So far in technique review we’ve covered turnout, crossing, and posture—but we’re not done yet! We’re moving away from the arms and shoulders this week and returning to the feet as we discuss one of most important aesthetic and technical components of Irish dance: height on toes. As almost all movements are performed on the balls of the feet, maintaining height on your toes is necessary to properly execute all dances!
While the term “height on toes” may conjure up the image of a ballet dancer in pointe shoes, what we’re referring to here is the ability of an Irish dancer raising themselves fully on the balls of their feet, not the tips of their toes. Though there is an exception to this rule (the “heel” or “stamp”) where the foot makes full contact with the floor, outside of this an Irish dancer must never let their arch or heel touch the floor! And yes, that even includes landing jumps!
This can be particularly challenging for dancers while performing in hard shoe. Though the fiberglass heels of today’s hard shoes are much lighter than their predecessors, they can still often feel very heavy, especially to beginners, leading to dropped heels while dancing. This is an even more glaring issue when in hard shoe (as opposed to soft ghillies) as it’s not just improper technique, but leads to unnecessary additional sounds that can disturb your rhythm!
As dancers move up through the levels, they’re not only expected to stay on their toes, but that their height on toes is so extended that they’re dancing well up on the balls of their feet, close to the base of their toe. Thus, performing strengthening exercises for your calves and feet outside of class is one of the keys to improving as an Irish dancer across the board. While there’s numerous theraband exercises that can help with conditioning your calves and feet, and single leg calf raises are a good workout as well, Miss Courtney recommends “doming” as the best possible way to help increase your arch strength and shaping.
Doming is an exercise (see it in action here!) that not only works the larger muscles of your foot, but aims to involve the smaller, intrinsic muscles that are buried deep within the bottom of your foot. Strengthening these smaller muscles helps stabilize the joints of the foot as a whole, providing a more stable base for dancers to jump, jig, and move. You know how core strength is what keeps us upright? Think of this as core strength for your foot! (Check out some more tips from Irish Dancing & Culture magazine here and from Target Training Dance—a great resource--here.)
It’s incredibly important for Irish dancers to make sure their feet and calves are at full strength, and not just because a lowered heel could knock you down a place during judging. A study in The Journal of Athletic Training in 2017 reports that fatigue in Irish dancers leads to heel drops and thus an increased risk of lower limb injury. Increasing the stamina of your height on your toes is imperative to help avoid the arch and heel release that can lead to injuries such as stress fractures, ankle sprains, and plantar fasciitis, among others. But, like anything else in life, preparation is the best way to avoid any problems, so get your dancer working on calf and foot strength sooner rather than later!
This post is part of a series. Check out our last technique post, all about posture, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Technique Review: Posture
What does the word “posture” conjure for you? A young lady at finishing school balancing books on her head? Well, if you’re an Irish dancer you might have a different answer! When most people think about “posture” for Irish dance, the first thing that comes to mind is the unique form Irish dance utilizes: an unmoving, straight spine as their feet are flying. But good posture isn’t about just not moving your upper body—there’s a lot more to it than that!
Good posture in other forms of dance is a little simpler than Irish dance (what isn’t,) with the term generally referring to an alignment of the spine and body—from the top of the head through the heels. Good posture isn’t just about correct technique--it’s about putting the least amount of stress on your ligaments, muscles, and body in general while performing an activity. There are benefits to maintaining good posture, whether or not you’re a dancer—less wear on bones and joints, decreased back pain and spine issues, and helps prevent muscle fatigue—but for dancers the stakes are even higher. Not only will the adjudicators notice incorrect posture (and dock you!) but maintaining a correct posture while dancing can also help prevent injury. With back pain as one of the most common complaints for dancers across disciplines, the best option for avoiding it is maintaining proper posture from the get-go to lessen the strain!
