Irish dance: On pointe – is it safe?

“I’m jealous. I’d like to be able to dance up on my toes like this”.

About six months ago, my new young FaceBook friend from Vietnam emailed me, including a photo of Irish dance shoes on point or toe dancing.irish hard shoes toe dance

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.

Combined on point image irish dance

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
  • Fatigue

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…
old dancer image

The Golden Girls Who Refuse to Act Their Age http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk

 

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.

 

Nora Stewart
www.EasyIrishDance.com

WINNER 5

 

 

 

 

* Injury Patterns in Female Irish Dancers (2010) Megan Noon, MD, Anne Z. Hoch, DO, Laura McNamara, BS, Jane Schimke, AAS.

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5 thoughts on “Irish dance: On pointe – is it safe?

  1. See the thing is is that your basing all of this off of ballet. I am an irish dancer and I cannot train less and frankly if you told anyone in my class to train less they would be pissed and just train more. You also made it seem like irish dance is just pretend ballet which it’s not. I mean sure we’ve grabbed things from other styles of dance but not the beginning position. That’s not yours. We’ve had that forever. And the shoes are made to stand on. They have flat tips for that puropose. The more broken in the shoes the easier the to stand becomes therefor looking slumped. You’re less likely to fall and break your ankle if you shoes are more broken in. Also it’s not called dancing on point. It’s a toe stand. And there are usually very few in the steps. Yeah there are lots of injuries but there are injures in other sports. It’s not just us.

    • Thanks for your comment. The purpose of this article was to inform and hope people are aware enough to know that dancing on your toes has risks, and the experience from ballet indicates careful selection and specialist training is needed for this type of move. The research on injury levels in Irish step dancing speaks for itself. It’s all a choice.

  2. Don’t know about Vietnam but in Ireland children progress from dance to dance, from soft shoes to hard shoes, and good teacher will not move a child to an pointe before he/she is ready. Same as ballet! What happening in other countries sometimes horrifying. Just now came across a video where Russian dance teacher is showing basic Irish dancing steps and…..goes an pointe straight away. Hope she’s not teaching children that in her dance studio.
    Agree that doing multiple activities instead of just Irish dancing few times a week is better. Daughter does different dancing styles plus sports and gymnastics and all compliment each other, give flexibility and core strengths. I believe she progresses as fast in her weekly Irish dancing classes as she would if only did just Irish dancing. Maybe faster, as looking forward to classes, as that way not get bored with them or over tired from doing same thing few times a week. Especially for a small child, as they oppose to repetitive drilling. Probably less chance for injury as not over-straining same muscles again and again, but training and strenghtening whole body?

  3. Pingback: Riverdance: Have we lost what captivated us so? | Irish Bliss

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