Category : Fitness and Conditioning

irish dance_ready to feis_why Irish dancers need an off-season
Fitness and Conditioning

5 reasons why Irish dancers need an off-season

One of the most difficult and demanding aspects of competitive Irish dance is the scheduling. With competitions year round, there is no off-season. While this might seem fun, it is important to create your own schedule that includes off-season and preseason – if you try to work at 100% all the time, you will burn out and get injured. Lauren Early, Irish dance trainer and author of the new book Reaching New Heights, explains why it’s so important to create a seasonal structure to your dance training.

To begin with, Early points out the benefits of breaking training down into seasons. “There are many major fundamental reasons why coaches include off-season and in season training into their athlete’s programme, and as dancers or teachers if we are also going to do this we will need to understand the benefits of doing so.” These include:

  • Injury prevention
  • Long-term performance
  • Goal setting
  • Mindset / motivation
  • Peaking at the right time

Of all these reasons, injury prevention might be the most crucial – injuries have the potential to be career-ending, and you won’t need to worry about a training schedule when you’re stuck at home in a boot. Breaking it down, Early explains, “When we are dancing we recruit certain muscle groups to do what we need to do. For example, quadriceps and calves are primary movers in Irish dance. Now, if we train the same way all year round, this means that we are asking the same muscles to work year round with no consideration to the opposing muscle groups that are underused in dancing. This is a fundamental reason why Irish dancing has such a high injury rate.”

This is why off-season training is crucial for injury prevention – you need time to strengthen the opposing muscle groups that aren’t used during the year. If a large amount of energy is spent on the quadriceps during training, the hamstrings need to be strengthened so that they can safely tolerate the power that the quadricep produces. This is called structural balance – where two opposing muscle groups are working equally.

Injury prevention goes hand in hand with long term performance, as Early explains, “The alteration through different training phases from off-season to in season will use different energy systems at different intensities. This alteration gives the body a break from the training type that came before it, and the training that will come next. It will help to avoid overtraining and burnout from too much repetition, and also look after your long term health and performance, meaning you can continue your sport for many years having conditioned yourself properly.”

Off-season doesn’t have to be for months, like football players. In fact, with the schedule of majors on the Irish dance calendar, there is opportunity for two small off-seasons throughout the year, allowing the body to rest, recover, and strengthen before the next competition. For a dancer focusing on three majors per year (Worlds, Nationals, Oireachtas), Early suggests two 4-week off-seasons – January and August. Coupling these with periods of pre-season, in season, and maintenance, you can peak at the right time while also looking after your body and staying mentally and physically fit.

Early explores the five main benefits of a seasonal training program in more detail, including suggested calendars, in her new book Reaching New Heights. Grab her book to explore this more, or pop over to our Facebook page for your chance to win a signed copy.

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irish dance_ready to feis_How to warm up and cool down for dance class
Fitness and Conditioning

How to warm up and cool down for dance class

Stretching is a huge and important part of Irish dancing. Every dancer should be stretching to warm up at the start of class, and stretching at the end of class to look after their body. But not all stretching is equal, and if you do the wrong type of stretching at the start of class, you could actually be doing more harm than good. We’re breaking down the two types of stretching, static and dynamic, and looking at when it’s appropriate to do each type.

Warm up vs cool down

Before looking at the types of stretching, it’s first important to note when and why we stretch – one is your warm up and one is your cool down. Lauren Early, Irish dance trainer and author of the new book Reaching New Heights, explains it best, “The aim of a warm up is to prepare the body for exercise and the movement patterns that are to come. If completed properly, a warm up will improve your heart rate, increase blood flow to the muscles, activate the nervous system and fire up the fast twitch muscle fibres, increasing your speed and contraction times. A warm up will also help release fluid around the joints, which acts as a lubricant for the exercise that is about to come.”

“The aim of a cool down is to prepare the body to stop exercising and resume normal activity. If completed properly, a cool down will lower your heart rate back down to resting levels, clear any waste products that have built up through the training session, such as lactic acid, reduce post exercise stiffness and kick start the recovery process.”

