Will Irish Dancing Help or Hinder My Other Dance Training?

Traditional Irish step dance is an extremely technical dance form – I’ve heard Irish dance described as nothing if not technique. I don’t agree completely — Irish dance is rhythm and tradition as well — but the technical aspects of the form are hard to deny.

"Saoirse" by Jos Dielis is licensed CC BY 2.0  (modified with cropping)

“Saoirse” by Jos Dielis is licensed CC BY 2.0 (modified with cropping)

 

While much of the technique for Irish dance is similar to ballet, some of the skills do conflict and for some students could prove counter-productive. If you’re considering adding Irish dance training to your dance toolkit, it’s a good idea to explore these differences and consider the benefits (or consequences) of taking up Irish dance in addition to your other dance training.

Here are some of the major differences between Irish dance and concert dance forms:

Posture

Correct posture in Irish dance may seem similar to that of ballet, but is actually quite different.

While Irish dancers must support their core like ballet dancers, they dance with their ribs open and shoulders completely back. This can be one of the most frustrating crossover problems for ballerinas and Irish dancers because the concept of “knitting your ribs” is such a hard one for students to grasp. This posture problem is equally trying for Irish dance teachers – getting well-trained ballet students to open their ribs and squeeze their shoulder blades together while still engaging their core is tough work.

 

Knees

Another major difference in technique is the use (or lack of use) of plié in Irish dance.

Irish dancers strive to keep their heels off the floor and their legs as straight as possible even when landing from jumps and traveling across the floor. Because Irish dancers spend hours training their feet and legs to support this extreme technique, getting Irish dancers to plié in ballet class becomes the bane of the ballet teacher’s existence.

 

Turnout

Though Irish dancers work in a turned out position and learn to engage the same turnout muscles as dancers of other forms, the placement of certain positions is significantly different in Irish dance. Fifth position, for example, is ‘overcrossed’ from the perspective of a ballet dancer. All extension happens from fifth position, and is therefore crossed as well.

Irish dancers do not pass through or use a passé in turnout, and ‘parallel’ is not a position that exists in Irish dance. Irish dancers learn to engage their turnout muscles and push across their bodies.

 

Though training in Irish dance alongside ballet or modern training can sometimes confuse dancers, there are benefits to being proficient in both.

Cardio

While many dancers struggle to get enough cardiovascular exercise during class, Irish dancers rarely have this problem. Irish dance is incredibly athletic, and requires dancers to move at a very fast pace for extended periods of time. Every movement in Irish dance requires one’s feet to leave the floor so Irish dancers are, literally, hopping for entire class periods. If a dancer needs more cardio exercise and running or swimming just won’t satisfy, Irish dance can be a creative alternative.

 

Strength

Irish dance builds strength where dancers need it most. Because Irish dancers dance on the toes, they have the incredible foot, ankle, and lower leg strength that students of other forms sometimes struggle to build. This strength is evident when ballet dancers move to pointe. My Irish/ballet dancers are usually dancing in pointe shoes a full year before their non-Irish-dancing peers.

Irish dancers also build core control and strength in large muscle groups. Because they develop fast twitch muscle fibers to jump constantly, Irish dancers generally love the petite and grand allegro sections of ballet class and generally excel at them.

 

Musicality

The most important aspect of Irish dance is rhythm and timing. My first Irish dance teacher used to say, “If your dancing doesn’t sing the song of the music, you aren’t Irish dancing.” Understanding of the music and the connection between movement and music are integral to even the most rudimentary Irish dance class. Of course, musicality is integral to ballet, but dancers who take Irish dance alongside other forms may develop musical skills faster or beyond that of their non-Irish-dancing peers.

 

Irish dance draws movers from many different backgrounds. Some dancers take up Irish dance for cultural reasons, for the intense technical training involved, or, yes, as a supplement to other forms of dance.

I can’t say whether Irish dance will help or hinder your other dance training. There are clearly many factors to consider. Hopefully this article gives you some information about what you might encounter as a dancer who wants to do both and help you come to your own conclusion.

For me, learning Irish dance alongside my traditional ballet training meant I had to dance smarter and understand the differences between the two forms. But, training in Irish dance and ballet made me a unique and versatile dancer, and ultimately added to my professional career.

 

Carlye CunniffCarlye Cunniff is a professional dancer and dance educator based in Seattle, Washington. She currently co-directs and dances in the Seattle Irish Dance Company, teaches all around the city and writes about all things dance.

 

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Comments

  1. Well, I have to say that in some ways Irish dancing is alright. Its fine on its own. But, forget the idea of retraining Irish dancing into more multi-dimensional theatrical art forms. As stated, strength and rhythm etc. But the fact remains that there is little of Irish dancing that translates well into the classical, contemporary and theatrical art forms. (Riverdance aside). Maybe a little for tap and a little for estampa in Iberian forms. But, there are just too many statically trained rules that are counter to the static rules of ballet and other forms that make it a project to retrain a dancer for more global performance based dance forms.

