Northern Ireland

Thousands of Irish dancers invade Belfast

Irish dancing
Image caption There are around 4,500 competitors at this years event

Eye-catching wigs, fake tan, brightly coloured dresses - the Irish dancers are in town again.

Hordes of people have filled the main auditorium of the Waterfront Hall in Belfast this week for the 42nd World Irish Dancing Championships.

They were treated to some eloquent but explosive dancing accompanied by the characteristic sounds of traditional Irish music.

The competition has returned to Belfast for the fourth time in 12 years and attracts competitors from all corners of the world.

Dancers from mainland Europe and as far away as China and South Africa have made the long trip to Belfast.

American and Canadian dance schools are well represented too - all for the opportunity to strut their stuff on the biggest stage in the world of Irish dancing.

Truly authentic

In colourful costumes, the dancers glide and bound across every inch of the stage with strained smiles etched firmly on their faces.

Two enthusiastic musicians provide the soundtrack. One frantically rattles the ivory of his keyboard while the other stretches and squeezes the life out of his accordion.

The relentless flow of jigs and reels only stops for the stage to be cleaned by a well-dressed man who also calls the dancers onto the stage.

All the while seven stern-looking judges look on, five women and two men - all formidable dancers in their time.

Outside the auditorium is almost as lively as inside. Dancers stretch and leap around in bright-coloured garb - warming up for their moment on the big stage.

On the second floor competitors eat lunch, relax and enjoy the view over Belfast.

But the competition is hard to escape.

The rhythmic thud of "hard shoe" dancers warming up on the floor above echoes around the room.

Of course, the dancing is only part of the event. Temporary shops line sections of floor like market stalls.

Instead of fruit and veg, these merchants do a roaring trade in fake tan, enormous wigs and sparkly dresses.

And a lot of money changes hands at the championships - most of the dresses on display were over £1,000.

Shop owner Melanie Murphy has been to the championships every time it has been held in Belfast.

"A full wig would be about £90, while a good hair band would be between £70-£100. Dresses usually cost £1,000-£2,500. The shoes can be anywhere around £100 for one pair and the socks £3 for normal ones. If you want the sparkly ones, they're £10," she said.

While it may be expensive, Irish dancing has broad appeal.

Image caption The event will bring around 20,000 people into Belfast

Dagmar Baernthaler and her friend Selina Scharler are from the Rafter Dance School in Vienna. They began to travel to féiseanna (dance festivals) all around Europe after they fell in love with the tradition.

"I started off by chance. I danced my whole life and my friend showed me Irish dancing. So I went with her, really liked it and I'm still doing it," Dagmar said.

Like a lot of other teenage girls, the appeal was about the glitz and glamour of the outfits as much as the actual dancing itself.

Dagmar's friend Selina has been dancing for seven years.

"I like the shoes, but I also like the competitions and the show dancing," she said.

While competitors have come from all around the world, a lot of the focus has been on local talent.

Reigning champion Sinead Carson is determined to reclaim the title she won in Dublin last year.

"I'm ready, it can be scary but you just have to go out and show the judges how much you want it," she said.

"Everything has to be perfect, there's no room for mistakes."

Of course, the Irish Dancing Championships are not the only show in town this week and event representative Seamus Ó Sé invited tourists here for the Titanic commemorations to pay the dancers a visit.

"If you really want to see a spectacle that's full of colour and full of excitement then this is a tremendous event to spend an afternoon at," he said.

Around the BBC