One of the first things we learn as infants is the ability to stabilize ourselves in a variety of positions. First we learn to hold our head up, then we progressively learn to stabilize our bodies while on our stomachs, sitting, crawling, standing, and walking. After developing these basic skills, we are continuously challenged in our daily lives and the activities in which we participate. This ability to maintain appropriate balance in a variety of body positions and movement patterns is particularly essential for athletes and dancers required to perform incredible physical feats with grace and poise.
As we all know, Irish Dancers are required to stay high on the toes, and execute light and heavy steps in a precise manner in rhythm with the music. The balance of an Irish Dancer is continuously challenged during classes and competitions due to these requirements, and it becomes apparent to both teachers and adjudicators when a dancer does not have appropriate balancing abilities. The consequences of poor balance include increased risk of injury, poor posture and body control, poor foot placement, and potentially poor timing due to loss of balance during steps.
In Performing Arts Medicine, medical professionals regularly measure the ability of dancers to balance on one leg to determine their ability to stay safe while performing steps or choreography. Current research indicates that dancers who are able to hold their balance for 60 seconds on one leg with eyes closed are much less likely to experience injuries that shorten or interrupt careers. This information is used to determine the potential for dysfunctional movement, and injury risk.
Many body parts contribute to the control of balance and stability during dancing. Our ability to balance is controlled by three systems:
This includes the eyes, and is what many people rely on heavily to maintain balance when performing daily tasks. Vision, however, is easily compromised, particularly during dance steps including spins or backward runs, when you are either unable to focus on one point in space, or you cannot look in the direction you are moving.
This includes the nerve endings in your skin, particularly those in the feet, which sense the contact between your foot and the ground, and send a message to your brain to say whether or not you are touching the floor, and whether or not the floor is steady and even. When dancing, you use this system to know which foot is on the floor, and whether the floor is slippery, uneven, bouncy, or if you are dancing on tape or a crack.
The vestibular system is also known as the “inner ear”. It is composed of three looped canals deep in the ear that contain fluid, and allows you to sense where your head is in space. This dictates where your body should move in order to keep your head upright, and dis a survival instinct that develops as we grow. This is the system that gets mixed up when you are dizzy and lean or fall to the side after coming out of a spin or turn in your steps; the different canals sensed a very quick change in your head position that was not controlled, and you feel dizzy until the fluid in the canals settles down.
Balance is an extremely trainable skill that nearly every Irish Dancer should be able to perfect through training and challenging the systems listed above. In doing so, you are teaching your body to control your placement during your rounds. Research has shown that this decreases injury risk, and allows you to worry less about avoiding a fall, and more about making corrections to your steps. In our next segment, we will discuss various ways to train these three systems to keep you flying high!
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