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:


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.



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.



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.


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.



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.



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.


The Royal Ballet’s Beauty, Sarah Lamb

The Royal Ballet is bringing The Sleeping Beauty to movie theaters for a single performance on March 20.

The Royal Ballet Cinema Season is a fantastic way to watch your favorite ballets. It’s especially great if you live in an area of the U.S. where world-renown companies rarely visit. Readers so far have told us they love the convenience of this new way to experience ballet.

Sarah Lamb with Steven McRae in the Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Johan Persson/ROH

Sarah Lamb with Steven McRae in the Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Johan Persson/ROH

Dancing the role of Princess Aurora is Sarah Lamb, a Boston native. She was a principal dancer at Boston Ballet before crossing the pond in 2004 to join The Royal Ballet, where she was promoted to principal in 2006.

Sarah speaks with us today about dancing this classical role, her versatility, and taking risks.

DANCE ADVANTAGE: The Rose Adagio sticks out in my mind, but what is the most challenging aspect of dancing the title role in The Sleeping Beauty?

SARAH LAMB: The most challenging part is the entire Act I. Aurora stays onstage after her entrance full of exuberance and effervescence, and goes directly into The Rose Adagio. Her solo follows, which is very technical and has almost all aspects of a ballerina’s technique: pirouettes, balances, hops on pointe, and a manège with jumps.

DA: Five years ago, you came back from a foot injury that took you out of work for several months. Tell us about that time and how you bounced back to your best.

SL: It was incredibly difficult, depressing and frustrating and I’m so lucky that my husband and family helped me through such a dark time. I was so fortunate that Kevin O’Hare, our director and then company manager, allowed me to return to Boston and get therapy and coaching from an incredible man named Igor Burdenko who worked with me in a pool for six months of rehabilitation while I couldn’t bear weight on my foot.

DA: You’ve been overseas for about a decade now but, thinking back, how did it feel making that choice to move from an American ballet company to The Royal Ballet?

SL: It was a leap into the unknown and a risk to do something different, but I thought about the proverb, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived,” so I left and I am so happy I did.

A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.

DA: You are a versatile dancer, moving with ease between classical and contemporary roles. What can you point to in your training background that has helped you become so?

SL: My teacher, Tatiana Nicolaevna Legat, was the most important part of my development as a dancer. Her direct connections to the Vaganova system and her expertise as a teacher formed me into the dancer I am today. I didn’t start training with her until I was twelve so I think certain parts of my own personality had already been established and I think that’s a very good thing! I’m willing to try things and to take risks and that’s attractive to choreographers who are interested in collaboration. Legat also reinforced my own work ethic which means I always push myself harder than anyone else can push me, so I’m always trying to improve.

DA: Does knowing The Sleeping Beauty will be filmed for audiences across the world change your preparations or performance in any way?

SL: Of course there’s more stress and pressure but you cannot change the way you fundamentally dance so I need to remind myself it’s a performance just like all the performances I do – for everyone in the audience. The fact that it is also filmed can’t make me alter my approach, except perhaps less make-up!

DA: What do you enjoy most about portraying Princess Aurora?

SL: I like the challenge and the fulfillment when a performance goes well – I’m critical so I haven’t had many shows that satisfy me, but the rehearsal process is intense so once I’m onstage I need to remember that I’m there to convey a story and bring the audience with me.

Royal Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty in cinema: March 20

Once again, this cinema performance of The Sleeping Beauty will occur one night only on March 20, 2014.

Find out if The Sleeping Beauty is playing at a theater near you: Go to the Fathom Events website, click Buy Tickets and enter your zip code.

Disclosure: Dance Advantage accepts compensation for the promotion of these events

The Pros and Cons of Dance Crossover

A crossover dance artist is a dancer that works in multiple genres or in both the commercial and concert worlds.

Classically trained ballerinas are trying their hand at music videos while break dancers are experimenting with modern dance companies. Crossover is common for dancers, especially in a rough economy!

If you are considering a career as a crossover dance artist, here are some pros and cons to consider:

PRO: Heightened Exposure

One of the perks of being a crossover dance artist is the heightened exposure that comes with the territory. Dancers who crossover into the worlds of commercial and concert dance are seen by a wide range of diverse audiences.  They are also seen by influential choreographers, directors, producers, and agents who can grant them their “next big break!” This heightened exposure grants crossover dance artists with larger fan bases and professional networks.

What dancer couldn’t benefit from more visibility?

IMAGE Dancers shoot in front of a green screen for the film Lost Action: Trace. IMAGE

Photo by Kat Baulu

PRO: Diversified Income

Crossover dance artists benefit from having multiple income sources.

