When Riverdance debuted 20 years ago, Irish step dancers — whether citizens of Ireland or any other country — looked, well, stereotypically Irish. The red-haired, freckle-faced lass doing a jumpy jig still comes to mind for many. But the All Ireland Dancing Championships, currently underway in Dublin, will show how that image no longer reflects the reality.
Take the current Irish dance “it” girl, Julia O’Rourke. She was born in New York, and has Filipino and Irish ancestry. At age 15, she is a two-time world champion and star of the Irish dance documentary Jig. That film follows dancers from around the world who are training for and traveling to the 2010 World Irish Dancing Championships.
“I really hope that I helped change that stereotype,” O’Rourke says. “[Ethnicity] really doesn’t matter anymore. It’s how you dance.” She points to the success of her friend and dance classmate Melanie Valdes, whose father is Cuban-American. “There have been so many dancers to join the community who are only part Irish or not Irish at all,” O’Rourke says, “and they’ve really made an impact.”
For the most part, O’Rourke agrees, insisting that she has never been treated badly because of what she looks like. If anything, it has helped. “Because my look is different, my face doesn’t look like a typical Irish girl, it might pop out a little more to the judges,” she explains.
But diversity wasn’t always so welcome.
Joel Hanna, 36, started Irish dancing in the mid-1980s. The Vancouver native, born to an Irish father and Filipino mother, excelled as a competitor in the world’s largest Irish dance organization, An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (CLRG), winning international titles in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Hanna recalls when he and Tokiko Masuda, who is half Japanese and half Irish, showed up at the World Irish Dancing Championships in Ireland. “It was kind of a joke, but we were really the first visible minorities who were prominent Irish dancers,” he says. “It was a big thing.”
A lot has changed since Hanna competed. Today, non-Irish dancers vastly outnumber the Irish. Currently, there are about 500 certified CLRG teachers in Ireland. Outside of Ireland, there are more than 1,500. One of them is Darya Markosyan, who teaches at dance studios across Russia.
Markosyan can personally attest to the rapid growth of Irish dance in new territories. In just six years of teaching, she went from showing beginners the basics to sending multiple dancers to the world championships.
Now, some members of the Irish dance community see a distinctive look as an advantage. Drew Lovejoy, a now retired two-time world champion, is biracial and identifies as African-American. Nineteen-year-old Lovejoy, known for sporting hot pink shirts in competition, says his unique appearance gave him confidence on stage because it set him apart. He jokes that his skin tone allows him to pull off a different color palette completely.