Season of St. Patrick: The tradition of Irish step dancing

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Hard shoes, soft shoes, wigs, and fancy dresses. It's all tradition for Irish dancers in Savannah - a tradition that began hundreds of years ago.

"Some of the first competitions started hundreds of years ago," said Abbey Wood, an instructor at Legacy Irish Dance. "And they would meet at the crossroads at harvest time, so all the different counties and different farm areas would get together and whatever you had to trade or sell, they would have these meetings annually and throughout the year."

Through those meetings, the music came, and the dance steps followed.

"The people who made up the best steps became the dance masters, and the dance masters started traveling from all the different counties and towns teaching all of the children Irish dance," Wood said.

The dance masters played a prestigious role in the community as they rivaled others to maintain the position. Most dancers try to keep the traditions of Irish dancing alive.

"Our group prides ourselves on being more traditional because a lot of times what is happening with dance now is it is becoming more contemporary," said Peyton Coursey, a dancer at Irish Dancers of Savannah. "It's losing that traditional step type style."

Irish dancers continue to wear the traditional dresses, make-up, and curls in their hair. The first dancers would do these things to show respect and to look their best while performing.

"It takes very long to get ready," said Anna Kate Clemmons. "It's a lot of fun seeing everyone with different hair colors; like people who are blonde are all redheads."

While there are tons of different dances and styles, two things can be easily identified: the hard shoe and the soft shoe.

"They're both so different. Hard shoe is like it's loud, it's fun and it's like different rhythms, but soft shoe it's like beautiful and light and so much fun when you're flying across the stage," Rachel Watson said.

Many Irish dance groups compete all over the world and tradition is key at the world championship of Irish dancing.

"They also want to make sure we aren't losing too much of our culture. As it modernizes and becomes athletic and as it becomes something new of today's time," said Wood. "They want to see it grow and it has. It is the largest growing sport in industry in the United States."

The world championship is held once a year. Each country is broken up into regions. Just to qualify for the championship, you must place in the top 10 percent in your region. Wood said the dancers in the championship are the best of the best from around the world.

"It's quite an event. Anyone who places at the world championship is at like the top, top form."

In Savannah, these dancers are recognized at local events and of course, the biggest event of the St. Patrick's Day season: the parade.

"It really is a great time of year for everyone to come together as a community, and we really just focus on the Irish culture and respecting that because so many people in Savanah have that Irish heritage," said Maggie Sikes, the Director of Irish Dancers of Savannah.

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