“I’m jealous. I’d like to be able to dance up on my toes like this”.
My instinctive response was quite horrified (also shows I am out of touch with what Irish step dancers are up to), and I told him that it wasn’t safe to do this without training and knowledge of how to do this properly. After my initial response, I then reflected on why I was horrified. I did ballet for 5 years as a youngster and dancing en pointe (on point or tips of toes) was something you had to be selected to do and undertake considerable training for.
I can see why this style of dance would appeal to those doing Irish step dancing. It is the ultimate in ballet dancing technique – graceful, elegant and with a touch of magic.
Irish step dancing is moving more and more toward ballet style – very pronounced pointed toes, very high leaps, feet in ballet positions – and I suppose this was the logical next step (no pun intended). Since Riverdance broke down the barriers nearly 20 years ago, it seems that Irish step dancing has been increasingly pushing the boundaries of athleticism, speed and spectacle.
However, injuries are very common amongst Irish step dancers – a 7 year US study* of 69 female Irish dancers aged between 8 to 23 years old, recorded 217 injuries across that period. About 30% of these were stress fractures and the study concludes:
“The majority of injuries were overuse type injuries. As the Irish dancers increased in level of competition and number of hours practiced per week, so did the number of injuries per dancer.”
(Incidentally, I am unaware of any research done on Irish set dancers or Irish sean nós dancers, but having been around the scene 15 years or so, anecdotally I know of very few injuries from those styles of dancing.)
So, in a potentially injury-prone style of dance, we also add a whole new dimension of stress. Yes? And what kind of training do dancers get to dance well on point / toe dancing and prevent injuries?
In 2007, Taoknitter blogged the same question, and also provided some excellent information and solutions, including a series of exercises designed to help strengthen the feet muscles, creating more control for the dancer – see photos below. She also recommends Perfect Pointe, a website with plenty of excellent professional, free information about physically preparing for pointe dancing.
Contributing factors to injuries from Irish dance:
- Too much intense repetition
- Lack of strength needed for certain steps
- Lack of technique
- Shoes that don’t support feet properly or give protection
- Floor that doesn’t have enough spring/ bounce to absorb the shock
Some possible solutions for Irish dancers:
- Reduce intensity of training & repetition- sometimes less is more
- Improve physical strength by doing some cross-training – other forms of dance, cardio and strength workouts, running, soccer, etc
- Improve pointe technique – ask questions, seek better training and inform yourselves starting with the TaoKnitter blog and the Perfect Pointe website.
- Shoes – Irish hard shoes are not designed for toe dancing – you will notice how they wrinkle under the arch. Not sure of a solution for this.
- Floor – try to limit dancing on hard floors. Get yourself a practice dance floor that is sprung or has some bounce in it.
- READ MORE OF THE LATEST DANCE INJURY RESEARCH…
I have no problem at all with all you lovely Irish step dancers out there, stretching your arches and reaching for the sky.
Just that I would wish you could do it without injury and long-term damage to your dance future, which, with any luck, will last until your very old age.
* Injury Patterns in Female Irish Dancers (2010) Megan Noon, MD, Anne Z. Hoch, DO, Laura McNamara, BS, Jane Schimke, AAS.