“It takes an athlete to dance, but an artist to be a dancer.”
Irish dancers are clearly athletes in the degree to which they require the athletic physical capacities to perform at a high level.
What once was a laid-back traditional dance style, Irish dance has evolved into an aesthetic and athletic art form that at the elite level requires all the elements of top sporting performance – strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility, mobility, coordination and balance, postural control, anaerobic and aerobic energy utilization, muscular strength and endurance.
When I approach the task of developing a young dance athlete the first thing I do is create a needs analysis to determine which physical attributes, and strength characteristics need to be developed, enhanced or improved for the stated goals. I then do an individual screening assessment to determine where the athlete is in relation to those goals.
PHYSICAL FITNESS REQUIRMENTS OF IRISH DANCE
Strength, power and speed
At the elite level Irish dance involves a series of complex and athletic movements including powerful jumps, single leg hops, short intense bursts of (rhythmic) speed, postural strength/control, acceleration in multiple directions, 360 degree rotations, strong fast muscle contractions, dancing on toes, foot & ankle strength.
Energy demands of Irish dancers
The duration of performance varies amongst the Irish dances, but in general, the light and heavy round can last between 60-90s, with ample recovery time in between rounds. Some solo set dances can last up to 2 mins or more.
Both the explosive nature of the sport and short duration of each dance round means that the main supply of energy in the form of ATP (the fuel your muscles run on) is via the anaerobic glycolytic energy system with a significant rate of lactate accumulation.
Irish dancers require the ability to maintain postural control in the upper extremity, when performing dynamic dance movements. In the upper body strong bracing of core is required to maintain a static upper body, with shoulders retracted and no upper body rotation.
Flexibility, mobility, stability
Irish dance is an aesthetic sport, which demands large ranges of motion at the hip and optimal hamstring flexibility. The evolution of the sport has seen increases in range of motion required when performing physically demanding moves such as front clicks and birdies. What is also key for Irish dance athletes is the ability to stabilize and control those range of motions that you have access to.