It is common for professional dancers to supplement their primary income by taking side jobs [Read more…]

The Truth About Well-Rounded Dancers

Stone Path and Leaves

Image by Steven Minns via Flickr

The Myth Of More, More, More — No Stone Unturned

There is a lot of pressure on parents to help their child get ahead, as if somewhere down the line a child’s failure to get that job, land that role, or succeed at each endeavor could somehow be traced back to that one stone left unturned in the child’s past. As a result, I see a lot of parents out there trying to turn over every stone along their child’s path. It’s exhausting to watch and even more exhausting to attempt.

In dance, this tendency translates into more money, more time, more classes, more performances, costumes, choreography, private lessons… more, more, more. Even studios feel the need to be everything to everyone, responding to demand and striving to supply. As a result, parents have some big questions on their lips…

How many hours spent at the studio is enough? How many competitions are too many? How much money should it take? How much experience should my dancer have in _____? How much is necessary to ensure that I’ve left no stone unturned?

Because the answers will be different for each family and individual, I’m going to help you answer the above questions for yourself. First, by dispelling some myths about dance training.


If my child wants to advance or get ahead he/she needs lots of experiences with different dance styles.

Experience and exposure in a variety of dance styles is important for creating versatile dancers and may even be a necessity for aspiring professionals. Being well-rounded in dance is a good thing. Exposure to different dance forms, starting at a young age, is a great thing. So where’s the myth? It lies in the misplaced emphasis on experience and omission of training. Experience and training are two different things, and I’ll add a third level… exposure. To get ahead, your dancer needs a healthy balance of all three.

Exposure = Watching a variety of dancers, styles, and performances; Making contact with other students and professionals; Reading about dance or dance artists

Experience = Getting a taste of alternative ways of moving and patterning dance; Learning a dance; Participating in a performance; Working with master teachers or choreographers;

Training = Engaging in a course of study that prepares a dancer for the physical, cognitive, and mental requirements of codified dance forms/techniques; specialized practice and instruction over a period of time

When parents see a class that incorporates ballet, tap, and jazz in a single hour class, they may think that this is three times the experience for the price of one. Exposure, yes. Experience, maybe. Training, no.

The child in this situation has less time to develop in any one of these areas and in terms of training, often ends up shortchanged. “Combo” classes, or classes that combine two dance forms are not entirely a bad thing. Young recreational students may benefit from experiencing more than one dance style before deciding where to focus their efforts later. However if, later on, their in-class effort and focus on technique is still only 20 minutes because their hour is continually spent on learning choreography and preparing for performances, the value of their experience is diminished. They are no longer moving beyond the experiencing realm, and no amount of performing, competing, or exposure will make up for this.


  • One hour of solid, well-thought training in a single dance form is better than ten hours of experience.
  • Training, whether focusing on ballet, contemporary, jazz, or tap techniques can always be built upon with the addition of other styles.
  • An experience can rock your world but it can’t substitute for consistent effort and instruction.
  • Good training roots exposure and experience, and allows versatility to flower.

What It Means To Be Well-Rounded

A well-rounded dancer has a balanced education with equal parts exposure, experience, and training.

4 Signs Your Exposure-Experience-Training Balance Is Off

  1. Preparing a single dance routine requires months of preparation. (Well-trained dancers are prepared for what is given to them, dancers who only have experience under their belt have a steeper learning curve because they must digest and acquire skills as they go.)
  2. Technique is the add-on in your regimen, while classes like ballet or jazz are spent learning choreography in that style.
  3. You have lots of exposure but within only a small range of activities. For example, maybe you devour everything about ballet but skip the article on improvisation, or watch major network dance competitions but pass on PBS, or travel every week to competitions but have never seen a live professional performance.
  4. You engage in tunnel-vision training (yes, a dancer’s balance can be overly focused on training, not allowing for diverse experiences or exposure).

Take some time to evaluate your child’s training. The time spent in additional classes should be relative to true desire and interest. It is important to build your repertoire of dance styles but look for a studio that sticks to the mission of providing an uninterrupted core of technique classes, while offering a chance to “taste” a variety of performance styles and choreography during workshops, via visiting teachers, conventions, and going to see dance performances.

When Is Too Much Not Enough?

As I’ve begun writing this series a theme has emerged. The query above may seem like a riddle but actually it’s not meant to confound and can be answered in many different ways. Through this series, I hope to continue to address this as an underlying question to your concerns about striking balance in your dancer’s study without turning over every stone.

What are other signs that a dance education is not well-rounded?

Can you think of other myths or questions you might have as a parent?

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