Can ballet improve your Irish dancing?
It’s a simple question – does doing ballet improve basic Irish dancing skills? There are many similarities between the two art forms – turn out, carriage, grace, poise, extension. But there are also many differences in technique and form. In exploring the pros and the cons, we tapped Mary Lynn Collins-Callanan, an Irish dancing teacher and ballet master, to weigh in.
“Ballet is all about pointing”, says Collins-Callanan. She goes on to explain, “In ballet, so much time is spent practicing how to point. You go from the ball of the foot, to the point, back to the ball of the foot, back to fifth position. In Irish dancing we just teach dancers to point, we don’t teach them to use the balls to the point. As kids get older, you can see that a lot of dancers are pointing, but their toes aren’t pointed – it’s because they have never understood the power of the ball of the foot to the point.
“The thinking behind something as basic as learning how to point properly – ball to point, point to ball, back to fifth – is so critical because it’s firing the muscles that they need to go up from the ball of their foot to their point.” Is this good for Irish dancing? You bet. Learning how to point through the foot, and get up high on your toes, are basic skills that will serve you well in Irish dancing.
Con: Wide Knees
While we pull up in Irish dancing, crossing the knees and keeping the legs tight, ballet dancers are taught to keep the knees wide and steady as they perform fluid movements like plies, bending into the knee and then rising up. Could these wide knees become a problem for Irish dancing? According to Collins-Callanan, “If you’re using ballet as a supplement to help your Irish dancing, you’re not really going to have a wide knee problem. You’re not going to be in it that long, and you’re going to take from it what you need and that will help your Irish.” Wide knees are something that comes from years of training, and if you’re at a point in your ballet training where wide knees becomes a problem, then congratulations because you are obviously very dedicated to your ballet training.
Pro: Leg Lifts
While Irish dancers are often just taught to kick, ballet dancers spend years at the barre perfecting the grand battement, learning how to raise the leg while turning out from the hip, controlling it on the way up and the way down, while using the bottom leg for support. “In ballet, we spend a lot of time talking about how you lift you leg, what muscles you fire, and how you do that safely” says Collins-Callanan. “It’s learning how to control extension. In ballet when you’re teaching a child how to lift their leg, even to 90 degrees, you’re working on the bottom leg that’s supporting you, while also learning how to do that with the absolute turn out coming from the hip.” If you’re not controlling your leg lifts from the hip, you can get injured. Learning how to safely lift your leg up and down with control is a very valuable skill for Irish dance.
Something that most dancers who have done ballet before switching to Irish dancing struggle with is keeping the head still. “In ballet, your head always faces out to the audience, and in Irish dancing it doesn’t.” explains Collins-Callanan. “In Irish dancing, we’re asking the dancers to do really hard turns, but we don’t let them spot.”
“If you’re in a theatre production, like Riverdance, or if you’re in a ballet show, or a gymnast or a skater, you always get theatre time before you actually have to do your performance. And there’s a couple of reasons for that – one is spacing, and figuring out where to move. But as our dancing becomes more complicated, in ballet especially, if you had a solo, you would have to figure out where you were spotting. For Irish dancing, you have to learn how to spin without spotting.” Will ballet training impact your ability to dance without spotting? No, but it might confuse your ballet teacher.
Ballet has many positives and negative for Irish dancers. If you are using ballet purely to enhance your Irish dancing, then be mindful of which exercises are going to help you most and which will actually be a hindrance. Your ballet teacher will know what you need and be able to help you get the most out of the exercises you’re doing in class. If you are serious about both dance forms, then work with your teachers to devise ways to work around the differences.
Do you do ballet as a supplement to your Irish dancing? Or are you a ballet dancer who has made the cross over to Irish dancing? We would love to hear your experience doing both – share in the comments below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.