Three flags unfurled from the center rafters at the Fairgrounds Event Center in Hamburg Saturday spoke of allegiances: Old Glory on the left. Canada’s maple leaf in the middle and – on the right – the green, white and orange stripes of Ireland.
More than a thousand competitors and family members were on hand for the 50th annual Buffalo Feis – pronounced “fesh” – presented by the Irish Cultural and Folk Art Association of Western New York.
The feis features dance, language, music and baking competitions to both honor and celebrate the community’s Irish heritage.
Feisanna – the plural of feis – are known primarily for their dance competitions, where boys and girls of various ages perform a prepared traditional Irish routine for judges.
The competitors hop, jig and stomp – usually with their arms held rigid to their sides – to the tune of jovial traditional Irish music.
As dancers on eight stages performed at once across the cavernous room, the hard-soled shoes of the dancers created a cacophony of clicks, clacks and stomps that echoed throughout the center and into the cool summer air.
Randy McPhee, a Kenmore West High School teacher and volunteer at the event, described the history of dancing in Irish culture.
“After church, typically the girls and boys would dance, and the one who was judged the best that Sunday would get a little cake – a treat,” he said. “That’s where the saying, ‘It takes the cake,’ comes from.”
These days, the top dancers receive medals and trophies for their efforts. The better they perform, the higher they climb in Irish dance rankings. Eventually, top dancers get to perform in national and international competitions.
Some local Irish dancers have even turned it into a full-time gig.
Erin Lynch and Kevinah Dargan, both originally of Williamsville, were products of South Buffalo’s own Rince na Tiarna School of Irish Dance. Both were cast in “Lord of the Dance,” created and led by Irish dancing superstar Michael Flatley.
Buffalo Feis chairwoman Mary Kay Heneghan credited the growth of Irish dancing in the area to Flatley and his productions.
“The growth of ‘Riverdance’ and ‘Lord of the Dance’ piqued curiosity in this cultural art form,” she said.
She also said it was a “major coup” for the community to have supported the feis for 50 years, and noted that the whole event was run by volunteers from local Irish dancing schools.
Many of Saturday’s contestants were using the feis as an opportunity to prepare and practice for competitions further down the road.
Nina Cooper, 13, and her mother were visiting from Liverpool, N.Y.
The seventh-grader was in town to practice with her teammates in an eight-person dance for the North American Irish Dance Championships in early July. She also competed in five individual events.
She said she learned to love Irish dance when a friend convinced her that it was fun.
Her favorite part of Irish dance?
“You get to let out all of your energy, and you get to compete,” she said.