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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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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The Shoes

How to tie Irish dancing soft shoes

Tying soft shoes can be tricky, particularly if you have the type of foot that shoes just don’t want to stay on! As technology advances and the soft shoe manufacturers keep pushing boundaries, the way we tie laces has changed. Many shoes now have two or three eyelets along the side, allowing dancers to tie shoes in a way that is both secure and comfortable. If you’re new to shoes with eyelets, we’re going to walk you through the most effective tying method, courtesy of Ryan and O’Donnell.

If you’re someone who has issues with your heel slipping off, the most important step is the final step – passing your lace around the lace at the back eyelet. This gives you a really secure tie on the foot. Remember, you don’t want to tie the lace around your foot as this can restrict the tendons in the foot and cause cramps. Pamela McDowell, Managing Director for Ryan & O’Donnell, points out, “If you really do prefer tying the lace round your arch we recommend you only do this for competing, and whilst practicing avoid this lacing technique.” If you usually tie your laces around your foot, give this method a try and see if it makes a difference.

Is this how you tie your laces? Do you have a different method that works for you? Share in the comments below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page

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Mental Preparation

How to deal with Post Majors Depression

After all the build up, hard work, stress, and excitement leading up to a major, the days and weeks afterwards can be hard. In fact, the Irish dancing community has coined the term Post Majors Depression to express exactly what it feels like to leave the Irish dancing bubble and go back to the real world. Seasoned majors attendee Conor Ayres ADCRG from the Christine Ayres School of Irish Dance has great advice for both teachers and dancers on dealing with the downtime, and building yourself back up for the next one.

The days after

Ayres points out what everyone knows to be true, “It can be really hard to deal with the comedown from a major! There’s having to say goodbye to the excitement, the adrenaline, and your friends from all over the world that you may only see once or twice a year.” This is not only true for dancers, but for teachers too. “As a teacher, dealing with the comedown after a major is just as important as it is for dancers. It’s best to take a break from dancing completely for at least a week or two. See friends who aren’t involved with Irish dancing, do things for yourself that don’t relate to Irish dancing.” While you may come home full of ideas and enthusiasm for the next one, it’s important to pace yourself. Ayres points out, “Once teachers and students have had that decompression time, you can hit the ground running with new goals, a renewed energy for Irish Dancing. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The last thing you want is to burn out too early because you went too hard.”


One of the toughest parts of majors is moving on if the results aren’t what you expected. “It’s all about moving forward and focusing on a new goal, whether that be qualifying for next year, or aiming for a top place at Nationals, or just aiming for a recall. It’s very easy to get caught up in the hype of a major competition, and it’s overwhelming no matter what”, says Ayres. “For dancers who didn’t recall, it’s good to encourage them to set their sights on more achievable goals to build up their confidence, and get them to work on what they are missing technically – be it turnout, timing, carriage. There’s always something to work harder on.”

Ayres goes on to say that a little inspiration can go a long way. “I like to remind dancers in my classes about specific dancers I know of who place highly at the Worlds who’ve had set backs, or disappointing results, and what they did to improve. It always comes down to sheer determination and hard work, so I think it’s good for dancers to hear real life examples. In particular, there’s a Scottish dancer who put a post on Facebook after Worlds about how at her first worlds she didn’t recall, so she pestered her father to build a practise floor for her at home. She worked hard for a few years and worked her way up to 5th in the World. I think it’s a really inspirational example of how you can turn a disappointment into a real positive. And to have patience. No one is an overnight success.”

On the flip side, there are dancers who take that good result as a sign they can stop working hard. On this, Ayres says, “I just remind them of how hard they worked to get that good result, and therefore they need to work at the same level, if not harder, to keep that result consistent. There are always people behind you who want to knock you off that top spot, so NEVER rest on your laurels.”

Getting balance

The greatest challenge post majors is knowing how much downtime should be allowed, and when to ramp it all back up to prepare for the next major. Ayres points out that downtime is crucial, saying, “I think downtime is so important to decompress. However, you have to keep in mind our Australian feis season is fast approaching (same for the North American, Irish, and UK Oireachtas season), so enjoy 1-2 weeks off – do everything you want to do that you didn’t get to do while training for your major. Get it all out of your system. Then get back to class and get going! I do think dancers come back from majors so inspired due to the exposure of world class dancers that they are motivated to get straight back into training. And from a teacher’s perspective, that’s more than fine as well!”

