While “rhythm” is obviously a key part of any dance discipline (or casual dancing, for that matter!), Irish dance’s demands on a dancer’s rhythm are more complex than average. As dancers move up through the levels and start adding more types of dances to their repertoire, they’re also adding new types of music with a variety of rhythms they’ll need to be able to identify and dance in time to. While we’ve covered the different types of music used in Irish dance in a previous post (check out our post here! or a few other resources: here or here!), we’re here tonight to help explain the concept of rhythm in Irish dance and how to troubleshoot any rhythm issues!
Rhythm, broadly defined, is the ordered recurrent alternation between sound and silence (in music) and (in dance) the movements that coordinate with that alternation. You may have run across Miss Courtney’s explanation of rhythm in class before—she likes to compare it to “Happy Birthday.” We all know how to sing “Happy Birthday,” and all do it unison every time. That’s because we inherently know the rhythm of the words, even without backing music. Rhythm in Irish dance is a little more complicated as there’s both movements and music involved, but the principal holds: when you understand and can hear the rhythm of the music your movements are in tandem with those beats. Or, as our dancers would probably say: iykyk.
It’s easy to think of rhythm as a hard shoe-specific issue, and it’s true that it’s more noticeable to the casual observer when a hard shoe strikes at the wrong moment than your ghillies. But it’s not true of the adjudicators or your teachers—they’ll notice, for sure! Rhythm is equally important in soft shoe as it is in hard shoe. Dancers with rhythm issues will still be able to perform their dances in full, and will possibly still end in the right moment, making them think their rhythm is intact. However, rhythm has more to do with the individual style and timing of each movement in conjunction with the music—i.e. a heel strike on a down beat versus in the middle of a musical phrase.
If a dancer is struggling with rhythm, the first step is to determine if they can hear the rhythm of the music. An easy test of this is having them clap along with it—some people simply can’t naturally hear the rhythm of the music and can’t follow, say, the beat of a jig (fast fast slow or up up down.) This is a skill you'll see practiced in our earliest levels (Tiny Jig and Pre-Beginner especially) and while it may not look like dancing, it's a precursor to this very important aspect of Irish dance! If clapping isn’t working, trying having them count the beats out. That may not work either, and it can be difficult for some dancers to realize they can’t accurately hear the rhythm of the music. Musicality is often a learned skill, and can usually be improved with patience, diligence, and help! A private lesson (or a few) for dancers struggling with rhythm is always a good idea, particularly if they have a specific dance they’re struggling with.
Private lessons for rhythm issues give instructors the time to break down the dance and even record it for further study for the dancer without taking away from class time. But there are exercises you can try at home as well (besides constant practice, which is always a good idea!) This suggestion comes from feis circuit musician and former Irish dancer, Sean O’Brien—his fix for improving your rhythm is to practice your dances alongside a metronome instead of the music, saying: “This is the simplest way to strip music back to its fundamental, unchanging beat. Sometimes people can be confused by the layers of instruments, and a metronome helps to distinguish the underlying tempo.”
Rhythm is a difficult concept to explain in words, and there’s always an ongoing debate about whether or not it can actually be taught. Our verdict here at SRL? Miss Courtney herself struggled with rhythm early on in her dance career, but (clearly!) overcame it—so there’s probably no better place to work on it than here at SRL!
This post is part of a series. Read our last technique review post, all about extension, 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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