Irish Step Dancing: The Feis

Figure 1.--Feis have competitions for both group and single dances. The pairs are susposed to be a boy and girl or pairs of boys and girls dancing together. Often there are not enough boys.

"Feis" (pronounced Fesh) is the Irish word for a festival. Feises are Irish Dance competitions which promote Irish culture and music. An Irish dance competition, feis (pronounced fesh), can be found somewhere in the United States every month of the year, although the spring and summer months are the busiest. Competitions are also held in Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Regional competitions (Oireachtas--pronouned uh-roc-tus) allow the best dancers to qualify for national competitions and thus for world competition. The All World Championships are held every year at Easter-time in Ireland.

Historical Background

Feisianna date from the Middle Ages, probably about the 11th Century. They were a combination trade fair, political gathering, and cultural event with music, sporting events, storytelling, and crafts. Over time, the cultural aspect came to dominate feisianna. These events continued through time to the present. While the politics are gone, they continue to have music, dance, crafts, and trade (the vendors!). But there was an even more ancient institution. A sucession of immigrant people replaced by suceeding waves of invaders people pre-historic Ireland. But it was the Gales arrivig at about the time of Christ that were to set the most enduring face on what was to be the modern Irish. The kingdoms and provinces of early Gaelic Ireland set aside places and times for the general assembly of the people. Chief of these, the one to which each territorial assembly sent representatives, was the Aonach of Great Fair at Tara, seat of the Ard Rhi, or High King of Ireland. Tara had been founded by the Firbolgs, predecessors of the Gaels in Ireland, as their own capital. The Gaelic Milesians turned it to the same use, with considerable additions and embellishments. This Aonach or Great Fair of the people of all Ireland must gone on from time immemorial, but it was 700 or 800 years before the time of Christ that historic fame of the Feis became associated with it. The great king Ollamh Fodhla is cited as founding the Ardh Feis at Tara. The Feis then was a parliamentary assembly, and to it came the provincial kings and nobility, chiefs, judges, doctors, poets and bards of all Ireland. Thus were assembled in one place the living repositories of the Gaelic culture and tradition. Residences for them were maintained at Tara, and we can but imagine the pomp displayed and protocol observed at their gatherings. While the deliberative functions of the Feis were taking place, assembled population was entertained by recitations of their history, the important men and events that had gone before, the genealogy or descent of the leading families among them, and the legends, songs and stories so dear to them. The Irish are known for their ability to tell stories. It was thus this feature of the feis that gave the best of the seanachies (storytellers), bards, poets and genealogists their pride of place by demonstrable ability. One can imagine even then the people drifting from place to place, listening to each one and deciding for themselves which were the best. It is a matter of record that athletic events and games took place at these assemblies, the winners of these events becoming heros of the people from whom they sprung, the earliest martial-type events of horse and chariot racing eventually gave way to tests of strength and agility by the individual.

Figure 2.--Events at fises are separated by gender and skill level at each age group. Thus novices do not have to compete with experienced dancers.

Modern Feises

More formalized competitions began in the late 19th Century. This period begins in 1893 when the Gaelic League was founded (Conradh na Gaeilge). This group encouraged the revival of Irish culture, a culture that the English had suppressed for centuries. The first Feis was held in Ireland in 1897 and was a celebration of the Irish culture including language, song, dance and creative writing. The Feis did not arrive in America until 1964. Though many Feisanna (plural for Feis) include language, writing and soda bread competitions, the focus is on Irish dancing. The Irish Dancing Commission was founded (An Coimisiun le Rinci' Gaelacha) in 1929 to establish rules regarding teaching, judging, and competitions. It continues in that role. Prior to 1929, many local variations in dances, music, costumes and the rules of feisianna existed. Part of the impact of the Commission was standardization of competitions. During the 20th Century, Irish dance has evolved in terms of locations, costumes, and dance technique. For example, during the period of the dance masters, stages were much smaller including table tops, half doors, and sometimes the "stage" was simply a crossroad. (An old poem called dancing "tripping the sod.") Tests of dancing ability involved dancing on the top of a barrel or on a soaped table! As stages became larger, the dance changed in at least two ways. The movement of dancers across a stage increased greatly (a judge would now subtract points if a dancer did not "use the stage"), and dance steps that require substantial space became possible (e.g., "flying jumps"). The location of competitions also changed over time from barns or outdoors where flat bed trucks were (and still are) used as stages, to predominately indoors in hotels, schools, or fairgrounds. (Note that fairgrounds are particularly appropriate in a historical context of where ancient feisianna were located.)