But posture for Irish dance goes beyond standing up straight—it’s all in the arms! To get into the right posture for Irish dance, first stand with your spine straight, heart up (make sure to avoid arching your back and pushing out your ribs!), and push your shoulders back as far as you can—ideally until your shoulder blades touch at your spine! Try it at home, parents—it’s not comfortable, is it? It’s not any way to go about your day to day, but it’s the standard, required posture for solo Irish dance. And that’s not all! The arms need to be kept completely straight to the sides, hands always in fists. It’s a lot to remember while also remembering those steps!
Issues with posture tend to stem from dancers not holding the correct amount of tension in their bodies. Too stiff and your movements will become jerky and awkward versus smooth and graceful. Too loose and the upper and lower body won’t appear to be in sync. Either of these issues encourage the biggest mistakes we see with Irish dancer posture: shoulders rolling forward (think what your dancer looks like hunched over their phone all day,) loose and untamed arms, bent arms, or arms pulling away from the body.
But how can we encourage correct Irish dance posture? A technique we like to use in class (but can easily be utilized at home as well!) is pinning rubber circles (or paper plates) between the elbow and the ribcage. If the arm comes away from the body at all, the plate drops! This is a great way for your dancer to practice their feis performances—muscle memory is everything. The other key is core and upper body conditioning. A strong core and arms allow the position necessary for Irish dance to be held, even while the feet are constantly moving.
There are so many exercises and tutorials available to help your Irish dancer with their posture! Miss Courtney suggests lateral pulses, shoulder rows, “dead bugs,” superman pulses and holds, and any core work at all! For our littlest dancers, egg rolls (and the paper plate trick) are the best starting point. Wherever your dancer starts from, these exercises and practices will not only improve their dancing, but help with their overall back health—whether they keep dancing or not!
Tune in next time for a more advanced technique review, but a pivotal one as your dancer continues on their Irish dance journey: height on toes!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last technique review, all about crossing, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Last time, we took a look at the importance not only of turnout for the sake of technique and aesthetics, but for the safety of every dancer. This, of course, extends to other aspects of technique, including: crossing. Whether you’ve been dancing one year or twenty, crossing is one of the most basic techniques to master, as it’s the beginning and end position to any Irish dance move you might perform—one leg in front of the other.
To determine what state your crossing technique is currently in, first turn out your feet (which we covered last week!) Then, starting with your heels still together, move your right leg in front of your leg without shifting the position of your turned-out foot, knee, or hip. The first goal is get your right heel touching your left toes. As you improve your turn out, the next goal would be getting your right toes to touch your left heel in the same position (with your right foot still in front.) This is the ultimate crossing goal in the Beginner and Early Intermediate levels, along with getting that first progression in every movement!
As you move on to the highest grades of Irish dance, you’ll want to increase your crossing ability. To do this, you’ll want to keep moving your already crossed feet further apart—your left leg further to the right and your right leg further to the left—until you can’t move them any further. The goal for the best possible technique in Irish dance would be as much space between your shins as possible while you’re in a crossed position.
However, it’s important to keep body alignment in mind when crossing, as the act of crossing can often lead to dancer to be facing diagonally instead of straight ahead. If this is happening, you want to correct yourself into a less turned out or less crossed position where you belly button is facing forward. A study of dancers across disciplines from the Clinics in Podiatric Medicine determined that 53% of dance-related injuries are of the ankle or foot (with a higher proportion in Irish dancers--83% in this specific study) citing lack of proper body alignment as one of the primary sources of said injuries.
Crossing your feet may seem like no big deal, but as all jumps in Irish dance are expected to begin and end in this position, correct crossing technique is imperative to a dancer’s health and safety. Research from BYU in 2017 asserts that Irish dancers land with a force of 4.5-6 times their body weight, making proper technique while jumping one of the easiest ways to avoid injury. With the effects of dance shoes across disciplines being a relatively new area of study in sports medicine, mitigating this force with proper technique becomes paramount.
