In 1995, the iconic show Riverdance introduced a global audience to the distinctive form of Irish step dance, with its fast-flying feet, ramrod-straight arms and vertical posture. The production, which celebrated its 20th birthday this year and is still touring, brought the form into the mainstream. Today, Irish step dance classes can be found at studios across the country, and students compete internationally in the style. But even if you don’t aspire to one day join Riverdance—or another of the many professional companies that draw on Irish step dance traditions—try a class! It could improve your musicality, stamina and even your ballet technique.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Riverdance (photo by Jack Hartin, courtesy Riverdance)
Develop Your Musicality
Irish step dance movements tend to emphasize a clear downbeat, which can be helpful for dancers struggling with musicality. And because Irish step dance competitions have strict regulations regarding the dancers’ music choices, classes emphasize repetition, frequent drilling of standard vocabulary and clarity of execution—all of which can improve your rhythm. “A dancer’s timing has to be extremely clear,” says Liam Harney, founder of the Harney Academy of Irish Dancing in Walpole, MA. “Our routines stick to the same time signatures of 4/4 hornpipes or 6/8 jigs, and in class, we use metronomes to regulate speed.” When steps repeat over a period of time, you’ll learn to stay true to the tempo, rather than speeding up (a tendency for novice dancers).
Build Your Stamina
There are two styles of Irish step dance: hard shoe (made famous by Riverdance’s long line of dancers pounding out the beat in unison) and a more buoyant soft shoe. Both, however, are fast. “The steps are all generally very quick—like a constant and percussive petit allégro,” Harney says. Typically, competitive routines are less than two minutes long, but the choreography is highly aerobic.
Drilling the steps in class can be a great workout. “It’s certainly a cardiovascular challenge,” says Melissa Padham-Maass, who has taught Irish step dancing at the Joffrey Ballet School’s Character Dance Summer Intensive in NYC. If you get winded during performances or after a long grand allégro combination, jumping into an Irish step dance class can help—and it’ll be more fun than spending an hour on the treadmill.
Sharpen Your Ballet Technique
Mary Kate Sheehan, a former championship dancer with the Harney Academy who has performed with the modern dance–based Seán Curran Company, says that her Irish-dance training improved her ballet technique. “I’ve found that Irish step dance can even help your pointework,” she says. “It works your feet and ankles so you can get all the way over your box and be really stable.” Irish step dancers constantly work in relevé, and many of the form’s traditional movements largely depend on foot and ankle strength. Side rock-steps, for example, require dancers—starting from a position similar to relevé in fifth—to shift their weight from side to side, rolling over their ankles and testing their lateral strength and flexibility.
Trent Kowalik, who played one of the original Billys in Broadway’s Billy Elliot, trained in both tap and Irish step dance growing up. At the age of 15, he began studying ballet intensively at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre and found that his Irish step dance training gave him easily transferrable skills. “My ballet teachers commented on my posture, especially during petit allégro,” Kowalik says. “Jumping in Irish dance taught me how to activate my core—you don’t get to use your arms to help you move.” There’s also no plié in Irish step dance, which “really forces you to use your core when rebounding off the floor,” Kowalik adds.
Become More Versatile
Tackling the challenges of Irish step dance can help increase your overall adaptability as a dancer. And it’s no secret that versatility is key in today’s job market, when dancers are expected to know and do it all. Just take it from Padham-Maass, who directs a contemporary ballet collective and has performed with companies rooted in both Irish step and African dance: “The more styles you know, the more stage time you’ll have—and that’s what we all live for!”
Competition dancers work hard to polish their routines. But when they’re finally backstage on the big day, even the veterans can start to doubt themselves. Below, nine professional dancers (all former comp kids!) share the tricks they use to keep cool in these crucial moments.
Joey Dowling at NYCDA in 1995
Joey Dowling, master teacher/choreographer
“Focus on the things you can control—it will make you feel more powerful. When I was competing, I tried not to watch anyone else. I’d go in the corner and only worry about what I came there to do. I would listen to music that put me in a good mood, like Cyndi Lauper or Madonna. Then I would lie on the floor and envision my solo and how I wanted it to go.”
Corey Snide performing at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals in NYC
Corey Snide, Juilliard student
“Whenever my friends from my studio and I got butterflies at competition, we would make butterflies with our hands on each other’s stomachs, then slap them away and say, ‘Bad butterflies! Bad butterflies!’ Silly as it is, I’ve done it since I was 6, and it works.”
Dusty Button as Queen of the Dryads in Boston Ballet’s production of Don Quixote
Dusty Button, Boston Ballet
“I remind myself that everyone in the audience and on the stage is in the same position. In life, everyone is a person first, before they’re a dancer, a judge or an audience member. The audience is forgiving most of the time, because they’re people, too. They are there to enjoy your performance, and it’s so much more fun watching someone who is enjoying herself than someone who is worked up.”
Maggie Darlington at the Western Region Oireachtas world qualifiers in 2009
Maggie Darlington, Riverdance
“Having good company backstage eases my nerves, whether it’s a friend or a teacher. When I competed with teams, we would feed off of each other’s energy—jumping up and down, talking to each other and giggling—instead of thinking about the competition.”
"I do push-ups and big jumps right before I perform to get my blood pumping. The moment you step onstage is a huge rush—it’s great to get a head start on that energy.”
Haylee Roderick (center) with Center Stage Performing Arts Studio
Haylee Roderick, commercial dancer
“Right before we went onstage, my team and I would get together and say a prayer to remember why we were there. We were so close, like a family, so we would dedicate our dances to each other. Dancing for one another instead of a gold medal made the performance feel much more worthwhile.”
Neil Haskell in Bring It On: The Musical
Neil Haskell, Bring It On: The Musical
“I don’t run through routines or sing lyrics beforehand, because I know if I forget them backstage, it will freak me out and then I won’t be able to remember them onstage. I just try to relax and trust myself. And I know if I do mess up, there are other people onstage who have my back and will be able to cover for me. Knowing that makes me much more comfortable.”
“My mom is my biggest supporter, and she told me to tap my foot three times if I got nervous. When I was standing in the wings waiting to go on and heard them call my name, I would get really anxious. But then I would tap my foot three times, and it would calm me down.”
“As a kid, I was superstitious. I would do a really good warm-up by myself, and then I’d take a moment with my dance teacher to go over anything that was giving me trouble. My teacher and I had our own special handshake, too—a little routine we would do right before I went onstage.”