In Irish stepdancing, “extension” is when your leg makes a beautiful, straight line all the way down from your hip through your pointed toes. Judges want to see lovely extension; they don’t want to see your knees bent.
There are three main steps to improving your extension:
The quadriceps muscles in the front of your leg are responsible for straightening your knee. If your quads are weak, they won’t be able to pull your knees up like they’re supposed to.
Lunges and squats are good exercises to strengthen the quads. Search online for videos or pictures to show you how to do these exercises with proper form. Start by doing one set of 8 squats and one set of 8 lunges.
With strength exercises, you should do them every other day to give your muscles a chance to recover. Gradually increase the difficulty over time by doing multiple sets (alternating between squats and lunges) and/or holding weights in your hands.
Dance Master Paula Goulding also demonstrates a different exercise and a stretch in her Irish Dancing Quads video here on Diddlyi.
The hamstrings in the back of your leg need to be flexible for you to straighten your knee all the way and lift your leg up. If your hamstrings are too tight, you won’t be able to kick without bending your knees or leaning forward.
You should do stretches every day to improve your flexibility. It’s best to do your stretches at the end of your practice, when your muscles are warm and loose.
Paula teaches a great series of stretches in her flexibility video here on Diddlyi.
You can also find examples of stretches online by searching for “hamstring stretches” or “flexibility stretches.” Remember, you need to make stretching a daily part of your routine if you want to see results.
As always, the last step in improving your form is drilling moves from your steps, concentrating on engaging the correct muscles. When you drill your extension, you should think about squeezing your quads and then stretching your whole leg out in front of you, like you’re trying to touch something just out of reach with the tip of your toe.
A good drill is Dance Master Ciara Sexton’s “legs out” exercise here on Diddlyi.
Another good exercise is to take a step and go through it one move at a time, thinking about nothing but your extension. Repeat each move until you can extend correctly every time, and then go on to the next move.
With daily practice, it won’t be long until you have elegant, effortless extension.
★ Check out all of Ariel’s “What Do Irish Dance Judges Look For?” series here.
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