How do you unwind and then refocus after a major? Do you have a particular routine or timeline that works for you? Share below in the comments, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Note: If you have concerns about your mental health it’s important to seek help from an appropriate source such a Beyond Blue

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Ten easy ways to feel confident on competition day_ready to feis_irish dance_Col
Mental Preparation

Ten easy ways to feel confident on competition day

Walking into the venue on competition day can be intimidating. The hall is big, amazing dancers surround you, and there is a buzz in the air that can instantly zap you of any and all confidence. After months of hard work and preparation, it can all go awry on competition day because you get inside your own head and psyche yourself out. Confidence is the key to a great performance, and having the right tools can make all the difference.

According to Sport Psychologist and Mental Performance Coach Talese Fernbach, “An athlete can’t start to feel confident until they realize what they aren’t feeling confident about.” Fernbach goes on to explain, “Three of the major ‘thoughts’ and/or feelings that steal confidence away from an athlete are: Previous poor performances, feelings of inadequacy, and fear of embarrassment. An athlete needs to identify why they’re not feeling confident and address and counter attack the thoughts and feelings that are sapping their confidence. An athlete wants to close the door on those thoughts and feelings so they can live in a place of quiet, humble confidence.”

Being able to recognise when your confidence is under fire is the first step to managing it. Fernbach advises, “Once you feel self-doubt start to creep in on competition day, you need to recognize those thoughts and feelings. As an athlete, you have to be prepared for when those moments of self-doubt creep up. You need to have a mental toolbox to replace and shut out those thoughts of self-doubt. This is done by having tools in your arsenal that can be used, under pressure, to combat the self-doubt.”

Fernbach has ten things you can call upon when those feelings of self-doubt arise.
• Develop a logical conversation with yourself on why you CAN do it! Focus on the CANS of your performance
• Write down three previous performance moments (defining moments) when you felt invincible
• Write down what strengths you bring to your performance
• Make note of why your coach likes coaching you
• Think about what makes you unique as a performer
• List five things/skills that you do or execute well in your performance/sport
• Write down five positive statements, mantras, or quotes to motivate you
• Give yourself five compliments
• Write down why you value yourself as an athlete and have the right to “shine” in your performance
• Develop a breathing exercise of 5 breathes in through the nose and slow release out through the mouth

Fernbach points out “Any of the above suggestions, which should be reviewed prior to your performance, will leave you focused on the positive. They will keep your head filled with thoughts of the ‘possible’, so the self-doubt has no room to invade your head. They will help you feel capable and release your ability to believe in yourself.”

Whether you attempt one or all of the above in an effort to keep your confidence boosted, Fernbach has this advice, “Build on your little successes to foster an exceptional and mentally confident mind. If you focus on the work, dedication, and enjoyment of the sport, you will usually get your desired outcome. As an athlete, you can always find something positive from which to build that valuable commodity of confidence in yourself. See the progress and improvement. The learning, growing, and confidence building is found in the details of the practice and competition, not the outcome of the score.” Indeed. Your number one competitor should always be yourself.

Does your confidence get shaken on feis day? Do you have any routines or rituals to help you stay focused? Share them in the comments below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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The Feis Look

What you need to know about stage makeup

Stage makeup. It’s fun and exciting and scary and confusing and frustrating and a total nightmare depending on who you are. As you climb up the ranks, the stages get bigger and the lights get brighter, which means the requirements change. Knowing how to get your makeup right for the stage can pull your look together, while getting it wrong gets you noticed for the wrong reason.

What is stage makeup?

According to Pauline McArdle, makeup artist and owner of Feis Fab, “you have to wear a certain amount of makeup, with the right type of makeup. The right application will bring the face to life, to give you a happy and animated look that will be appealing to the judges.” Wearing stage makeup is about looking like yourself, but bolder.

