Welcome back to technique review, where we cover the most essential principles of Irish dance that every dancer needs to practice, train, and condition for—from Beginner to Championship level! This week, we’re taking a look at extension, a term which specifically refers to the line of the leg while dancing. It may sound simple, but it’s anything but!
Proper extension for Irish dance is a little more complicated than standing up straight—it refers to the leg being fully straight and the knees pulled up at all times. The term “knees pulled up” can be a little confusing for non-Irish dancers, but signifies the muscles literally pulling up as you rise on your toes and extend your knee fully (it’s the correction Irish dance teachers love to yell when you bend your knees!) Once you reach the higher levels of Irish dance, this also refers to the dancer using the space on the stage to their full advantage, reaching as far as they can to “fill” each movement.
While fully straightening your leg seems like something we all do every day, it actually requires a particular type of flexibility—most notably, the hamstrings. If you’re getting notes back from the adjudicators (or your teachers) noting that you’re “sitting on your knees,” it means your back leg is bent while dancing and you’re most likely dropping your heel. Tight hamstrings are the most likely culprit—it probably feels like you’re fully extending, even when you’re not! This isn’t a problem limited to Beginner dancers, as it’s something that can follow you into the upper levels if not addressed.
While all our upper level classes begin with exercises meant to increase flexibility, hamstring flexibility doesn’t have an overnight fix. Like everything in Irish dance, it takes patience, dedication, and constant practice—i.e. daily stretching over a long period of time. Remember to NEVER stretch cold—always warm up first for 5-10 minutes—and make sure to hold each stretch for 40-60 seconds, focusing on each stretch as you complete the action. Need some new hamstring stretches? We love Target Training Dance for great tricks and tips specifically tailored to Irish dancers!
But hamstrings aren’t the only muscles that need to be addressed! A dancer’s glutes and quads are equally important, as these are the muscle groups you’re most actively engaging when you’re “pulling up” from your knees. The stronger your glutes and quads, the more focus you’ll be able to commit to this part of your form and the more natural a fully extended leg will become. But remember: leg strength and flexibility need to be balanced with core strength for this to work—Irish dance is a whole body workout. Click any of the links throughout this article to see a wide variety of exercises for everything from your hamstrings to your core! (That’s right, every single link here is another exercise (or set of exercises) to help with extension! And here’s one more for good measure.)
But why is extension important? It’s not only that proper form requires a clean line from a dancer’s leg—there’s long term health and safety risks, as well. An estimated 80% of Irish dance injuries stem from overuse—which doesn’t mean your dancer is dancing too much, as much as it means they need further conditioning, a balance of strengthening and stretching in equal measure. It’s imperative for all Irish dancers to condition outside of their regular class time in order to avoid overuse injuries and be able to continue to improve. This article even found links between hamstring flexibility and the ability of a dancer to advance through the competitive levels.
Whether you’re just starting out or have a room full of medals, remember: extension is key! (And so are the exercises to help improve it!)
This post is part of a series. Read our last technique post, all about arching, 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.
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