As you can see, the warm up and cool down essentially have opposite goals to each other. Doing the same type of stretching in both won’t achieve their objectives, and could lead to injury.

Static vs dynamic stretching

There are two types of stretching – static and dynamic. As the names suggest, one is about movement, and one is about stretching in place. According to Early, “Dynamic stretching is a method of stretching through continual movement. With dynamic stretching the muscle is not held in an end position, rather it is gradually loosened by taking the muscle through its full range whilst moving.” This is the type of stretching you want to do at the start of class or a practice session, because it prepares the muscle for what is to come. An example of a dynamic stretch is standing leg swings. While holding the wall or a barre, the motion of swinging your leg back and forth prepares the hamstring, as well as the the glutes, hip flexors, lower back, and all the surrounding stabilising muscles in one exercise.

On static stretching, Early explains, “Static stretching is a method used to increase the range of movement through a certain muscle or joint while the body is at rest. If you have poor flexibility and mobility, static stretching can be a great way to actually improve your range of motion. However, as it is completed at rest it is not ideal to carry out prior to exercise. Whilst seated and holding the stretch, your heart rate will be reduced significantly which will deactivate the nervous system and slow blood flow. This is exactly what we do not want to happen directly before we train or go on stage.” Using the hamstring example again, a static hamstring stretch would be sitting on the floor touching your toes. You’re still stretching the hamstring, but the static version is just working that one muscle, and all the surrounding muscles are at rest.

Early’s ideal training session is:

  1. Dynamic warm up
  2. Speed drills
  3. Main component
  4. Static stretch cool down

Early didn’t just create this ideal training session for the sake of it. She explains, “Studies have shown us just how important it is to choose the right kind of stretching before you work out. In fact, studies have actually gone as far as proving that static stretching before you work out can actually reduce your strength. Recent studies show us that movement specific dynamic stretching is much more beneficial for sporting performance and highlight the dangers static stretching can bring if completed before a work out”. To read more about these studies, pick up a copy of Early’s new book Reaching New Heights. We are also giving away one signed copy on our Facebook page, so pop over to enter now!

Do you follow this ideal training session? What kind of warm up and cool down do you do? Share in the comments below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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irish dance_ready to feis_How to effectively use the mirror in dance class
Fitness and Conditioning

How to effectively use the mirror in dance class

Having a dance studio with a mirror can be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you can see what you are working on and make corrections, and a curse because if you’re not using the mirror correctly then you can become dependent on it, or worse, throw yourself off your game. The key is knowing how to use the mirror correctly to get the most out of it when you need it, and ignoring it when you don’t.

Craig Ashurst, TCRG at the Ashurst Academy of Irish Dance and a professional show dancer, rightly points out, “you are not provided a mirror for yourself at a feis so it is a good idea to know how to dance with one and also dance without one. Dancers need to ‘feel’ what the dance should be like and not always ‘see’ it.” Being able to feel what the dance should do is critically important – constantly watching yourself means you are relying on visual cues rather than knowing where your body is and how it feels to perform a movement using your inbuilt sensors (your proprioceptors).

But isn’t the mirror there so I can watch myself?

Yes and no. Ashurst says, “When I demonstrate something for a student, I like them to study what I’m doing prior to watching themselves copy it. Sometimes, very young students have a hard time taking their eyes away from the mirror when they dance, so close attention is needed by the teacher to make sure the dancers are looking at the right part of their body and not checking out their face or hair.” The mirror is great for helping to learn choreography so you can see things from all angles, but should be an extra tool and not relied on as the sole learning device.

If you’re going to use the mirror:

  • Use it to learn a step by watching your teacher or classmate
  • Use it to make sure your form is correct during drills and stretches
  • Watch yourself in short bursts to correct your posture or turnout

Do use the mirror for drills and breaking down steps. Don’t use the mirror to watch yourself perform full steps. Ashurst points out, “When performing a full dance, your body direction changes so frequently that it can be counterproductive to use the mirrors during this time as you have to change your alignment just to watch yourself in the mirror.” Attempting to watch yourself can create bad habits, like turning your head, or keeping your eyes down when you dance because you have trained yourself to look down at your feet.