What products do you need?

Knowing how to combat the lights is key. “The lighting in most ballrooms is horrendous, and if you do not apply the right type of makeup in the right way your dancer is going to come off bland and will blend in with the backlights. The fluorescent lighting will wipe them out” says McArdle.

One of the most important things about stage makeup, particularly for a major feis, is endurance. “You need to be able to sustain a look the entire day. You want to be able to go on for your recall, after a whole day of dancing, and still look as fresh as you did at 8:30 in the morning.” When it comes to purchasing products, the key to that endurance is good quality. McArdle acknowledges, “I know it’s not the most reasonable type of stuff! You really need to start with good quality makeup, particularly for foundation and blush. Invest once in a good foundation and a good blush, and that will last you”

Bronzer is also important for fighting the washing out effects of stage lights. McArdle explains, “Bronzer can do a lot for you. It can be used to highlight your cheeks and your natural facial expression. When doing makeup, we ask that the dancer smiles. We see where the cheek bones go and we define that. You want to define your natural expressions, not a frown because a lot of people misapply the blush – they look like they are clowns and they look like they are frowning, and that is not what the judges want to see!”

When talking brands, McArdle says, “We only use MAC because MAC was originally designed for professionals on stage. It was manufactured for stage makeup, that’s where their standard came from, that’s where they started, and it makes perfect sense for us to continue with this brand because it looks the best and the makeup stays on.“

Basic rules of stage makeup

McArdle has a collection of great advice when it comes to getting your makeup right.

  • “You don’t want to wear big bright eye shadow to match your dress, because when you look down that is all the judges are going to see and they will know that you are looking at your feet and not looking ahead.”
  • “The runway look is very big right now – using more natural tones like browns, and getting away from the color matching to your dress that’s very outdated.”
  • “To make the eyes very bright, avoid a lot of heavy mascara, heavy eye shadow, and heavy eyeliner. With natural wide open eyes, an open face and bright lips, it looks like you are smiling and enjoying yourself, which is very pleasing.”
  • “You want to highlight the natural, you don’t want to paint something on that is not there naturally. Putting the blush on the apples doesn’t work for every kid, because not every kid has that facial structure in their cheek bones. You want to follow the natural line of where their cheek bones go so that you lift their face up.”

Please note: Check with your teacher regarding the makeup rules for your organisation. For CLRG, makeup is not permitted for the first two grades, up to and including the under 12 age group worldwide. Makeup (including false eyelashes) is not permitted for dancers up to and including the under 10 age group. Both makeup rules apply to the age group of the competition, not the actual age of the dancer. See the CLRG rule book for rules 4.5 for clarification.

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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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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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The Shoes

Are you making these mistakes with your soft shoes?

When talking about Irish dancing shoes, much is often made of the stress and hassle of breaking in hard shoes – the blisters, the pinching, the stiff soles. It’s easy to forget that soft shoes can be just as tricky! Pamela McDowell, Managing Director for Ryan & O’Donnell answers the most frequently asked questions about soft shoes, with advice on breaking them in, getting the right fit, and making sure they last the distance.

What do I look for?

While soft shoes might not look like much (some leather and shoe lace) there can be a big difference brand to brand. According to McDowell, “There is little support in soft shoes due to the very nature of their design and purpose, however you should still look for what the manufacturer is offering to compensate for this, such as good arch support, shock absorber, and a slightly stiffer base, which will give you more support to get up on your toes and offer some protection.”

When trying them on, McDowell says, “The soft shoes should feel tight and pinch a little, however you should be able to walk in them without any pain and be able to dance in them with a little discomfort to start with – it does not take long to mould soft shoes to your foot, and dancing in them will stretch the shoes out slightly.” The fit is key, particularly when it comes to the heel. “The shoes should also fit snug around your heels and should not be slipping off – the last thing you want is for them to go flying off during a competition! If you find the shoes are loose around your heels, try on a bigger size – it could be that the shoe is not fitting over your heel properly as they are too small in size.”

Should they hurt?

