother, Paula, is prepared to spend whatever is needed to provide her daughter with costumes and wigs.
She said: “She’s our only child so I don’t mind spending £400 to £600 on a dress and £65 for a wig. We get it back because she enjoys it so much.”
Evie Jo is also a gymnast but gave up brownies in order to give more time to her dancing.
Some parents are prepared to invest even more in costumes for their daughters. Kaitlyn Redmond, 15, from Halifax, has a crystal-studded costume that cost £1,000 – and that’s secondhand. Its original price would have been £2,500.
“I consider it a bargain,” said Kaitlyn’s mother, Lorraine. “It is from the Gucci label of Irish dancing costumes.”
“Both me and my husband come from big Irish families and I don’t mind spending money at all on her dresses. If we look after it we’ll probably be able to sell it for £700.”
Ciara runs classes in Longwood, Brighouse and Batley for children of all ages.
Her recent qualification through the Irish examination board An Coimisiumle Rinci Gaelacha (Rinci Gaelacha means Irish dancing) means that she’s now hoping to take her students to the top.
She herself has qualified for the world championships four times.
“Irish dancing can be quite an expensive hobby once you get to competition level but it’s really good exercise and great for building stamina and the kids love it,” she said.
Search for the Ciara D’Arcy Academy of Irish Dance on Facebook for more details.