A spring in their step at annual Feile Samhain competition

Irish stepdancers don curly wigs, frilly skirts for vigorous showdown

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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Cued by a fiddle, Ashley VanHandel started the jig: A stomp, kick, shuffle of feet and another stomp.

Her red ringlets bounced as she kicked and moved across the floor, her feet in a fast-paced rhythm with the melody. After a few minutes, the music ended and she took a bow.

The rigorous footwork of Irish stepdancing was on display Saturday at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, where hundreds of dancers showed off their technique and choreography to a panel of judges at the annual Feile Samhain competition. Students of all ages from 32 dance academies from up and down the West Coast competed. The event continues today.

Though brief, the 16-year-old Camas girl's complicated routine was perfected from four-days-a-week practices and stamina training. "I did my best," VanHandel said afterward.

Irish stepdancing is rich in cultural tradition, but still has progressive influences. Women and girl performers wore elaborate wigs with tight ringlets, a tradition from Ireland, when women would curl their hair after church for dancing, said event organizer Lauren Mueller.

Their dresses were brightly colored, some fluorescent, with beads. This practice came from the Irish tradition that the most prestigious dancers wore dresses that were the most elaborately adorned, Mueller said.

And don't let the curls and the bows fool you, Irish stepdancing is a sport, she said.

"It's more athletic than you see in shows," Mueller said. "It's anaerobic, not aerobic."

To build endurance, many of Mueller's students at Portland's An Daire Academy of Irish Dance cross-train in other sports, such as swimming and soccer.

Irish step itself takes many forms. Group dances are more traditional and judged for technique and timing, while solo dances can take more broad interpretation of the music.

The footwork is choreographed by the dancer and instructor and can draw from other dance forms, such as Flamenco, Mueller said.

Many dancers, such as VanHandel, hail Irish ancestry, but it's certainly not a prerequisite, Mueller said. The rise of theatrical show "Riverdance" in the 1990s contributed to the popularity of Irish step dancing.

"We have a mix of backgrounds," Mueller said.

A dancer for eight years, VanHandel said she began taking step lessons at the prompting of her grandmother. Her grandma thought Irish dance would be a great way for VanHandel to learn more about her Scotch-Irish heritage. It turned out to be a great source of community for her, she said.

"I have a lot of good friends," she said. "It's just really fulfilling."

Another Clark County dancer, Sierra Nyberg of Vancouver, said she appreciates the fast-pace nature of Irish stepdancing. Also a dancer for eight years, the 20-year-old said she performed tap, jazz and hip hop, among other types of dance, before Irish step.

She started when her dance academy began offering the form of dancing and she saw a group perform. She was blown away.

"I love the competitive side of it," she said.

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.