It’s also counterproductive to rely on the mirror when looking at spacing and lines in ceili teams. If you’re dancing in the team and also trying to look in the mirror, then you’re not looking at it from an objective angle and your lines and spacing will be distorted. Ceili dancing is a great example of learning your spacing by feel and motion rather than by sight in a mirror. Using the mirror can be useful when you’re learning a choreography and establishing spacing, particularly for movements where the whole team is facing the mirror, but by using it all the time there is the risk of reliance. Remember, there are no mirrors on stage!

Do you have a mirror in your dance studio? Do you use it all the time or just for certain exercises? Share in the comments below or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Ed note: updated to reflect Craig’s new school
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Fitness and Conditioning

Irish dancing and plantar fasciitis – what you need to know

When you’re participating in a sport where you jump really high at top speed and beat the ground with your toes repeatedly, injuries are a fact of life. One such common injury is plantar fasciitis – it affects the foot and can be quite painful, particularly if left untreated. That said, treatment can be quite simple and dancers can easily manage it and keep dancing.

What is it?

“Plantar fasciitis is the inflammation of the tendon of the foot’s plantar fascia muscle as it inserts into the calcaneus (heel bone)”, explains Stephanie Geraghty, Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist at Queen Street Physiotherapy. “This is a common injury that we see on a daily basis, and can be the result of many different factors.” Geraghty goes on to say, “Individuals will often experience a pain at the base of the foot which feels like they are walking on a stone. Pain is often at its worst first thing in the morning, when moving from sit to stand, beginning exercise, or when the person is cold.”

What causes it?

Talking about the causes of this affliction, Geraghty points out, “the most common reason someone would be experiencing plantar fasciitis would be due to the foot falling into an over-pronated position. This is when the foot falls inwards and the arch collapses repeatedly.” Over pronation is fairly common, occurring in over 80% of the population. If you’re experiencing the types of pain described, Geraghty says, “physiotherapists will complete a thorough subjective and objective assessment in order to correctly diagnose the condition and what muscle imbalances or structures need to be addressed in order to relieve the patient of the pain.”

How is it treated?

When it comes to treating and healing plantar fasciitis, “Physiotherapy treatment often consists of deep tissue massage, trigger point therapy, ultrasound and at times, dry needling”, says Geraghty. There are definitely ways to treat and manage it at home as well. She explains, “a home based stretch and strengthening exercise programme is always administered with appropriate advice to fit with the stage of injury. Specific exercises and stretches generally include; calf raises, bridging exercises to build strength at the glute and hamstring muscles, and stretches for both the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles which make up the calf complex.” There is also another fun way to relieve pain – rolling the foot on a frozen bottle of water! “Rolling on a bottle of iced water is often advised”, Geraghty reveals, “alongside good footwear, and if need be, orthotics may be indicated or advised.”

Have you had plantar fasciitis? How did you treat it? Do you have any advice you can share? Leave a comment below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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Fitness and Conditioning

How to get strong enough for toe work

Going up on toes, or en pointe, in hard shoes for the first time can be confusing and scary. Will I fall? Is this safe? Is my foot even meant to do that?! There are rules* in place about when a dancer is allowed to go up on toes in hard shoe, and with good reason – when growth plates are still developing in the foot, toe work can cause growth-plate fractures, which can lead to foot deformities. No thanks.

Similar to ballet dancers going en pointe, Irish dancers must be trained in correct technique and gradually build up to toe stands. Toe work, with the momentum of Irish dance, puts the weight of the entire body onto the feet, toes, and ankles with great force. Not only do dancers need strong toes, ankles, and feet, but they need strong cores to maintain correct posture and distribute weight evenly – poor posture can put undue stress on the weight-bearing joints.