Feis Types

There are several different types of Fises. The modern Feis varies in type, from the small and informal, to a highly organised, competitive event. The Class Feis is simply dancers from your own school, so all those faces should be familiar! The Confined Feis means only dancers within a certain region can take to the stage. And the Open Feis is, as the name indicates, is open to everyone! Any dancer from any school, from any region, in fact, from any country can turn up on the day of the Feis. So the competing dancers never know who they might meet.

Figure 3.--Some schools allow beginning dancers to wear long or even short pants because of the cost of a competitive dancing costume. Some of the younger boys are also shy about wearing a kilt.

First Feis

Many first time dancers are old experienced Feis veterans. This is especially true if they had older brothers and sisters who did Irish dancing. Other dancers have never been to a feis and look on the event with some trepidation. One of their major concerns id their first competitiion costume. Irish dancing schools vary in their requirements for their students' first feis. Some teachers require that their students be properly outfitted right from the beginning. Others allow first-timers, especially the young ones, to forego some of the costuming requirements until they "get their feet wet." Hair styles are another concern, especially for the girls.


Some wonder what the dancers think about when they are on stage competing. One dancer tells HBC, "A whole range of thoughts go through my head, especially when I am watching the other dancers waiting my term. Sometimes I ger really nervous, sort of stage struck. Sometimes I try to focus on a mistake I saw in practice. I never think about intriducung something new. This I would only do in parctice. Once I start dancing everything changes. I loose my nervouness and just concentrate on the music. Most importantly though is one thing that I never think about and that is my steps. You have to practice so this is automactic. I have learned from past experience that once you start thinking about the steps, that is when you begin making mistakes."

Looking Good

We all know that how the dancer looks at a Feis shouldn't really be your main concern. After all, gleaming shoes won't help if you haven't been practising. But there's no doubt that adjudicators are swayed by appearance. Many adjudicators used to rate boys dancing in kilts higher than those performing in long trousers, but few admitted it. This is less true today. It is undeniably true that first impressions do count. It is thus important that the competitive dancer look presentable and happy up on stage. The power of the smile should never be underestimated!


Awards are distributed differently from feis to feis. In our area, the most common practice is to halt the dancing periodically for award presentations, during which the results are announced and dancers are called to the stage to receive their medals or trophies. A less frequent practice here (although common elsewhere) entails posting the results of the non-championship categories and providing an award distribution center. For on-stage presentations, dancers should be in full costume and wearing their numbers. When figure awards are given, all team members go on stage. The announcer may call only the event number, the rankings, and the competitor numbers. Dancers must listen for their numbers and rank (1st, 2nd, 3rd. etc.), and go immediately on the stage if they are called.

Figure 4.--Feis competitirs exhibit a wide range of talents and the competitions are carefully graduated by age and skill level. The boys and girls also compete sparately.


Dance teachers from each school make up their own dance steps to teach their students. When the student feels confident with their steps, they may enter the feis competitions. Students will compete in one (sometimes two) of five levels in the appropriate age bracket. First, second, and third places are awarded for each dance.

The levels of competition are:

Beginners: have never competed before, or competed but did not win a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd by the end of the Feis year (typically from January - December). Most dancers dance a reel, slip jig, and jig (one or more). Dancers wear soft shoes (ghillies) and a school costume. Girls usually curl their hair.