    First problem: it is a social form that morphed into a competitive form. Any improvements have been based upon that. It, like ballroom morphing into “Dance Sport’ is just that: a sport, that borrows heavily from the -art- of dance. Little about it can be translated into a performance based art form because it has been limited to a competitive form. Unless preformed as the social dance form as was its origin: Dance? Yes. Art? No.

    Second problem: “turnout” is defined as rotating the tibia and fibula outward, whilst leaving the knees and thighs rotated inward. If there was no other way to send a kid to the orthopedic unit, it would be this, except for the fact that they start so young that the growth plates often restructure during the ossification process. I’d say this a complaint, but ballet bares the same in differing portions of the body, so I’ll keep my mouth shut on that one!

    Third: as mentioned above, little plie’ and little or no emphasis on putting heels down or using ankle/foot ROM in jumps. This too may often result in a call to 911.

    Fourth: But, just try teach ports de bras to a gal who has rarely lifted her arms up, other than to reach for a pint of Guinness!! (Okay, snide joke, sorry!) Above -all- this is the biggest problem in training Irish dancers in other forms.

    Fifth, sixth seventh, etc.: little use of extreme hip flexion or extension, little use of the head, and little use of narrative interaction. Little us of controlled expression to convey message. Little use of full body rotation on one or two legs. there is more, but I’ll leave it at that.

    if you are an Irish Dancer, stick with it. It is a great discipline, and you can pull the art form back once the competitive features are rejected. And, go ahead and try other dance forms. They can only help. However, years of Irish dance training will prevent the majority of Irish dancers from unlearning certain engrammed improvements, unless you spend many years retraining.

    -Philip.

    • Hi Philip,

      Thank you for your comments, I’m glad you found the post engaging. I do have to respectfully disagree with you on some points, however.

      Irish dance IS a theatrical and contemporary art form – it is not a ‘static’ folk-form, or a social form of dance that has somehow morphed into a competitive form-making it less artistic in some way, as you assert. Dance competition is a major part of most forms of contemporary dance, and that competitiveness does not make those dance forms any less artistic in nature. Further, competition is a part of many artistic endeavors (design, music, etc.) the competitive nature does not inherently lessen them as art forms. If competition was the only means of expressing the form, I might be more inclined to agree with you, but that is not even close to the case in Irish dance.

      There are multiple touring shows for professional Irish dancers, most of which require members to have other dance training (namely ballet), as well as technical Irish dance training.You mention Riverdance, which is a wonderful show, but is by no means the end of artistic expression in the Irish dance form. I would encourage you to look at Heartbeat of Home, Fusion Fighters, Hammerstep, Ciara Sexton – to name a few Irish dance professionals making art.

      There are University Bachelor’s Degrees for Irish Dance Performance and Choreography. There are dancers with Master’s Degrees in Irish Dance. The certification to become an Irish dance teacher takes years of study, memorization of relevant movements, understanding of music, and safe, dancer focused teaching practices. Clearly, Irish dance is a relevant art form, not simply a competitive sport.

      Art exists within constraints, that is how forms are defined and understood. Irish dance is perhaps constrained because it lacks arms movements, but that doesn’t mean it is not an art form. There are many incredible resources to check out if you are interested in learning more about the historical significance of Irish dance competitions and dance masters, the role that oppression played in the lack of arm and head movements and the deep cultural history that Irish dance teachers pass on to their students, as well as the love and interest in a varied, nuanced and technically demanding art form.

      I’m not sure where you’ve experienced Irish dance technique, but your understanding of the movement quality sounds misinformed to me. Under no circumstances would Brian Waldrep be eliminated from competition because of turning out his legs – any qualified Irish dance teacher would teach their students to rotate from the hip, all the way through the ankle. There has never been a requirement (or even stylistic preference) for a parallel knee and a rotated foot, so I’m not sure where that understanding of technique is coming from. Brian’s turnout is well placed, and I assure you that Irish dancers around the globe would agree with me.

      Training any dancer, regardless of their background, is a project – that’s what makes teaching so rewarding. I appreciate that you didn’t mean to be snarky in your post, but as Irish dance becomes more and more popular, it is part of our jobs as professionals to raise up the dance arts (in all of their forms) and inform those around us about what dance is.

  2. I watched a TV reality show on American Irish dancers going to a competition recently. Quite apart from the stiffness of it all, what on earth is it with the WIGS???? I don’t feel so bad about paying for tutus now!

