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Saint Patrick's Day Weather Always a Gamble for Bagpipers and Irish Step Dancers

The Saint Patrick's Day celebrations will soon commence across the United States, and many festivities will include traditional Irish entertainment with bagpipe bands and Irish step dancing.

These long-standing gaieties aren't immune to the effects of weather, and the conditions on Saint Patrick's Day often influence the performances.

Christian Waugh, pipe major for the Yorktown Irish Pipe and Drums in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., said playing outside in cold air affects bagpipers immensely.

"It's definitely tricky," he said.

Bagpipes are very sensitive to temperature and precipitation. When playing in cold climates, the instrument's pitch will be flatter and requires extra diligence in tuning.

It is also imperative for the musicians to keep their hands warm. "When your hands are on the chanter [of the bagpipe], you feel the vibration in your hands to tell how you are playing. When it's cold, you can't feel that vibration so you are kind of playing blind. It's hard to go off what you hear, because you are hearing other people as well," Waugh said.

To help combat this, bagpipers often use hand-warming products to keep their fingers warm.

The parade held on the 2013 holiday was less than ideal for bagpipers. While the band still able to entertain the crowds, Waugh described the weather as "brutal."

Another cherished staple of Saint Patrick's Day parades is Irish step dancing. Their performances in outdoor parades also have extra concerns in wintry weather.

Darrah Carr, the artistic director and choreographer of Darrah Carr Dance, said, "Just ordinary precautions of warming up are important and that importance is exaggerated when there is cold weather. It's easy to feel warm and loose when it's sunny, but on Saint Patrick's Day that is always a question."

Irish step dancers can use several shoe options depending on the environment and the type of dance required. But during parades, hard shoes (also known as heavy jig shoes, which have fiberglass tips and heels) are not used partly because they are very easy to slip in if precipitation is present.

"There are different dances done with hard shoes and soft shoes. So [the parade dancers] would typically do soft shoe dances. Some of the same tunes are used, but the steps are different," Carr said.

Regardless of inclement weather, a million people are expected every year to enjoy the parade. Waugh said playing the bagpipes in the historic parade is "always memorable."

"The first time I marched in the St. Patrick's Day parade [in New York City], someone was telling me ‘just don't even play right now, when you make the turn on 5th Avenue just look at the crowd and up the street.' It's just amazing," Waugh said.

He also embraced the cheerful nature of the celebrations by saying, "You also gotta watch your kilt when it's windy!"

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