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Retired dancer Ryan McCombe shares what he wishes someone told him about Irish dance

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by RYAN McCOMBE

It’s Oireachtas season, and for the first time in a decade and a half, I’m not counting down the days until I stress myself out, or trying to push my body to its limit without going overboard. Instead, I’m thinking about all the random things I’ve learned about Irish dancing along the way. The more I think, the more ideas come up about what makes a great dancer. Here are some things I wish I had been told when I was still dancing.

1. You Don’t Know Your Steps Well Enough

“Sure I do. I can dance them on auto-pilot, right?” Well…maybe not. Can you stop and start every single piece of your dance at any point and end at any point? Can you break things down step by step, remembering to turn out, cross and stay up on your toes?

When I was dancing, I often fell into the habit of learning my dances in chunks, usually the ones that fit with the music. A series of rhythmic bits, a run across the floor. I’d do that part a lot while trying to push my feet out. But why not do it super slow, step by step, pushing every bit out, then faster and faster until you’re up to speed with the dance?

2. Drills. Just do it.
I learned this from talking with a bunch of dancers whose rhythm and placement I admired. I hate drills. They’re repetitive, tiring, and don’t appear to help me get from step 2 ½ to step 3 without dying. So why do them?

Yet everyone had the same guidance for me. “Just drill ’em, man. You’ll get it.” As I said above, break it down slow, and focus on one thing at a time, adding as you go. Start treble drills turned out and crossed, then add lift, followed by a twist or whatever it is you want to make the trebles your way. But be reasonable with the number of trebles you do at a time. No sense killing yourself through technique drills. If you can drill your way into perfect trebles, or perfect leaps or drums, getting your body used to doing every bit just right, it’ll show in your steps. Muscle memory rocks.

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READ MORE:
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3. Stop Thinking About Your Scores, Start Thinking About Your Audience
Ask anyone who knew me as a kid and they’ll describe me as a promising, nerdy 10 year old. As a teenager? A gosh-awful dancer who never got through his steps without messing up.

I was once that little kid who would dance in line at the movie theater, outside in the grocery store parking lot, basically 24/7. I loved dancing, and it showed. But then I started growing, my body got awkward, and it stopped showing.

I spent the next five years trying to get back to where I was before. Every competition, I’d tell myself, “I have to do it this year. If I’m not good, there’s no point.” Which was stupid. I loved, and still love dancing. But I put an intense amount of pressure on myself to score well, that I stopped focusing on my love for the sport.

One day it finally clicked. I stopped saying “I want 100s.” I started saying “I want to be here. These guys are my buddies. Let’s have some fun.” And, magically, my stress levels lowered and I started dancing better.

Irish dancing is a performance first, and a competition second. Perform. Catch everyone in that room’s attention. Trust your feet. That’s why you practice.

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t set goals, but if that goal is the only thing on your mind, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Do your best because you’re ready to rock it, not because a medal validates you. After all, it’s different every day, with every judge, and every group of competitors.

What’s one thing you wish people had told you about Irish dancing that you know now? Share in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Shamrock Photography

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