moving from grades to championship irish dance ready to feis

Moving from grades to championship

Going from grades to championship is a big deal. Huge, in fact. Whether you have spent two years, four years, or six years learning and growing in grades, getting those final prizewinner firsts to move up to preliminary championship is a turning point in most dancers careers. This is the big leagues! But how does it differ? Quite a lot. The way you feis will totally change.


Christina Dolzall-Ashurst, TCRG at the Ashurst Academy of Irish Dance in Connecticut, points out, “The move from grades to preliminary championships is an exciting one. It also comes with changes in how competitions are run.” Dolzall-Ashurst explains, “In the grade levels, dancers stand in a line and come out to dance with one or two others for two steps, without breaks between sets of dancers. A dancer may perform many light and heavy dances in a feis, all being scored and awarded separately by one adjudicator. The scoring for each round is also more straightforward than in a prelim competition, as only raw points (given on a scale up to 100) are used to determine the result order.”

“In a prelim competition, dancers will complete only one light and one heavy round, with the result being based on a combination of the points awarded for both dances. Dancers will not all be onstage lined up as in the grades, but rather, will walk onstage and perform two or three at a time. Dancers will line up in a specific rotation as specified by a stage manager, and, after walking onstage (with confidence, of course!), will wait for an eight-bar intro, and then complete a full round (2-1/2 or 3 steps, depending on the dance). After completing a round, dancers will bow at the spot where they finish, walk back to their original position, wait for a judge to ring a bell, bow again to the judges and musicians, and walk off to prepare for the next round.”

Judging and Scoring

One of the key differences between grades and championship is the adjudication – you’re dancing for a panel of three instead of one. Dolzall-Ashurst points out, “Instead of one adjudicator per round as in the grades, a three-adjudicator panel will score all dancers in both the light and heavy rounds of a prelim competition. The judges will still use raw points, but in prelim, a dancer will also become accustomed to being awarded Irish points.”

“Each judge gives raw scores for each round, which, as in the grades, are used to place in order the results – by judge – for each dancer. Irish points are then assigned respectively to that results order. For example, after Judge A’s raw scores for both rounds have been totalled and his or her results put in order, that judge’s first place dancer gets 100 points, second place 75 points, third place 65 points, and so on. This process is repeated with Judges B and C. The final result order is then based on the total Irish points a dancer has accumulated from all three adjudicators combined. A perfect score, in which all three adjudicators award the same dancer first place, is 300.”


This is the fun and exciting part! “When it’s time to present results in prelim, dancers will no longer look for their number to be posted on a board,” says Dolzall-Ashurst. “Instead, a more formal awards presentation, with dancers in full costume and shoes, is held. Typically, the top 50 percent of dancers in a prelim competition will receive an award. The numbers of the competitors who have ‘placed’ are read out, and the announcer then calls out the award winners by number, in reverse order (first place being the last announced). The award presentations are a rewarding experience filled with anticipation and excitement!”

Skill Level

Moving from grades to prelim means longer dances, and potentially more challenging material. The reel and treble jig are now three steps, with the slip jig and hornpipe two and a half steps. It’s also a chance to try new tricks, and lift your game. “As dancers move up in level, it’s important that they constantly grow, progress, and not be afraid of a challenge. These qualities will allow a dancer to complete more difficult material and moves.” Dolzall-Ashurst goes on to say, “However, it’s also important to remember that something more simple performed clean and with great technique will typically gain more points than something difficult that is not yet mastered.” Jennifer Dawson, TCRG at the Marie Moore School of Irish Dance in New Jersey, adds, “When you’re moving up to prelim the steps don’t have to get harder, but now they have to be perfect. You have to show the judge that your technique is ready for Open Championships – knees, feet, arms, shoulders, timing, and rhythm. That’s the key difference from grades. A little personality doesn’t hurt either.”

The Set Dance

Dancing in prelim is a chance to learn a set dance, however it isn’t always immediately necessary. “A prelim competition will not include a set dance round. A dancer will perform a light round (reel or slip jig) and a heavy round (jig or hornpipe). However, many prelim dancers learn a set dance for competitions such as the Oireachtas, so they should be on the watch for the occasional feis that includes a separate Preliminary Set Competition.”

Are you a prizewinner dancer ready to move up? Have you recently moved into prelim? Share your experience below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Ed note: updated to reflect Christina’s new school
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  • disillisioned

    Maybe you should put somewhere that this is how it works in CLRG competitions as in other organisations there may be big differences. Not to mention that the levels may be called something different, that in some organisations Open Championship dancers will still be required to dance in a grade competition prior to each Championship, that not every organisation HAS Prelim competitions & in some a traditional set round may be included along with the other two rounds, followed by a modern set on recall. Whilst we all accept that CLRG is the oldest and largest organisation, many dancers just coming into Open in their organisation may not yet be aware of CLRG and the differences to OP for example. I just think it would avoid some confusion for some dancers/parents!