No. They should be tight and your foot should feel supported, but you shouldn’t be in pain. “If the shoes do not feel supportive on your foot, and is very painful or you are not able to walk in them, then either the style or size is incorrect.” McDowell points out that tying the laces correctly during the fitting process is crucial, saying, “When trying soft shoes on, try and tighten up the laces yourself so you will feel how the shoe really fits and looks on the foot – if you need help ask the sales assistant. There are also a few different lacing/tying techniques which every dancer should explore. If you are not tying the shoe properly it will affect your performance and we would suggest you ask the sales assistant the recommended method for lacing any particular style. Do not be afraid to experiment with new lacing techniques when practicing, just because you were shown one way doesn’t mean another might not suit or feel better on your foot.”

Just on lacing, there has long been discussion about whether laces go around the foot or the ankle. “Ryan and O’Donnell do not recommend that you tie the lace around your arch as it is not good for your foot, and is the reason why you often get cramps in your arch as you are restricting your tendons,” says McDowell. She goes on to add, “We have a recommended lace technique which holds the heel on very securely and does not require tying the lace around your arch. If you really do prefer tying the lace round your arch we recommend you only do this for competing, and whilst practicing avoid this lacing technique.”

How do I break them in?

According to McDowell, “Soft shoes should not need much breaking in, especially if you buy the correct size. The best way to break in any shoe is to simply wear them to practice and change shoes half way through – you will soon start to prefer your new shoes over old worn shoes as you will notice the support is better and that your dancing will reflect this.” She goes on to add, “It is also advisable to try out the shoes first of all in the house on carpeted floors as soon as you get them – this will give you an opportunity to confirm it is the correct fit before dancing in them, and give you confirmation that you are wearing the right size/style. If the shoes do not fit right then it should be possible to exchange them if they have only be worn for short period of time on carpeted floor.” Another great piece of advice from McDowell, “It may also help en-route to class that you warm the leather up in your hands and bend the shoes slightly for 10/15mins before wearing them for the first time to class. This will make the leather a little more supple when you put them on at class.”

How do I keep them in good condition?

Soft shoes often seem to stretch and wear out, but the problem could actually be that you’re buying them too small. Truth. McDowell explains, “Try not to buy soft shoes too small – whilst you want a tight fit you shouldn’t drop down several sizes for fear of stretching them out. Soft shoes are essentially a bag of leather and your foot will naturally stretch them out, however if you squeeze your foot into 2 full sizes smaller than your actual size not only are you doing your foot harm but your foot will instantly start to stretch the leather as soon as you wear them. We therefore recommend buying your soft shoes tight so that they pinch when you first put them on, as dancing will stretch the shoes to eventually become a better fit moulded to your foot. Buying soft shoes too small will stretch them out very quickly and they will become floppy very quickly.”

Sizing can be quite confusing when trying to match up a regular street shoe size to a dancing shoe size. “Ryan and O’Donnell soft shoes are small made and already take the above into account, therefore we recommend you buy your correct shoe size or drop down half size for ultra tight fit.”

Not only do you want to buy the right size so they don’t stretch, you need to look after your shoes. “To maintain the shape of soft shoes, regularly putting a clean sock into the toe area will absorb any dampness and help maintain the shape. It is important to air your soft shoes after you have been wearing them otherwise not only will the dampness from your sweaty feet start to break down the leather, but your soft shoes will start to smell bad. We also recommend applying bees wax around the stitching of the soft shoe sole unit as often as possible to help prolong the stitching and reduce wear and tear”, McDowell explains.

How often should soft shoes be replaced?

There are many factors that contribute to how frequently soft shoes should be replaced, such as practice and competing schedule, the floor you dance on, and how ‘hard’ you dance. McDowell says, “We recommend champion dancers should be changing their soft shoes every 3 months if they are practicing as well as competing in them. However some champion dancers will change more frequently than this and we find many top champion dancers tend to like buying new soft shoes at major competitions and wear them to compete in at the same event as they feel more supportive in new soft shoes. For those not competing at Championship level we would advise replacing soft shoes every 4 to 6 months.”

How often do you replace your soft shoes? What brand do you wear? Do you do a particular type of lacing? Comment below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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