Novice: student who placed 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in a reel or jig (usually the previous Feis year or upon teacher's recommendation). Dancers usually add two hard shoe (jig shoe) dances called the hornpipe and treble jig. Shoes are made with fiberglass heels and tips so rhythmic sounds made by the toes, balls of feet and heels can be heard.

Prizewinner: a student who has placed 1st in a particular dance as a novice. A set dance (dance choreographed by the teacher "set" to certain music and named for the tune, i.e. The Three Sea Captains, Madame Bonaparte etc.) is usually added at this level. Soft shoes and hard shoes are worn. Many girls choose velvet competition dresses at the Prizewinner level. This should first be discussed with the teacher.

Figure 5.--Most dancers want to take off their costumes as soon as their competitions end. Prize winners, however are expected to be in costume when receiving their awards.

The most advanced two levels are for the more serious competitors and require very dedicated dancers:

Preliminary Championship: Must have won a 1st place in both soft shoe and hard shoe at the Prizewinner level. Velvet costumes are usually worn by girls.

Open Championship: The most advanced level. Must have won TWO first places at the Preliminary level.


Judging is one of the most controversial aspects of Irish dancing. Judging is very subjective and it means so much to the young dancer. Solo dancers are judged equally on timing, steps, execution and method, and style. The number of adjudicators at any competition will vary according to the size of the Feis and importance of the event. At a small Feis for example, there will possibly be just one, whereas at state/regional events and Nationals, there will probably be three. The marking system is standard world wide, and is very confusing for the beginner. At a small Feis, the scores are often not normally given, and just the places are announced. At the larger competitions, dancers are marked out of 100, and then placed in order. Each adjudicator has their own set of scores, ranging from high to low. But don't compare one adjudicator's marks with another's as, for example, 75 may be one judge's highest mark, and another's lowest!

Feis Tips

Dancers have offers some tips about feis competion to the other dancers and parents:


Dress your dancer at the Feis or bring a change of clothes. Pinning the shawl on at the Feis may help prevent wrinkling.


While waiting to dance when you're on stage, keep your posture straight, feet crossed, head up, and SMILE!!!!

Before you even go down to the place the competition is being held, remember to strech!!! With all the excitement and confusion of the feis, you might forget.

If you don't place in any of your competitions, don't get too upset. Remember that it's only one adjudicator's opinion of your dancing

HAVE FUN!!!!! Thats why you joined irish dancing, right?

Always bow to the musicians, and of course, bow to the judge when done with your steps. not only will it score you higher, but it is also an act of courtesy!

While waiting for your turn to do group dances, get your group together and practice it a few times so that no minds go blank in the middle of your dancing! -Caitlin

Be sure to look up when dancing and look at the judge -Unknown Sender

To get the judge to notice you, I find it helpfull to look him/her right in the eye at all times, and smile. It shows that you have interest in his/hers opinion on you dancing and are determined to win and very confindent in you dancing. Smiling, of course, makes you look like your having fun.

Bow to the judge and musican, its polite, those musicans work hard too you know.

A good tip in Irish Dancing to get the judges attention that works for me is to look at the judge when you are facing the oppisite direction of him/her. Just look back and smile once then you can turn your head the way you are going and make him/her notice that you care and use perfection.

Smile when you dance -Unknown Sender

Look confident, and look like you are really having fun -Unknown Sender

Take up the whole stage -Unknown Sender

Always bow to the musicians, and of course, bow to the judge when done with your steps. not only will it score you higher, but it is also an act of courtesy!

Figure 6.--This boy is waiting his chance to perform at a feis. Click on the image for a view of the back of his costume.

While waiting for your turn to do group dances, get your group together and practice it a few times so that no minds go blank in the middle of your dancing! -Caitlin

Be sure to look up when dancing and look at the judge -Unknown Sender

Smile when you dance -Unknown Sender

Look confident, and look like you are really having fun -Unknown Sender

Take up the whole stage -Unknown Sender


Make sure your dance shoes aren't stiff, especially if they're new! The leather of new soft shoes makes it hard to point your toe, so flex and bend your shoes before you put them on.

