Let's start by establishing that Irish dance is amazing. It has a fascinating history and a rich, incredibly challenging technique. Its emphasis on precise timing and intricate rhythms make it invaluable for dancers looking to develop their musicality. And there's nothing quite like watching an Irish virtuoso do his Lord of the Dance thing.
But—speaking of Lord of the Dance—let's have a moment of real talk: Irish dance's reputation has become a tad musty over the years. Riverdance is (present tense! it's still touring!) fantastic, but its crushed-velvet-and-laser-lights approach to the form have come to feel a little dated. Michael Flatley is one of the world's greatest performers, but he turned 57 this year and is about to retire.
That'd be ProdiJIG: The Revolution. Led by world champion Irish dancer Alan Kenefick, the show, set to premiere at Ireland's Cork Opera House next year, features a troupe of young, undeniably cool artists who're rethinking what it means to be an Irish dancer. Their updated take on the style involves combining electronic dance music with more traditional Irish tunes—and getting rid of any lingering Riverdance mustiness. (Zero crushed-velvet costumes will be involved in ProdiJIG.)
There WILL be plenty of flannel and leather, though. (screenshot via YouTube)
Yes, most of us probably won't be able to make it to Cork for the show. But all of us can feast our eyes on the slick sexiness of this just-released promo video, which has a delightfully STOMP-y vibe. (And we can all add a ProdiJIG world tour to our holiday wish lists, too.)
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!”
Happy (almost) St. Patrick's Day! Since the holiday falls on a Sunday this year, us on the DS staff can't celebrate by wearing our finest green outfits to work. So, instead, I decided to round up a few Irish dancing videos to get everyone in the spirit of things.
[Side note: I may be a good Irish girl, but I'm far from an Irish dance expert, so I apologize in advance for any misuse of terms, etc!]
First up: a cute Irish dance flash mob, filmed on St. Patrick's day a couple of years ago in, uh, Australia. (Maybe it would've been too predictable in Ireland? Maybe spontaneous Irish dancing breaks out all the time there?)
Second: some very cool dudes Irish dancing to dubstep on the beach. Not where you thought I was going to go, is it?
Third: a taste of the Irish dance competition world. Here are the senior winners of the 2012 World Irish Dancing Championship, Suzanne Coyle and Michael Holland.
Next: supermodel and all-around supergirl Coco Rocha, who's an excellent dancer, Irish step dancing down Jean Paul Gaultier's runway in 2007:
Fifth: Look at this adorable little girl Irish dancing to Michael Jackson songs! Schmoop.
And finally: A little Riverdance action—old-school, Jean Butler and Michael Flatley style. Had to do it. Erin Go Bragh!
Get Dance Spirit in your inbox