Put an Irish Spring in Your Steps

October 13, 2015

In 1995, the iconic show Riverdance introduced a global audience to the distinctive form of Irish step dance, with its fast-flying feet, ramrod-straight arms and vertical posture. The production, which celebrated its 20th birthday this year and is still touring, brought the form into the mainstream. Today, Irish step dance classes can be found at studios across the country, and students compete internationally in the style. But even if you don’t aspire to one day join Riverdance—or another of the many professional companies that draw on Irish step dance traditions—try a class! It could improve your musicality, stamina and even your ballet technique.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Riverdance (photo by Jack Hartin, courtesy Riverdance)

Develop Your Musicality

Irish step dance movements tend to emphasize a clear downbeat, which can be helpful for dancers struggling with musicality. And because Irish step dance competitions have strict regulations regarding the dancers’ music choices, classes emphasize repetition, frequent drilling of standard vocabulary and clarity of execution—all of which can improve your rhythm. “A dancer’s timing has to be extremely clear,” says Liam Harney, founder of the Harney Academy of Irish Dancing in Walpole, MA. “Our routines stick to the same time signatures of 4/4 hornpipes or 6/8 jigs, and in class, we use metronomes to regulate speed.” When steps repeat over a period of time, you’ll learn to stay true to the tempo, rather than speeding up (a tendency for novice dancers).

Build Your Stamina

There are two styles of Irish step dance: hard shoe (made famous by Riverdance’s long line of dancers pounding out the beat in unison) and a more buoyant soft shoe. Both, however, are fast. “The steps are all generally very quick—like a constant and percussive petit allégro,” Harney says. Typically, competitive routines are less than two minutes long, but the choreography is highly aerobic.

Drilling the steps in class can be a great workout. “It’s certainly a cardiovascular challenge,” says Melissa Padham-Maass, who has taught Irish step dancing at the Joffrey Ballet School’s Character Dance Summer Intensive in NYC. If you get winded during performances or after a long grand allégro combination, jumping into an Irish step dance class can help—and it’ll be more fun than spending an hour on the treadmill.

Sharpen Your Ballet Technique

Mary Kate Sheehan, a former championship dancer with the Harney Academy who has performed with the modern dance–based Seán Curran Company, says that her Irish-dance training improved her ballet technique. “I’ve found that Irish step dance can even help your pointework,” she says. “It works your feet and ankles so you can get all the way over your box and be really stable.” Irish step dancers constantly work in relevé, and many of the form’s traditional movements largely depend on foot and ankle strength. Side rock-steps, for example, require dancers—starting from a position similar to relevé in fifth—to shift their weight from side to side, rolling over their ankles and testing their lateral strength and flexibility.

Trent Kowalik, who played one of the original Billys in Broadway’s Billy Elliot, trained in both tap and Irish step dance growing up. At the age of 15, he began studying ballet intensively at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre and found that his Irish step dance training gave him easily transferrable skills. “My ballet teachers commented on my posture, especially during petit allégro,” Kowalik says. “Jumping in Irish dance taught me how to activate my core—you don’t get to use your arms to help you move.” There’s also no plié in Irish step dance, which “really forces you to use your core when rebounding off the floor,” Kowalik adds.

Become More Versatile

Tackling the challenges of Irish step dance can help increase your overall adaptability as a dancer. And it’s no secret that versatility is key in today’s job market, when dancers are expected to know and do it all. Just take it from Padham-Maass, who directs a contemporary ballet collective and has performed with companies rooted in both Irish step and African dance: “The more styles you know, the more stage time you’ll have—and that’s what we all live for!”