One of the skills that sets great dancers apart from the rest is sharpness. Getting that leg up and down quickly, snapping it into place, making every movement distinct – it’s not an easy skill to master, and can take some hard work to get it right. Lauren Early, six time World Champion and Irish dance coach, is breaking down sharpness to make it achievable.
First let’s clarify what we mean when we say sharp.
According to Early, “Whilst speed is the ability to move from A to B in the fastest time possible, sharpness is the ability to move from A to B with complete accuracy. Simply put, the combination of speed and strength = power / sharpness”. Relating this to Irish dancing moves, it’s getting cuts quickly up to the hip and back down again, getting kicks up with a straight leg and pointed foot, and snapped back down again in time with the music.
“To achieve great sharpness and power you must have efficient mechanics of movement to get you from A to B using the most economical movement technique to get you there. Factors such as your power to weight ratio, structural balance and proprioception (a sense of how your body is positioned) will all be key in achieving great sharpness.
“For a sport such as Irish dancing where technical accuracy is vital for success, it is important that we not only develop our speed base but go on to improve our agility skills such as balance, coordination, and strength so that we also have great sharpness and pinpoint accuracy on stage.” says Early.
So what’s next?
Early points out, “Unfortunately within the dancing world we tend to hear that stamina is such an important factor in our success. The truth is whilst stamina is important in an ‘off season’ to build a solid foundation, too much aerobic exercise done for too long will prevent you from developing maximal speed, power and sharpness. Why? When we complete long endurance training the brain tends to organise muscle contractions in that manner – slow and cyclical movements repeated over and over. Just look at a marathon runner and how robotic like they run as their brain organises the same contractions and movements time an time again.”
This makes so much sense, right?
Early goes on to explain, “The problem with dancers trying to improve their power and sharpness is that if we are training the muscles to contract in a slow robotic form it is extremely hard for them to suddenly switch and produce high force ballistic movements when they are not trained in that manner. To enable a dancer to be sharp we must train in such a manner that requires high force ballistic movements in all directions involving acceleration, deceleration, and lift off the ground. To prove this theory take a long distance runner and try get them to complete shuttle runs. They cannot organise the co-ordination, speed, and sharpness required, so while trying they will look like they are jogging around the cones at a poor pace. But they have great stamina. See the difference?
“A Japanese study completed several years ago showed us that the more we increase our V02 max the more our vertical jump decreases. Another study completed in Finland showed that completing aerobic work will make the body slower at anaerobic work. To put simply if we train one area it will take away from the opposing area.
“This is where dancers need to arrange their year into different phases. An off season is great to work on stamina, however pre-season and in-season phases must be centred around speed, power, and sharpness development so the body can adapt to the difference in the muscle contractions required.”
Let’s talk muscles
“Muscle fibres in the body consist of either fast twitch or slow twitch muscle fibres. Most of us will be born with a balance of the two while some are born with a higher percentage of one than the other,” explains Early.
“What do they do? Fast Twitch muscle fibres are responsible for producing explosive power and sharpness with fast reaction times. A well trained dancer should be able to react in a split second and be at optimal speed over a very short distance in a very short space of time. Whilst they are able to produce a lot of force and power, fast twitch muscles are not designed to last for long periods of time, therefore will only work over shorter distances.
“Slow twitch muscle fibres have the opposite job – they are responsible for cyclical movements over a long distance. They organise contractions in quite a slow manner as the aim is to last for long periods – slow twitch muscle fibres will not want to expend a lot of energy therefore they will not complete any fast powerful movements requiring a great deal of energy at once.”
Early sums it up neatly – “Which do you think is more important in a dancer? Is it more important to be sharp and powerful over a short period of time or to be slow and cyclical for long periods of time?”
“If we look at competitive Irish Dancers we know it is a short distance event requiring high force movements with power and acceleration. The time duration that we are on stage equates to that of a 400m track runner. We experience the same amount of lactic acid build up over this time period and go through acceleration speed and power production. All the things that slow twitch muscle fibres are not responsible for.
“You can be the fittest dancer in the world, but if you cannot fire up those fast twitch muscle fibres and accelerate at top force across the stage you will be left behind. Yes you may be able to continue dancing all day with great stamina but that is not the goal of a competitive dancer. It is not good enough to train hard we must train smart to allow us to reach our optimal potential.”
How to get sharp
Early has outlined three types of training that will help fire up fast twitch muscle fibres.
Plyometrics are exercises that force the muscle to exert maximum force in a short period of time with the goal of increasing power sharpness and vertical jump. This training forces the muscle to learn how to extend and then contract in a fast explosive manner. ie. develop the elastic strength of the muscle
Examples of plyometric training: Box jumps, single leg hops, and hurdle bounds
Agility training is completing movements that require you to change direction whilst keeping balance, speed, and co-ordination. Agility is not just about changing direction but about completing it in such a technically perfect manner whilst going through phases of acceleration, deceleration and all directions without loss of speed or power
Examples of agility training: Multi directional cone drills – figure of 8, shuttle runs
Sprint Training is the best way to improve your reaction time, explosive power, acceleration and achieve top speed over a short distance. All things we need to achieve across the stage! Start with longer distances on the track – up to 400m to improve your lactic acid threshold. As competition nears reduce the distance and increase the speed, finishing with 20-40m sprints pre-competition leaving you going into the competition as fast and as sharp as possible!
Examples of sprint training: 4 x 400m runs pre season, 8 x 60m sprints in season.
Have you tried any of these exercises? Are you a dancer that has sharp technique or is this something you’re working on? Share your comments below or join the conversation on our Facebook page.