Photo gallery of the Putnam County Feis: Click here

To a lay person, most Irish dancers look superbly skilled. They leap higher than you or I ever could, and their feet move faster than a top tap dancer’s.  

So what is it that distinguishes the best from the rest? What do judges look for in an Irish dancing champion?

“The formal criteria are timing, appearance, execution and carriage,” says Kerry Kelly Oster, a bubbly, friendly woman from Putnam, N.Y.

Like many judges, she also has her own dancing school. She wasn’t adjudicating at this year’s Putnam County Feis because her own students were competing.  

When it comes down to it, execution’s the thing. “Some dancers are more natural than others, and that comes across,” explains Oster.

Teachers also play a huge role. The music is the same through each competition, but teachers plan the choreography of the dance, so “you get to see the teacher’s influence.” 

Neatness and physical appearance count too, and this is where the wigs come in. “You have to look neat and tidy,” Oster says. “Older girls like to wear the wigs because it means they don’t have to put their hair in curlers overnight.” 

To become a judge, you have to pass a test which is accredited in Ireland. As part of the test, prospective judges also have to do a dance themselves, to show that they can walk the walk as well as talk the talk.  

With competitions occurring across the country nearly every week, judges are kept busy. Oster is judging every weekend for the next six weeks.

“You get your travel paid, and the fee (of $300), and they buy you dinner,” she said.

Oster works full-time as a speech therapist and devotes about 20 hours a week to teaching Irish dancing and judging contests.

“I love it!” she said. “I get to travel and watch Irish dancing at the same time.” 

Though the judges at the Putnam County Feis were hard at work on Sunday, IrishCentral had the chance to pop into the girls under 16 open tent and speak to Donna Means King to find out what she’s looking for in a champion Irish dancer.

“Dancers that have excellent timing and rhythm, and precision,” she said. “Those who dance on their toes, and with their feet crossed.”  

King is from San Diego, and flew in just for the contest. “I’m from California, so I’m very cold,” she says, rubbing her arms.

It’s a tough life, being a judge.