What truly sets Irish dancing apart from other forms of dancing is the intricate footwork. The best dancers have wonderful technique, which describes the precise placement and stylistic movement of their feet while dancing. Specifically in Irish dancing this will refer to dancing high on the toes, crossing over, turning out, and arched feet. Excellent technique is more visually appealing to an audience, and definitely taken into consideration by adjudicators.
It requires a lot of strength from the feet, calves, and legs to dance high on the toes. There are plenty of exercises that can be done to get higher on the toes, like simple raises from feet on the ground to tiptoes and hold. You should practice doing toe raises with feet turned out, parallel, and turned in to avoid muscle/tendon strain.
Think about your routine and specific places where it is important to be on the toes. For me this is when my feet are mostly in the same place and I’m not moving across the stage, and definitely for spins/turns. Pull the legs up really straight in the last 2-4 bars of music to end your steps as high on the toes as possible in order to leave a good final impression.
Crossover can be especially noticeable when facing away from the audience and headed to the back or in heavy shoe rhythm patterns. It helps to squeeze the inner thigh and cross all the way from the hips; otherwise the knees might bend too much. Try simple steps or drills on a line where the right foot will be on the left side and the left foot will be placed on the right side of the line.
It’s very typical to see longtime dancers standing or walking in turnout. After many years of forcing the turnout, their alignment has shifted. Try to find your ‘natural turnout’ by standing with feet parallel and touching, then rocking back to balance on the heels and at the same time opening the gap between the feet. Pushing the turnout past this point may be causing your knees or ankles to overcompensate, and good turnout develops from flexibility and rotation in the hips.
Try to watch your dancing in slow motion (suggested app ‘VideoPix’) in order to find places where the feet come uncrossed or lose turnout—especially the bottom/back foot right before a leap or high kick. Some dancers put small pieces of colorful tape on the inside of the heel. When the tape is visible, the feet are turned out.
The feet must be arched throughout the dance, not just during kicks, jumps, and points. A sharp point comes from developing arch strength. Some simple exercises to try are picking up marbles or pencils with the toes, or scrunching and spreading apart a towel on the ground. It’s just as important to stretch the counteracting muscles—stretch with feet pointed and flexed.
By working on proper technique and footwork, you won’t even have to use a mirror to sense where and how your feet are placed!
Photo credit: Flickr user Rona Proudfoot
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