Monday, March 8, 2010

How to Feis

***post update*** I changed the music on this post so if you are back for a second look, you won't have to listen to the obnoxious accordion. Instead, it's a beautiful slip jig by a violinist. ok... back to your reading...

Feis (pronounced ‘fesh’) is an Irish word and by definition, it means “festival” with activities including dancing, language, singing, story telling, essay writing, arts and crafts and other aspects of Irish culture. The plural form is "feisianna."

In my experience, it has come to mean "A day of Irish dance competition complete with accordian music which will take at least 3 days to clear from your head."
Many of you know that my girls have been Irish dancing for about 7 years and have been dancing at feisianna for about 5 years. Some of you ask about what these competitions are like, so I took the opportunity last Saturday at the Pacific Northwest Championship Feis to take a bunch of pictures to show you. It seemed only fitting being as that St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner.

While nothing can replace the experience of being there first hand, I'll try to duplicate it as best as I can. To begin with, I've loaded up my playlist player with Irish music. The music is key. It goes on and on and on all day long. I swear it changes the structure of a person's brain when you listen to it for an entire day because, seriously, the tunes float around in your head for a good many days after the feis. The Irish could have used endless accordion music as an instrument of war, but I don't think they ever did. They used soda bread instead. Have you tried soda bread? That's for another post. Let me just say, it needs lots of butter.
So, the feis...
The day begins early. Gotta get up, get dressed, put on your big, fat, curly wig and eat some Cheerios. Don't dance on an empty stomach. Dancers faint from that kind of thing. It's bad to faint while dancing at the feis. Usually. Sometimes it can earn you sympathy points from the judges though.
Drive to the feis, park and get checked in. Dancers receive a competitor number to wear. On the back side of the card is printed the dances they are competing in so they don't forget what they signed up for that day. The dances are all traditional Irish dances and are the same across the world. Soft shoe dances are: reel, slip jig, single jig. light jig. Hard shoe  dances are: treble jig, hornpipe, and one of a variety of VERY traditional dances called "set" dances. Dancers compete separately in each of these dances.
Dances are identified by number and are broken out by age and ability level. The goal of the competition is to achieve a high enough score that you are allowed to advance to the next level. Levels are:

  1. First feis

  2. Beginner 1

  3. Beginner 2

  4. Novice

  5. Prizewinner

  6. then a bunch of championship levels I don't understand yet 
The room is usually a big ballroom type of space with a "stage" and musician at one end and chairs on the other. The stage is simply a hard surface layed on the room's carpet. It's not raised up like you would think of a stage. The judge sits at a table at the edge of the stage, sipping tea and looking over the top of their glasses. They have stacks of papers to fill out over the course of the day. Many are actually from Ireland.

Amanda is second from the right, ready to dance competition nmber 371b, novice reel (see the card on the wall)

On the back wall of the stage are cards with numbers printed on them, arranged in some type of order. They show the order of the dances being run that day. Dancers can find their dances on the wall and have some type of idea about when to be ready for the ones that they are competing in.

The feis day usually starts off with singing of the American/Canadian/Irish national anthems and a greeting by the director of the Irish dance school who is hosting the feis. I really should learn all those words to the anthems one day.
The hired musician

Then... the music starts. You find a place to dump your stuff and sit and wait. There's a lot of "hurry up and wait" at a feis because they can run ahead of schedule and if you're not there early, your dancer could miss their dance. Been there... done that. Not fun!

People watching at a feis is usually pretty fantastic! There are moms who dance vicariously through their daughters; they sit at the front of the seats, mouthing all the steps while their child dances, and then run off to see results as soon as they are available. The steps can be said out loud: jump and hop and back 2-3, turn and turn and hop and skip skip double-back and point- or something like that. I don't actually know because I can't remember the steps to the dances. I could never pull off being one of those moms! I don't think I would want to anyhow. They seem pretty intense, ie: stage mom.
There are girls who run around giggling with friends, and girls who who warm-up with an ipod in their ears. They look like they are listening to irish dance music, but it could be Michael Buble for all I know. There are kids who are laughing and kids who are crying. The crying ones usually have one of those intense dancer moms close by. So sad!
Once it is time for a dancer's competition, they approach the stage and line up. There is some strategy in where you place yourself in line. My girls have learned the hard way to avoid being first. Judges often hold back on their points for the first few dancers, in case later dancers should deserve more points. The music for the dance starts (each dance has its own music with different rhythms) and dancers come out 2 at a time.

Here is our accordion friend playing a jig while dancers are in action

They dance 32 bars of music, and it is time for the next 2 to dance immediately after the first 2 are finished. Down the line they go, 2 at a time, until everyone has had a turn.  The music stops for a moment, although you wouldn't know it because it continues in your head.  The judge rings a bell when he/she is done with the papers, dancers point their toe and bow to the judge, then to the musician and leave the stage. That's it. All done. In a few minutes, the results will be posted on a wall in the results room to display who got what place.

Amanda dancing the reel

Still dancing...

Giving a traditional quick bow to the judge when the reel was finished

Off to the results room

Find the paper with the dance number you are looking for. What a bonus to find your name at the top of the list!

Pick up your medal


Emily was next, dancer number 289.

Her competition was STIFF, with 18 other kids dancing against her. Usually there will be 8 to 14 other dancers. Rarely are there more than 15. This picture shows 2 stages, side by side, each with about 17 dancers.

She didn't place, but she danced beautifully, nonetheless. All we ask is that the girls do their best!

The hallmarks of Irish dance; turned out feet, legs crossed at the knees, and high on the toes. Way to to Emily!

At this feis there were TWO accordion players. What good Irish luck!

There are some funny things that you can only ever see at a feis. Things such as:

  • Tubs and racks of curly wigs and costume jewelry

  • Poodle socks with bling

  • Tons of Irish dance shoes
The nice lady from Irish Treasures who helps with shoe fittings

  • Solo dresses that are available to purchase.... a "bargain" (???)

So it was a grand day at the feis! Wigs all stayed on, nobody fell, and we even came home with a long-awaited medal!

Ahhh, sweet victory. Amanda's been working at moving that reel out of novice for 3 years! The last photo is Amanda with her dance teacher, Patti Martig, TCRG.


  1. Yes... a feis is a weird place. But they can bring much joy when you do well at them!

  2. Great job Amanda and Emily!!!!!!

  3. Congrats to Amanda and Emily!

  4. congrats to both arend girls! looks like so much fun, and they both look absolutely beautiful :)

  5. Well done Arend ladies! So enjoyed this post. Especially liked the comment about using the accordian music as an instrument of war. Can't wait to see you dance in person.

    Mrs. Joss

  6. Dear Brenda,
    I love your blog! Did you do Irish dancing too? This is a subculture I didn't know about.I loved the explanation! Someone got me to sign up for square dance lessons a few years back and I learned about that subculture. I hadn't square danced since Roosevelt Elementary days! I proudly hung my diploma from the "Square Crows" but haven't been back since graduation! Why the wigs though? I have never heard about curly headed Irish folks.
    Ceytha B