Fold your soft shoes in half and wrap your laces around them, this will help them form to your arch. This also works for flexi-shoes (hard shoes) only you use your elastics.

To make you go on your toes, point your toe when you tie your soft shoes, and tie the laces around your arch while its pointed. I always tie them extra tight, so they hurt unless your on your toes, but thats just me. I think it works.

Put buckles on your hard shoes, they get people (the judges) attention. Well, at least I think it does.

For those who are too lazy to tie their soft shoes, put an elastic in them. It takes seconds to tie shoes and they won't come undone. Shannon

Duct tape on the bottom of hardshoes works great to help stop slipping on floors and stages Shannon

To keep hard shoe tips looking nicer, apply a few coats of black nailpolish. It lasts longer than marker.

Figure 7.--Part of the fun of a feis is meeting and exchanging ideas from other dancers from other areas.

Free time

If you're planning to spend the entire day at the feis, bring something to do, for if you get tired of watching the dancing. Examples are: magazines, a discman or walkman, a book, etc.

PACK EVERYTHING: I mean pack everything that you can think of that you might possibly need or want. That way it is a lot less likely that you will forget something, and it keeps me from being too nervous because almost everything that can go wrong you are prepared for. -Ann

Make sure you eat sometime during the day. I didn't, and I fainted right after I finished dancing. If you don't eat, at least bring some sugary candy. It will Make you feel better. -Delia Murray

Watching the other competitors is a good way of getting some good ides for your routeins.


Use a curling iron to heat hair and then put the rollers in. It sets them better. Shannon

Warm ups

A hepful exercise is....First put on the fastest reel music you have. Then to 16 counts of one-two-threes (or skips) in a circle. Then do 16 counts of straight leg jumps (over-the-fences) Then do 16 counts of twists. Then 16 counts of wiggles (with your foot) Then 16 counts of kick your butts. And last, do 16 counts of rocks. This will warm you up. I usually do two or three sets of these before and after I dance, stretching in between each set.


If you have problems keeping your hands in fists, put a penny in each hand, this will also help you in competion too. It really works!

To make your jumps, leaps, ect. higher, wear ankle weights. I usually do this the day of the feis and wear em all day. I take them off before I go on stage. It makes your jumps higher because your legs are use to being weighted down and then you take them off before you compete and presto, your legs feels much lighter, thus making you jump higher. I think it helps.

Here's a tip for learning correct posture: Practice all the time holding a ruler in both hands behind your back (one hand on each end) with your fingers facing front and the backs of your hands facing the back. This will train your shoulders to stay back, your elbows to stay straight, your hands to stay closed, and it will keep your arms close to your sides. I don't let any dancer in my class without their ruler. Michaela, instructor with the Trinity Academy Shoe.

Wearing the Dancing Costume

One observable difference at feisesas compared to Highland Gatherings is that few of the boys performing at feises come to the feis dressed in their kilt costume or continue wearing it after they have performed. Usually the boys change out of their costumes immediately after performing. Parents bring garment bags for the ervent. In contrast it is quite common for boys to come to Highland Gatherings in kilts and to wear them all day.


Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Chronologies] [Style Index] [Biographies] [Activities] [Countries] [Bibliographies] [Contributions] [Frequently Asked Questions]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web chronological pages:
[The 1880s] [The 1890s] [The 1900s] [The 1910s] [The 1920s] [The 1930s]
[The 1940s] [The 1950s]

Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web dance pages:
[Return to the Main Irish step dancing page]
[Main dance page]
[Ballet] [Highland] [Ballroom]
[Native American] [Tap]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing kilt pages:
[Main kilt page]
[Kilt suits] [Scottish kilts] [Scottish boys clothing] [Scottish school uniform] [Highland dance]
[Irish kilts] [Irish boys clothing] [Irish step dancing]
[Greek kilts]

Created: May 5, 1999
Last updated: 5:43 AM 8/24/2004