There are many exercises to help improve your crossing technique, and some of Miss Courtney’s favorites include cross walks up to the mirror (to be able to see your alignment all the better—make sure to always practice with proper technique, it’s the only way to improve!), as well as floor butterflies to increase the strength in your inner thighs and glutes. Take a look at our last post in this series to see a few exercises that will help increase your turnout, too—turnout is important in every aspect of Irish dance, including crossing! The better your turnout, the better technique in your crossing.
Miss Courtney also recommends mental cues while dancing to help you remember to both start and end in the correct position, such as “keep only one knee showing” or “keep space between your shins.” While the longer you dance, the more muscle-memory will kick in (read more about movement memory here!), it’s always good to have the mental cues tied to those muscle memories to reinforce this basic tenet of technique if you ever get flustered. It could save you from injury, and will wow the adjudicators!
Tune in next week for another technique review—all about posture!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last technique review, all about turnout, here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Welcome to technique review! In this new series of posts, we’re looking at some of the most important basics of Irish dance—from Beginner level to Championship. It doesn’t matter how many medals you may have won; every dancer needs to continuously refresh themselves on the fundamentals and continue to work on them! First on the docket: turnout.
Turnout is one of the most critical tenets of dance generally, and Irish dance in particular as every movement of Irish dance is performed in a turned out position. Not only is correct turnout one of the key points noted by adjudicators on both a technical and aesthetic level, it’s also crucial for safety of the dancer. In a study published in Sports Medicine-Open in 2018, researchers concluded that improper or overcompensated turnout is one of the leading causes of injuries across dance disciplines. This expanded the conclusions published in Open Access J Sports Medicine in 2013 that decreasing the likelihood of dance-related injuries is possible with attention to proper technique and physical training. And as Irish dance’s gravity-defying jumps are performed with less cushion (both in shoes and technique) than other forms of dance, the need is all the greater to know what proper turnout is and to practice on improving it!
Turnout in dance refers to an outward rotation of the leg, starting from the hip and continuing through the thigh, knee, ankle, and foot. The goal is a “perfect” 180 degree turnout—a straight line running from the left toe, through the left foot to the left heel, then through the right heel, foot, and toe. While some dancers win the genetic lotto and start with close to that 180 degree ideal, most dancers will have to continuously work on their turnout to achieve this!
First: what’s your turnout like naturally? Stand with your feet together, heels touching, and then try to make a V-shape with your feet, turning the entire leg from the hip while keeping your heels together. You’ll know if you’re overcompensating your turnout through a number of signs, including: discomfort, knee position not matching foot position, and a slight (or not so slight) forward roll on the inside of your foot. Any of those signs and you’ll want to close your V-shape into a narrower position—as we said before, dancing when overcompensating puts dancers at a much greater risk of injury (and your teacher won’t be happy either!)
But how does one improve their turnout? Like everything else in Irish dance: practice, practice, practice. The most important considerations are increasing the strength of your hip flexors and maximizing the range of motion in your hip joints. Exercises like clams, seated leg rotations, and parallel/turn out drills (among many others you’ll learn in class!) are the key to increasing that range of motion and strength. But none of this will help unless you also stay aware of your turnout while in motion while dancing. This focus can be difficult to maintain while you’re counting along to the music in your head and remembering your choreography, so Miss Courtney recommends giving yourself mental cues! Learning to remind yourself “heels forward, “toes out,” “show the inside of your heel,” or something similar while you dance is as important as the turnout itself–otherwise all that work won’t show in your dancing!
Sound like a lot of extra work on top of learning all that choreography? It is! But because of the safety issues (here’s another study looking specifically at injury in Irish dancers that correlates improper landing technique with injury,) not working on your turnout may slow down your progress as an Irish dancer. Not only is it a basic principle of any dance you perform, but Miss Courtney and your other teachers care about your safety first and foremost, and may choose not to teach you more advanced moves until your turnout improves. As, for example, landing jumps or leaps on a straight foot can lead to severe ankle sprains or even cause ligament damage that can take years to fully overcome, you can’t progress without good turnout!
This post the first in a series. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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