It’s very important for Irish dancers to stay high up on their toes all the time, both in soft shoe and hard shoe dances. Staying high on your toes while jumping and landing takes strong muscles in your feet and legs. Here are some exercises to do to improve those muscles:
Sit on a chair with a small towel on the floor in front of you (this works best on a tile or wooden floor). Place your bare feet on the towel, and then scrunch your toes together and curl them under. Scrunching your toes like this will make the towel bunch up. Relax your feet and then scrunch them again. Continue scrunching your toes until the towel is completely bunched up. Then spread the towel back out and repeat. Do this for 3-4 minutes.
Still sitting on a chair with the small towel on the floor in front of you, place some marbles on the towel with a bowl nearby. Using your toes, pick up the marbles one at a time and place them in the bowl. Alternate feet, picking up the first marble with your right foot and the next one with your left foot, until all the marbles are in the bowl. Empty the bowl back out on the towel and repeat. Do this for 3-4 minutes.
Stand with your feet straight and shoulder-width apart. You can hold on to the back of a chair or put your hand on a wall if you need support. Slowly roll up onto the balls of your feet, lifting your heels as high as you can, and then slowly lower your heels back down, making sure that your weight stays forward over your toes. Repeat 8-16 times.
Very important: make sure when doing this exercise to think about lifting your heel up towards your second toe, so that your ankle stays in a straight line. If your ankle rolls to the outside so that your heel is in a line with your little toe, you are putting yourself at risk for an ankle sprain.
Repeat the exercise above, but bend your knees slightly before you start. Your knees should stay bent during the entire exercise. This will target the soleus muscles that run between the gastrocnemius (the main calf muscle) and your heel. It’s very important for Irish dancers to have strong soleus muscles, so make sure you do these.
To really see improvement, you should do these exercises every other day. At first, the muscles in your arches or calves may get tired and start cramping. If that happens, stop doing the exercise, stretch your feet and calves, and give yourself a little massage (a hot bath will help relax the muscles, too). Start with doing just a few repetition of each exercise, and then slowly build up to more repetitions as your muscles get stronger.
Don’t forget to drill the moves from your steps, concentrating on staying up on your toes. It’s especially important to think about your back heel staying up—and be sure to pay extra close attention when you’re taking off or landing from a jump. Dance Master Ciara Sexton teaches a drill for staying up on your toes at if you need some inspiration.
Photo credit: Flickr User James Jordan
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