Much of the text below is from "An Irish Feis - Competition in Dance" by Pat Friend
Competitions are an important part of the Irish Dancing Culture. Competitions are usually referred to as Feiseanna or abbreviated as Feis.
What is a Feis?
A Feis (say "fesh") is an Irish step dancing competition. Feiseanna (plural, say "fesh-an-uh") were traditionally cultural gatherings with events and competitions in music, dancing, singing and other aspects of Irish culture.
Before looking at the modern Feis it's important to recall a little history. Irish step-dancing as we know it in the 21st century can be traced back to traveling dance masters of 18th century rural Ireland. They each developed their own "steps" (footwork danced to eight measures or bars of music) and competed against each other for the opportunity to teach in different regions. In 1929 the Irish Dancing Commission (An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha) was formed to establish rules for the teaching, judging and competitions.
Before they can go on to compete, students must master the basics of Irish dancing known as the "sevens and threes" i.e. the sidestep followed by a 1, 2, 3 step. Or, in other words, learn a beginners dance.
In the solo events, dancers compete in one or more of six levels: Beginner, Advanced Beginner, Novice, Open Prizewinner, Preliminary Champion and Open Champion. Dancer's move through the levels by fulfilling certain criteria, such as winning a first in a dance against at least 5 other dancers. Advancement is generally at the discretion of your TCRG (teacher), except for the move into Open Champion, which is mandatory once you have two 1st's as a Preliminary Champion.
Once in their categories, the dancers are divided according to their ages so a six-year-old will not compete directly against a 14-year-old. Each dancer usually competes in several dances, possibly even in different categories if they advance more quickly in one dance than another. However once they have qualified in all of their dances and reach Preliminary or Open Champion, they will compete solely against others of the same age and level in a special 3 dance combined score format (See Irish points).
In solo competitions each dance is judged and awarded separately. The dancers perform two or three at a time. Upon completion, they bow to the judge, return to the back of the stage then wait for a bell, when they bow to the judge and musician and walk off stage. Judges identify dancers by the number pinned to their costume. Results are either announced or posted, and those placed receive medals. Some Feiseanna also have team competitions, including two and three-hand dances, Ceilis (say 'cay-lee') and figures.
How is scoring done?
Early in the 20th century, the Irish Dancing Commission established a 100 mark system for judging competitors. The distribution of points in solo dancing is 25% for timing, 25% for the steps, 25% for execution and method, and 25% for deportment and style. In figure dancing, the distribution is 30 points for timing, 30 for figures, and 40 for general effect. See also Irish points.
Costumes and dress
Each school has a dress of unique design that is worn by its dancers, and by all dancers who compete in the Figure Dances where two, three, four, or more dancers perform as a team. Boys, at all levels of competition, often wear black trousers and white or black shirts, with or without a vest. Girls who haven't been dancing long enough to have their school dresses generally where a pleated skirt or kilt and white blouse. By the time girls have attained an advanced level (typically Prizewinner or Preliminary Champion), they will often start wearing solo dresses, which are distinct from their school dress. The solo dresses are often heavily and embroidered and appliquéd with Celtic designs reminiscent of the Book of Kells.
Competing in a feis is a learning experience. For many dancers, it takes a few competition experiences before they feel comfortable. It is also important to realize that each judge has his/her own opinion.
The best way to score highly with all judges is to be in perfect time with the music, cross your feet and turn the toes out, show some energy while keeping correct posture. In addition, overall impression such as neatness, costume fit etc. play a small role. But, if you *smile*, and appear to enjoy your dancing, then you are more likely to be perceived as an accomplished dancer.
Finally -and most importantly- you should have fun! There is an air of excitement at a feis that is unlike any other performing experience.
You have worked hard to prepare, and this is a great chance to share your skills and talents with other members of the Irish dance community. A Feis is a unique opportunity to celebrate the music and dance of Ireland. It is fun to dance Irish!