History made as non-binary contestant wins major Irish dancing competition for first time

As an adult in their 30s, Sil is the first trans non-binary contestant to win a major title at an Irish dancing competition.

Irish dancer stands on podium next to other competitors
Image: Sil

Traditionally, Irish dancing is a gendered activity that isn’t particularly LGBTQ+-inclusive, but Irish non-binary dancer Sil (they/them) is breaking down barriers. As an adult in their 30s, they just became the first trans non-binary person to win a major title at an Irish dancing competition in what they described as “a rollercoaster of emotions”.

GCN was lucky enough to chat with Sil about their dancing experiences and coming out as a non-binary dancer. They also told us about what changes they would like to see implemented to make Irish dancing more inclusive for trans and non-binary dancers in the future.

Sil discovered Irish dancing when they were 16 and living in Barcelona. They shared, “Back then there were no official schools where I could learn to a high standard and let alone, compete. I joined a dancing school in mainland Europe with CLRG between 2008 and 2010, and competed my way from primary level to Open Championship.”

Sil added: “It was in 2016 when I realised I couldn’t live without Irish dancing, so I moved to Ireland just for this purpose and I’ve been here ever since.”

Now that they live in Ireland, Sil is thrilled to be able to dance multiple times a week. They are enjoying the opportunity to keep learning, improving, and competing in Irish dancing competitions.

Sil spoke about how Irish dancing is not inherently queer-inclusive, but shared that they were attracted to the World Irish Dancing Association (WIDA) because the organisation accepts and encourages adult dancers.

“In our World Championships you can find age groups as broad as Over 45, whereas in other organisations they stop at Over 23,” they said.”Whether we started sooner or later, we all deserve an encouraging environment where we’re not seen as valid or not based on our age, but based on our potential and capabilities.”

Many aspects of Irish dancing are extremely gendered and, thus, it can be difficult for non-binary folks to approach the sport. Most major competitions classify their categories by gender, for example, Senior Men or Senior Ladies. Additionally, men and women wear different costumes, different shoes, and perform different dance moves.

“Same goes for Irish dancing shows. Audition calls are always men and women only. I’d love to perform professionally but I fear there’s no place for me in that world just yet,” Sil said. “In most organisations, men are asked to dance reel instead of slip jig because it’s considered too feminine. The irony is this dance originated as a hard shoe dance that men used to do.”

Sil came out as non-binary last year and changed dancing schools so they could be out as a trans non-binary dancer. They wondered if their non-binary identity would prove to be challenging in class or at Irish dancing competitions, but their teacher and fellow dancers immediately welcomed them.

“Grainne Ridge, my teacher at Inishfree Academy is the most supportive person ever. She made me feel welcome to class, and not judged by my gender or appearance,” Sil said.

However, in Sil’s experience, some dance teachers hold “traditional” views about gender. One of Sil’s former teachers asked them to wear gendered attire, which they found very hurtful. Thankfully, Sil says this isn’t a problem within WIDA.

“We’re also dancing in other Open Platform associations and this is something we had to enquire about. Some have been extremely welcoming, saying they don’t have any gendered rules any more. Others, not so much.”

While it’s been an adjustment for some dancers and judges to change their language, Sil now gets to hear: “Well done, dancers!” and “Champions, take a bow!”, instead of gendered terms like ‘ladies’ or ‘boys’.

One of the best things about being visible in their non-binary identity is being able to be an example to younger dancers. Sil said, “I have been approached by parents thanking me for wearing what I wear or doing what I do because their kid can see themselves in me. This is priceless and it makes me really happy knowing that I may be paving the way for other people like me who want to express themselves differently and show who they really are on stage.”

Their dance teacher was especially supportive throughout Sil’s gender-affirming surgeries. “She made sure I would know all my dances before I got them, in case I wasn’t able to recover in time to dance at the World Championships. I ended up participating, wearing my post-surgery binders and got 2nd and 3rd in my solo rounds at my first Worlds as a trans non-binary person!” they said.

Prior to this year, Sil had won small competitions before, but never a major one. They spoke about their decision to enter the Trad Set Championship at the All Irelands, saying: “I forgot to pack a shirt, so I was nervous, showing up there with a very tight shirt that showed my flat chest, and with no sleeves so all my tattoos were visible.”

Sil felt confident after dancing the first round, powered through the remaining two dances, and was thrilled to be one of the top 5 called to the podium. They shared, “They keep calling numbers and neither are mine….And there it was…OUR O19 TRADITIONAL SET CHAMPION IS SIL!”

They recalled not being able to hold back tears as they realised this was their first ever title won at a major event. “And then it hit me: I’m also the first openly trans non-binary person to win a major (at least in WIDA). Nobody cared about my looks or my gender, just the dancing. It’s possible, we can do it!”

They said, “I owe this to my teacher Grainne and my fellow dancers at Inishfree Academy for pushing me out of my comfort zone and for their unconditional support.”

When asked what changes Sil would like to see implemented to make Irish dancing more inclusive for trans and non-binary dancers, Sil said they wouldn’t want there to be a non-binary category, rather, they would love to see gendered language removed from competitions, classes and shows and have everyone appreciated on their skill level.

Sil believes dancing should be inclusive to everyone and no Irish dancer should be made to feel like they need to fit in an identity box to dance. They said, “I would love for all organisations to remove all gendered rules completely: removed. Allow everyone to express themselves freely and dress in whatever way they like as long as it’s appropriate: pants, kilt, dress, skirt, whatever they feel comfortable in.”

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