The key to toe stands is strong ankles, calves, and feet. Stephanie Geraghty, Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist at Queen Street Physiotherapy, points out that “Ankle and foot exercises are very effective for dancers, and are often administered by physiotherapists.” Whether you’re preparing to do toes for the first time, or you’re a seasoned dancer, these physio-approved exercises will help you build and keep the strength you need.

Calf raises

According to Geraghty, “calf raises to strengthen the calf are number one”. Standing with feet hip width apart, slowly raise up onto toes and slowly lower back down to return to standing. This exercise can be made more challenging by standing on the edge of a step, heels off the step, raising and lowering.

Toe walks and heel walks

Walking around on toes and on heels is great for “co-ordination and strength”, says Geraghty. This exercise is simply walking around the room up on tip toes and then down on heels, being mindful of balance and foot placement. Balance is crucial when up on toes, as wobbly balance or poor foot placement to compensate for bad balance will put needless strain on joints.

Toe scrunches

“Toe scrunches are an exercise we often use to build the strength of the intrinsic foot muscles and to create a natural arch at the foot”, explains Geraghty. Either sitting or standing, place a towel under the foot, and scrunch it up just using toes. A strong arch is important for the foot holding its shape when on toes, rather than being bent by the shoe, particularly if a dancer is wearing a super flexi shoe.

Balance exercises

Balance exercises are important to “work on proprioception, which is a person’s ability to know where their body is in space”, says Geraghty. Drills such as standing on a wobble board or catching a ball quickly while standing on one foot help increase balance and will give better control when going up on toes.

What about taco toes?

There is a common phenomenon amongst dancers known as ‘taco toes’, where feet overbend in toe stands, rather than being straight and strong. This is caused by a combination of unsupportive shoes, and weak feet and ankles. This poor technique causes repetitive strain, with both short and long term damage taking place. Geraghty explains, “Overstretching the ligaments and tendons can be very debilitating and painful in the short term and in the long term; ongoing stress of this position on the joint can put the person as risk of developing osteoarthritis at an earlier age at that particular site.” (editor’s note: I developed osteoarthritis in both big toes in my early 20s as a result of years of poor toe stand technique, and standing on the knuckles of my toes in my soft shoes – don’t ever do this!)

Do you do toe work? Do you have any advice or exercises you can share with dancers who are just starting out on toes? Share in the comments below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

*An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha rule 4.6 on Toe Movements reads: 4.6.1 No block, en Pointe movements, stationary or moving, are allowed to be performed for all ages up to and including the under 12 age group. 4.6.2 However dancers who are moving into the under 13 age group in January will be permitted to do block / en-Point work from September 1st of the year prior to this date. For Regions in the Southern Hemisphere a different date may be applied in the case of this rule, on the advice of the appropriate Authority.

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irish dance_ready to feis_stamina irish dancing_cross training_lauren early
Fitness and Conditioning

Are you training smart? Understanding stamina

If you have ever been to an Irish dancing class (assume that’s why you’re here?) then you would have heard talk of stamina – “gotta get your stamina up! gotta get through your dance!”. The first step to working on your stamina is understanding exactly what it is. There are different types of stamina, and you want to make sure you’re adopting the correct training system for Irish dancing.

Anaerobic vs Aerobic Training

First, let’s make clear the difference between aerobic and anaerobic training. Lauren Early, 6-time World Champion and Irish Dancing trainer, describes aerobic exercise as the body exercising “in a steady controlled state, long and moderate enough for oxygen to be present and carbon dioxide to be produced.” In terms of figures, it’s exercise of two minutes up to marathon. “If competing in an aerobic sport, the athlete must make aerobic training a priority and structure it accordingly. It would be much more beneficial for the athlete to train over longer periods with short or no rest periods similar to that of the sport”, says Early.

