Despite the obvious talent of Irish dancers and the hours and hours they spend in training to be the best they can be, those outside the Irish dance world often spend more time talking about the costumes they wear and the way they present themselves on stage than they do celebrating the important part dances play in the survival of Irish culture.
With the introduction in recent decades of tan, wigs, heavier make-up, sock glue and all the rest of the presentation do’s and don’ts that are now par for the course for any competitive Irish dancer, the debate on how Irish dancers dress has only intensified.
The conversation has taken another turn, however, with a dancer in the Senior Ladies competition at last year's World Championships (Oireachtas na Cruinne 2016) in Glasgow mixing up her onstage look by wearing pants instead of the normal dress.
Breanna Broesler, a 22-year-old student teacher from New Jersey, has worn pants while competing before this, but a video posted to Instagram by Irish dance group Fusion Fighters, taken while she danced in Glasgow, attracted a lot of attention online from those who fully support her decision and those who were confused about whether girls could even wear pants while competing.
Read more: Fusion Fighters wow in new Irish dance video
A student of the Broesler school – founded by her father Kevin Broesler, a former national and world champion step dancer – Breanna has been dancing since she was four years old and an Open Championship dancer since she was thirteen.
On her return to the US from the Worlds, Breanna spoke with IrishCentral about her costume and what it means to her to wear pants while she dances.
Firstly, many people seem confused – are female competitors allowed to wear pants when they dance?
It is 100% allowed. Once my dad and I decided we were going to go through with this idea, he checked it out. When I first started competing with the pants and jacket, people questioned it and at one feis they almost didn’t let me compete because they thought it was against the rules. There is nothing against it.
How did the concept come about? Was it motivated by a dislike of the current dancing costumes?
I have never hated the costumes. I mean, yes, there have been times when the designs were a bit quirky. Who remembers the feathers? Or the time when bloomers and the under part of the skirt did not match the dress at all? Those were some of the more interesting costumes, but I can never say I hated them. At one point I had a basketball design on a costume, so I was right along with the quirkiness of it all.
The idea came as a joke at first, if I am going to be completely honest. It was the time when the girls were transitioning into using white tape on their hard shoes and I said I would never do that. I told my dad, “I am never going to make that change. You know what, just give me pants and a jacket so I don’t have to.”
We laughed about it in the studio, but on the drive home I brought it up as a serious topic. It was something I had been thinking about for a while, but thought it would never work. But from that moment in the car the ball started rolling and here we are almost four years later with me in pants and jacket.
I still have to wear the school costume for ceilis or dance school functions like St. Patrick’s Day parades. I am not uncomfortable putting on that costume because it is a uniform look. I think individually I didn’t like wearing the solo costume. I think the look just didn’t suit my personality. It was too “pageant girl” for me and I have never really been that girl.
When was the first time you wore pants competitively and how as it evolved from there?
The first time I wore the pants and jacket was at the MARO [Mid-Atlantic Regional Oireachtas] in 2012. I have worn it at every competition since. I had a black jacket with a red and gold design, but at the most recent Worlds I got a new blue jacket.
The first time I wore the pants I think I was more nervous about what people were going to say rather than my own dancing. I put everything I had on the stage and was so proud I recalled and made it through all three rounds.
I remember when I first walked out the entire ballroom went silent. You could have heard a pin drop. I think I ever heard someone whisper, “Pants?” Like the audience was so shocked I was even standing up there.
What did your school and family think of your decision?
My dad was my number one supporter since he was not only a parent but also my teacher. My mom and siblings were also very supportive. If they had any hesitations they kept it to themselves.
We did keep it a secret until the Oireachtas because I didn’t want there to be any questions until I walked onto the stage. I think they knew that this was important to me and were behind my decision.
My dance school was also great supporters. I still have parents coming up to me saying that I am a huge influence to their kids and they are so proud I stuck with what I felt was right.
Did you meet with any opposition in your first competition? Has it affected how you compete?
No one has openly come up to me and said I am crazy or that I shouldn’t be doing this, but like I said earlier, I was almost not allowed to dance at a feis.
I knew making this change could have some backlash, but I was willing to take that on. I also told my dad that if for some reason I was no longer allowed to wear my pants and jacket, I would quit. I felt that if people were so against it then I didn’t want to be a part of a sport that crushed opportunities instead of supporting them. I think now if anyone is against it they are finding an issue in something that shouldn’t have one.
While I did this as a way to feel comfortable on stage, I also did this because there are kids out there, like me, that don’t feel comfortable in what Irish dance has deemed proper costumes.
There were so many people saying it was against tradition and that girls are supposed to wear dresses. Well, if people are going to throw tradition into the mix I counter by saying everything girls and guys wear today is against tradition. If you want tradition, get rid of the makeup, the wigs, the tanner, the glitz and glam of it all. Also guys would be in kilts. You can’t argue I am against the tradition of Irish dance, when everyone else is, too.
Irish dancing has evolved so much over the past couple of years that people need to continue with that evolution and allowing me to wear pants and jacket is a part of that. I want it to be a common thing in the sport.
As cool as it is that I am the first to do it, I don’t want to be the only one. I want to see more girls up on stage in pants because it is what they want to wear. Guys have stepped up a little and started wearing crystal, but I know there are boys out there that would want to change their look, too.
I hope my move sparks others to follow. I don’t want changes like this to stop once I retire. I am in full support of anyone who wants to make a change in order to feel at home in your own body and feel comfortable showing off your talent no matter what form.
Is is difficult to be known as the dancer who wears pants or are there enough other people trying it out now? Do people not even care about what you’re wearing?
There was another girl at Nationals this past year (Rhode Island) that also wore pants and a pink jacket. We unfortunately were in different splits so I never got a chance to talk to her, but it looks like I am not the only one.
If I am the girl known as the one who wears pants then so be it. I did not do this to have all eyes on me or criticize my decision. I knew it was going to come with the territory, but I did this so I could feel comfortable and confident on stage in a costume I love.
I know it was a bold move and knew not everyone was going to be on my side, but to be honest I think those people are just on the wrong side of Irish dancing history.
Where do you find your pant suit? Was it difficult to put this look together?
Linda Wetterauw, a mom in the dance school, had made some of the jackets for the boy dancers and made my pants and jacket. Both jackets were a collaborative effort between my dad, her and myself.
The first one took more time because it was all brand new to us, we didn’t want to make a boy’s jacket. The second one was much easier to put together because I knew what I was looking for this time around.
I am finally dancing in a costume in my favorite color, which I have been wanting since I started wearing solo costumes.
Is the evolution of Irish dance costumes something that needs to be talked about more or is it a conversation that is already happening?
I think the evolution of Irish dance is a rapid one. Styles and dance moves are constantly being changed or altered, so a change like mine should hopefully become a topic that is soon so common that it isn’t strange to see a girl in pants or a boy in a skirt.
I think these next few generations are willing to make the changes needed in order for a costume change to not be so dramatic and just be a common thing. I do think the conversation has just been started, but we can make the progress to further change how kids compete.
* Originally published in April 2016.