    • Hi Cara,

      I totally agree about the wigs, they can certainly be off putting. When I was growing up, we had to wear curlers the nights (or days and nights) before a competition so we’d have the curls. I remember the wigs coming into fashion as a way to help families, but they got bigger as the costumes changed to be more sparkly and fancy. As with anything, they are trend and will probably go out of fashion eventually.

      A cute story about the curls though: dancers (back in the day) would always have competitions after church on Sunday, and had to look nice for church (curly hair). Dancers would have bouncing curls for their dance competition, and for whatever reason that tradition stuck.

      Thanks for reading! I’m not sure if wigs or tutu’s last longer, but old wigs certainly make for better Halloween costumes 😉

  3. Brian Waldrep is a member of Houston Ballet’s corps. He seems to have made the transition: https://instagram.com/p/0V25Ztwo4T/

    • Having worked withmquite a few young Irish trained damcers, I can confirm that he is the exception not the rule. Further, if you watch his dancing in this video, he has made such a good transition that….he would be eliminated from any Irish competition before the first four bars of music played: he is turning out from his back hips and into the floor, which is (or, at least, used to be) a major deduction and faux pas in Irish dance; their knees must be forward in parallel, whiste the feet rotated outward. So, glad he corrected it.

      Indeed, its been awhile since I worked with Irish dancers. Two I know of made the transition. Of the other five, they either quit entirely, or gave up ballet and went back to their Irish roots. This is good in all cases. They were in their teens. One gal I worked with in a company where I was ballet master, did her best and was able to pull off ballet, but the arms, it felt like it took forever to teach. Turnout with heels down, and using plié were constant challenges for her, as was true with all of the Irish dancers to whom I taught ballet. Keep in mind, I didn’t say “never”. I do mean that it will be really challenging, requiring much more patience and discipline than those without the need to retrain these important technical aspects. -P

      • “I do mean that it will be really challenging, requiring much more patience and discipline than those without the need to retrain these important technical aspects.”

        If that’s what you meant, why didn’t you just say that? I don’t say that to be snarky (well, perhaps a little — your first comment was long and certainly reads as a shoot-down of the notion of doing both Irish and ballet) but this response is a whole lot more diplomatic than your first one… and shorter… and in my opinion a more accurate assessment.

        Carlye’s post clearly presents the challenges as well as some advantages. It seems that maybe you feel there aren’t any advantages… except you’ve mentioned two (additional patience and discipline) that aren’t even included above but perhaps should be. And Carlye and probably Brian, if we asked him, have experienced some advantages.

        Of those who “give up” and go back to Irish, well we all know ballet isn’t for everyone. People give it up for all kinds of reasons. It doesn’t mean they’ve suffered for working at it anymore than a ballet dancer will have suffered for having worked at something else.

        Regardless of your meaning, Philip, I do enjoy discussion and thank you for commenting.

  4. Nichelle, i auote from my original post:

    “….I’d say this a complaint, but ballet bares the same in differing portions of the body, so I’ll keep my mouth shut on that one!…”

    “if you are an Irish Dancer, stick with it. It is a great discipline, and you can pull the art form back once the competitive features are rejected. And, go ahead and try other dance forms. They can only help. However, years of Irish dance training will prevent the majority of Irish dancers from unlearning certain engrammed improvements, unless you spend many years retraining.”

    They are to entirely different forms that have real problems with compatibility. I would no more recommend that a ballet dancer interested in Irish dancing than the othermway around: there are simply too

    Uh, “snarky?” Sorry Nichelle. But, that’s -your- interpretation. I will -not- apologize for comments that posit truth. As stated immediately following my mention of the use of arms. was a joke for St. Patty’s day. Even -Irish- dancers joke with each other about the lack of the use of arms in the dance form! Lastly, as stated in my self-quotation above, I was specific that ballet has embedded difficulties just as Irish dancing does: -In no way- was my original post “Snarky.” In fact, I kept parts quite light hearted due to the fact that it was St. Patricks Day! sheesh!

  5. Meant tomsay, “they are simply too different.”

  6. Hi. My daughter is young and I personally know nothing about dance it is something I tried with her when she was very little and she loved it. It was Ballet tap and freestyle to begin with then she saw someone Irish dance aged 4 and badgered me for 8 months till I caved and sort out a school of Irish she has not looked at now newly turned 7 she is competing and moving up in primary quite quickly. The latest thing has been asking for a more formal ballet class as her one is a lovely little local school but she is not finding it demanding enough in comparison to the Irish. But Irish is most definitely her 1st love and a complete passion. Knowing nothing about dance and having never danced myself can I just say thank you for this article as I have held off looking for a more formal training in ballet but have now since reading this and some of my worries been put to rest rung a larger traditional school and she will be assessed on Tuesday. It scares me sometimes as a non dancing parent how hard children who love dance push themselves and all I can do is facilitate support and ask her to rest sometimes. Again thank you for taking the time to write as so appropriate right now x x

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