Conversely, anaerobic exercise is the body exercising “with no oxygen present, resulting in lactic acid being produced”, Early explains. “Because of the fast paced nature of anaerobic sport it predominately uses our fast twitch muscle fibres, therefore it would be much more beneficial for the athlete to train with short and intense bursts of speed, power and aggression for shorter periods and taking longer rest periods to ensure the intensity can be kept high.” Exercise up to two minutes falls in the lactic acid zone, and this includes Irish dancing – the average dance is 40-60 seconds, performed at high intensity.

Training smart

Just like a sprinter wouldn’t train like a marathon runner, training programs need to be tailored for specific outcomes. Early muses, “I see people running for 40 minutes a day and cycling for 1 hour under the impression that it is going to aid them over a 60 second event. Training that long will produce very little lactic acid as the intensity is so low, then we step on stage and fill up with lactic acid very quickly. We then put this down to our fitness being poor and the same process happens again.

“What we actually need to improve is your ability not to fatigue once maximal speed has been achieved. This ability to maintain speed, power, and posture right through the 60 seconds will not come from improved stamina but will come from improved lactic acid tolerance – your ability to keep going at a high pace for longer.

“Remember as we are only on stage for up to 60 seconds it is not our goal to have the ability to go on forever with minimal intensity, it is our goal to go for a short period of time with maximal intensity. Think of yourself as a sprinter – a sprinter will never want lots of stamina or fitness but they will want lots of power, speed and maximum acceleration. Remember you can have volume or you can have intensity but you cannot have both – in other words you can run slow for a long period of time or you can run fast for a short period – don’t be the dancer training to dance for a long period of time, be smart and be the dancer training to go fast for a short period of time!”

Making it count

There is an inverse relationship between intensity and volume. “As intensity rises, volume must drop, and the opposite is also true, if volume rises the intensity must drop to allow for more volume. In order to complete a dance round lasting 10 minutes the intensity would have to be significantly reduced”, Early points out.

Early describes two session plans to highlight the difference between training the two energy systems:

Marathon Runner                          400m Sprinter / Dancer
Exercise: 1 x 10k run Exercise: 8 x 200m sprints
Recovery: None Recovery: 3 minutes between runs
Intensity: Low Intensity: High
Volume: High Volume: Low
Session Time: 40 minutes Session Time: 40 minutes

“Both sessions last around 40 minutes, however you will see that the endurance runner has no recovery therefore intensity must be low for him to complete 40 minutes of continuous exercise.

“The sprinter’s session also lasts around 40 minutes, however after every 200m is completed the sprinter receives a 3 minute break. This allows him to attack each run with maximum intensity, enough to create a lactic acid build up effect similar to race conditions.”

Early is careful to point out, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with cardio training. This is strictly about the most optimal way to train for competitive Irish dance. Irish dancers are fast paced athletes that need to focus on the development of our speed, power, height, posture, flexibility, and lactic acid tolerance, similar to competition conditions and expectations. To improve these key areas of our sport they must be incorporated into our training programs outside of dancing.”

Do you cross train? What other exercises do you incorporate into your training schedule? Have you seen improvements in your dance performance? Share your experience in the comments below or join the conversation on Facebook.

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Everything you need to know about sharpness_ceili moore_irish dance sharpness_ready to feis
Fitness and Conditioning

Everything you need to know about sharpness

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.

Plyometric Training

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

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

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.

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How to turn out correctly and avoid injuries irish dancing ready to feis
Fitness and Conditioning

How to turn out correctly and avoid injuries

One of the fundamental basics of Irish dancing is turnout. While keeping your arms down and crossing your feet might come a little easier, many dancers struggle for years to get their toes turned out properly. Many dancers force turnout from the ankle or the knee, which is not only incorrect form, but the quickest way to cause injuries. We look at the anatomy of Irish dancing turnout to make sure you’re turning out correctly.

