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Last Updated: Monday, 10 April 2006, 05:59 GMT 06:59 UK
Irish dancing contest kicking off
Riverdance Irish Dance Troupe lead dancer Melissa Convery
River Dance has boosted the popularity of Irish dancing
Thousands of the best Irish dancers from all over the globe have descended on Belfast, for the highlight of the Irish dancing calendar.

More than 4,000 competitors are at the week-long World Irish Dancing Championships, which began on Sunday.

More than half of the competitors at the event are from outside Ireland.

It is estimated that 250,000 people now take Irish dancing classes across the world, thanks to the success of Riverdance and the Lord of the Dance.

Some 314 schools of dance and 11 countries including Austria, Hungary, France and the USA are represented in Belfast.

More than 2,000 solo competitors and 2,000 team dancers will take part in the eight days of events.

The programme is made up of 35 competitions across age groups from under 11s to 21 years and over.

The 36th Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne (World Irish Dancing Championships), in association with Celebrate Belfast 2006, is taking place at the Belfast Waterfront Hall until next Sunday.

One of the organisers, Seamus O'Shea, said Belfast was a great place to host the championships.

"It is the most serious event in the world for Irish dancers," he said.

"A lot of people mock the idea of a world championship as though we are getting above our station.

"But it has turned out to be one of the most fantastic events in the world - Belfast and ourselves have a partnership that is going to continue."

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