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The scene Sunday at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan was chaotic: accordion music blaring from all different angles, girls in curly wigs practicing their jigs and reels, in spectacular dresses, warming up before they were due to go on stage.
This was the Big Apple Feis – an Irish dancing competition involving over 1,500 Irish dancers, both children and adults, from all over the U.S and beyond.
This is the first time in over 25 years that a feis - pronounced “fesh,” a Gaelic word literally meaning "festival" - has been held in New York City.
And judging by the shrieks and shrills from the Irish dancers who were awarded their trophies, the weekend was a great success. (The trophy? An apple made out of crystal. One boy who came first in his competition proudly told his mum Saturday morning that he had just won "a big apple in the Big Apple.”)
Sunday morning was mainly taken up with the younger kids, who are relatively new to the world of Irish dancing. (The older kids sound like seasoned veterans by the time they are 12.) For many of the youngers ones, Sunday was their first feis.
"Sometimes they do what they are supposed to do," said organizer Unateresa Gormley. "Sometimes they freeze, and sometimes they just do their own thing entirely. It's priceless."
The Big Apple Feis is the brainchild of Gormley, a woman who has spent much of her life deeply immersed in the world of Irish dancing. A few months back, Gormley, who runs a dancing school in Orange County, New York, decided to put on a major feis in the Big Apple.
With a friend of hers, Karen Murphy, the secretary of the Big Apple Feis, and Gerald Carson, a 20 year-old dancer from Belfast who had been coming to the U.S for years to dance, Gormley put on quite a show.
Murphy, who was handing out competitor numbers from around 6.30 a.m. Saturday morning onwards, said that she did a lot of the paperwork and organizing. How did she get involved in all of this? “Because of this little Irish dancer here,” she replied. Her 10-year-old daughter, Kristin, started dancing when she was six, and fell in love with it.
Murphy’s grandfather was from Sneem, County Kerry. “Grandpa Murphy forced me to do Irish dancing when I was a little girl, but I hated it,” she said. Now, however, it takes up most of her spare time – but as an organizer, not as a competitor.
And from walking around at the Hyatt , the logistical challenges of organizing an event of this scale seem daunting.
There were kids everywhere from the ages of about 6-16; there were stalls selling every bit of Irish dancing paraphernalia you could think of (including “Girly Curlz” Irish dancing customs and “Celtic Pumps”); there were judges, teachers, adjudicators and musicians; and parents running around everywhere, some congratulating their little ones on their first-place finish, others consoling them for not being placed, and telling them they’d have better luck at the next feis.
Much of the staff at the hotel walked around with stunned expressions, as if they didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing.
The awards room was where much of the excitement took place: As the announcer was handed the envelope with the details of the winners in various categories, the dancers gathered round, some hugging each other with excitement. Five of the dancers were then called to the floor and then were placed accordingly. Some of the winners are given a tiara – as well as the Big Apple crystal.
One family, the Murphys from Worcester, Massachusetts, had five members competing in the Big Apple Feis. Shane, 15, was practicing his moves before he was due to go onstage while at the same time being interviewed by IrishCentral.
“I’m feeling pretty nervous,” he said. He was with his sisters Bridget, 16, Elizabeth, 14, Erin, 10, as well as his brother Thomas, 12. All of the Murphy kids are “Open” champions – the highest level a dancer can reach in Irish dancing, aside from the World Irish Dancing Championships. That event is being held in Philadelphia in two weeks, and both Shane and Thomas will be there.
Shane, who has red hair and looks as Irish as you can get, has been dancing for 12 years, and danced his way down the hall after our interview ended. Nervous perhaps, but certainly not unfazed.
Meanwhilel, Joshua Feliciano, a security guard at one of the competitions whose background is Puerto Rican, appeared a little overwhelmed. “It looks like a kind of beauty pageant,” he said. “But I guess the girls really put all their heart and soul in to it.”