Turn out comes from the…

HIP. According to Jennifer Denys, Registered Physiotherapist who works with Canada’s National Ballet School, “Despite the observable change of the feet orientation when a dancer is ‘turned out’, turnout is actually a turning movement at the hip joint.” Denys goes on to say, “This is your skeleton’s movement point that forms between your femur (thigh bone) and a socket within your pelvis. The beautiful round ball at the top of your thigh bone is meant to simply spin outwardly within a complimentary bowl-like socket. The whole leg follows suit, displaying feet where the toes are pointing outwards in what we call ‘turnout’.”

So not the ankles?

No. “While turned out dance positions are named for what the feet look like, it should be the hip joint at the very top of the leg that rotates the entire leg to reveal the new positions. When done properly this way, all the bones of the leg and foot remain in alignment. This line up is not only beautiful with the knees lined up over the toes, but is one of the most essential ways to prevent a plethora of lower leg and foot dance injuries.” Essentially, forcing turnout from the ankles or the knees is the quickest way to get on the injured list. “One of the biggest reasons dancers get injured is because, with this fake turnout strategy, the knee does not line up over the center of its foot. Instead, the knee is hovering over the inside of the foot.

“The strain on the body in this poor line-up is intense. It can show up as pain and/or injuries starting at the toes, foot arches, ankles, and moves all the way up to the knees, hips and even the back. This fake turnout strategy also makes your body less stable causing your muscles to ‘grip’ around your hip to keep you standing and prevent you from falling over. Not only should these muscles at the front and side of your hip not be engaged in this way during true turnout, they will get tight from being overused and limit your hips’ true movement. Increased likelihood for injury and decreased turnout…. sounds like a big deal to me!” Indeed.

How do I get proper turnout?

Denys explains, “When you learn to rotate your thigh bone within the hip socket found within your pelvis, the optimal muscle recruitment should be a group of muscles known as the deep rotators. Though each of these muscles has a big name of their own, they have this ‘deep rotators’ family name.

“The deep part of the name is because each of these muscles are deeper inside you than the gluteus muscles you can feel on the outside. In fact, they are underneath the three thick gluteus muscles at the back of your hip.

“The rotator part of the name is because each of these muscles is dedicated to the job of rotating the head of the thigh bone (femur) on the hip socket. How wonderful to have these amazing muscles dedicated to turnout!”

You can read more about turnout on the ellephysio website.

Do you struggle with turnout? Has it caused you injuries? Share your comments below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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Fitness and Conditioning

Irish dancing and shin splints – what you need to know

Shin splints. If you haven’t had them yourself then you undoubtedly know someone who has. Shin splints and Irish dancing seem to go hand in hand and are probably the most common reason Irish dancers spend so much time at physiotherapy clinics. Beyond knowing that they cause a lot of pain in the shin, how much do you really know about shin splints? David Micallef, an APA Sports Titled Physiotherapist from Physiohealth Melbourne who has worked with the Australian Irish Dancing Association to help them understand leg injuries and reduce the injury rate in this sport, talks through the basics.

First things first, Micallef tells us “Shin splints is an old term for shin pain, which most Sports Medical Practitioners now term ‘Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome’ (MTSS).”

Cause of Pain

According to Micallef, “The exact source of pain from MTSS is actually unknown, however there are many theories. It is commonly believed that shin pain is a continuum affecting firstly the tendons of the calf and deep toe flexor muscle groups as they attach onto the tibia (shin bone). As the syndrome deteriorates it affects the bone lining (periosteum) and eventually it can cause bone stress and eventually stress fracture of the bone. The role of the 2 calf muscles, soleus and gastrocnemius, are important factors in developing shin pain.” Ouch.

