Cross-Training for Irish Dance


Cross-training is training in two or more sports in order to improve fitness and performance in a main sport- i.e. Irish dance. It is also called conditioning.

Many Irish dancing boys play sports or do activities other than Irish dance. Some of those activities are just for fun, but many of them, while fun, help with improving skills that make them as an Irish dancer even more competitive.

I remember several years back getting to meet a professional Irish dancer with my son after a show. He talked to us and found out that my son at the time was a hockey player in addition to doing Irish dance. He said that he had been a hockey player too. His next comment has really stuck with me through the years. He said that hockey was great for Irish dance because it had given him really quick feet. After thinking about it, I could see what perfect sense that makes. Same thing happened a year or two later when we waited backstage at a Riverdance show. The lead male dancer at the time came out and talked with us. He said he had been a soccer kid first before he had ever even tried Irish dance. He felt that soccer had given him great turn-out, fast feet, and great stamina.

Some of the top sports of Irish dancers:

Soccer!
This popular sport seems to be the most played by boy Irish dancers. It is great for helping with stamina, keeping feet quick and light, and turn-out of feet. Dribbling, passing, and kicking the ball are all to be done predominately with the instep of the foot. Turn-out can become second nature to these boys as they drill and play the game.

Other Forms of Dance
Irish dancing boys seem drawn to music and a good beat. Dancing to other forms of music helps with rhythm and timing. Dance is great for increasing flexibility and improving form with pointing of toes, turn-out, and being high on the ball of the foot when dancing. Many forms of dance, such as ballet and ballroom dance, also stress carriage.

Gymnastics
I was surprised that this was as popular as it is, but it seems that it really builds core strength, loads of flexibility, upper body strength necessary for good carriage, and again helps with form (extension of legs, pointing of toes, and being high on the ball of the foot). This trend is mostly seen with the younger guys in Irish dance, although my 13 yr old son is begging for gymnastics. I think it's more just to learn how to do flips for him though.

Many other activities are recommended for conditioning or cross-training. To help sort them, I took a look at what some of the goals in Irish dance are, and tried to group them accordingly.


Good carriage
Carriage has to do with how an Irish dancer holds their upper body. To someone outside of Irish dance, it might seem a cop-out that Irish dancers don't move their arms, but this is deceptive. It is actually far harder to hold one's arms still and rigid and their shoulders back while dancing. It is VERY difficult to travel across a stage and launch oneself off of the floor in many of the moves that an Irish dancer does without using the arms and upper body. Having good carriage requires strong upper body muscles.
Sports and exercises that are good for improving carriage:
Swimming
Pull-ups and Push- ups
Weight- lifting
Gymnastics
Dance-- Ballroom dance and ballet both really stress carriage.
Training oneself to have good posture even when sitting and standing

Stamina
It might seem that an Irish dance is short. It is in comparison with more lyrical forms of dance that use a whole song. Irish dance is fast paced and is more like sprinting than a marathon for sure, but stamina is very important. Looking winded at the end of one's dance or looking confident and cool at the end of a dance can make the difference in judging. Also, having good stamina allows one to concentrate on form and steps rather than breathing.
Sports and activities for improving stamina:
Soccer
Running
Running stairs
Jumping rope

Flexibility
Irish dancers need flexibility. Their lifts, kicks, and overs (an Irish dance move similar to a leap) require straight and high legs.
Sports and activities for improving flexibility:
Yoga
Gymnastics
Pilates
Daily stretching
Karate
Other forms of dance

Form
By form, I mean turn-out, pointed toes, being high on the ball of the foot, and the many other tiny, form-related things that judges look for when Irish dancers compete at feisanna.
Sports and activities for improving form:
Soccer
Gymnastics
Other forms of dance such as ballet

Most moms have said that their children's Irish dance schools are also really pushing core-strength training too. Having good, strong, core muscles through one's mid-section can help with carriage as well as getting legs up fast enough and high enough in front clicks, lifts, and overs. Sit ups are the "old stand by" for core training. Many schools are doing core- strengthening exercises during class time. Some schools are even running conditioning classes as their own separate classes for the Irish dance students. There are also some really nice DVDs that have core- training that are great from beginner on up and provide exercises that are far more imaginative and fun than just sit-ups.

I am sure there are other sports and activities that can be of benefit to Irish dancers that I have missed.

Having a competitive edge, even a small one, is always a boost to confidence. Going into a feis feeling strong and fit and ready to do one's best can give an Irish dancer the confidence they need to succeed. Some moms have personal trainers, but for most of us, our kiddos are getting the skills they need by choosing activities and sports that benefit and improve their form, flexibility, and stamina in their Irish dance.

For my son, we try to switch things up. For stamina on rainy days, he runs stairs and on sunny days, I can hear him jumping rope with a stop watch outside. He'll dribble his soccer ball around parked cars outside or furniture inside, and I know that while he does so, he is training his feet to be turned-out. He also does the standard sit-ups, pull-ups, and push-ups. We're always looking for those cross-training opportunities that are also fun. Being active and staying fit outside of Irish dance just benefits his Irish dancing even more.

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