Factors causing MTSS

There are many factors involved in MTSS – Micallef explains some of the common factors are:

  • Flat feet
  • Poor mid-foot arch control (in standing, but also when up on toes)
  • Increased training intensity
  • Poor footwear
  • Hard training surface
  • Reduced calf endurance and strength
  • Over training – not just at Irish dancing but also all other sporting activities

“Clinically the most common things I find when I assess Irish dancers is a combination of many factors, e.g. a dancer reports increased pain associated with increased training at Irish dancing, plus he or she may also have done cross country or some other jumping activity at school. This causes associated muscle fatigue and overload of the tibia. Often the dancer may spend lots of time in poor footwear such as thongs (flip flops) or [runners that don’t offer adequate support]. Often when assessed they have very tight muscles to palpate, they often cannot control the arch of their foot when standing on 1 leg, may have poor balance and foot stability especially when rising up on toes. A vicious cycle occurs when an unstable foot and a weak, fatigued calf place even greater stress on the underlying small muscles in the leg and place additional stress on the shin bone.”


Sorry dancers, bad news on this one. “Often the best treatment for shin pain is deep massage and modified training load or rest which is certainly effective, especially in the short term”, says Micallef.

“For a longer term cure, your physiotherapist must also assess your ability to control the arch of your foot in standing and when up on toes, and guide you through a calf strengthening program, ensuring there is good foot control as well as maintaining good hip, pelvic and trunk control so that your foot is not placed under additional stress.”

While there is no obvious cause of shin pain, there is also no obvious solution. If you are having shin pain the best course of action is to be assessed by a physiotherapist. Micallef concludes, “As you can see, a good rehabilitation program will entail not only looking at the foot and shin but also calf strength, lower limb alignment and core strength to ensure you recover fully from ‘shin splints’ and stay on the dance floor.”

Have you had shin splints? How did you treat them? What advice can you share with other dancers? Share below or weigh in over on our Facebook page.

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How to manage an Irish dancing ankle injury - ready to feis - irish dance
Fitness and Conditioning

How to manage an Irish dancing ankle injury

In 2010, when engineers at Coventry University found that an Irish dancers’ ankles have to bear 14 times their bodyweight when performing certain movements like rocks, it merely confirmed what we all knew already – that Irish dancing is incredibly physically demanding, particularly on the ankles. Unfortunately that demand often comes with injuries, and if an injury isn’t treated correctly then it can end a career.

Take time off

First things first, if you’re injured then you need to take time off. With busy feising schedules, taking time off can be difficult (and heartbreaking) for many dancers. According to Tai-Lei Benson, a sports chiropractor with a Masters in Chiropractic and many Australian national titles under her belt, rest is essential before you can rebuild. “With adequate rest, a rehabilitation program can then be introduced to improve joint range of motion and maintain muscle strength.” Resting also means lots of self management. Benson recommends that if you’re dealing with an ankle injury, you can:

  • Follow the RICE protocol during the initial phases of injury (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation)
  • Wear compression socks to help reduce swelling
  • If severe, avoid weight bearing so the injured ankle can heal faster
  • Consult your GP or pharmacist for anti-inflammatories to help reduce swelling
  • Visit a health practitioner such as a chiropractor or physiotherapist to help aid your recovery. Treatment options may include soft tissue releases, joint mobilisations, dry needling and rehabilitative exercises

Build back up

Being out of dance class with an injury doesn’t mean you need to sit quietly on the couch feeling sorry for yourself. According to Benson, there are many options you have for maintaining your strength and fitness while not aggravating your injury. “Hydrotherapy (pool sessions) are extremely effective, light resistance work with therabands, pilates or yoga classes. Each of these options, when tailored correctly, put little stress on the injured area. It is important to consult a health practitioner when starting a home rehabilitation program, as they can design it to your particular injury and specific goals.”

Pace yourself

Going back to class after an injury can be a struggle – there is always the very real fear of re-injury, particularly if the injury occurred from a specific leap or step. Benson advises a progressive approach when returning to dancing. “When returning from an ankle injury, avoid aggravating activities such as soft shoe, and toe work in hard shoe. Once you build up some basic strength in the ankle, then you can slowly begin re-introducing aggravating activities.” While it may seem frustrating, it is best to take it slow and steady. “There is no specific timeline when returning from injury. It is important to listen to your body, as every injury is different.”

Have you had an ankle injury? How did you handle going back to class? Tell us in the comments below, or share on our Facebook page

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