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What Are The Fitness Benefits Of Irish Dancing?

What Are The Fitness Benefits Of Irish Dancing?
Balls Team
By Balls Team
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You can spend hours googling the world's most progressive forms of physical fitness - seeing how the buff Russians and Brazilians do it - but we should also admit Ireland has its own dance fitness activity with huge fitness benefits. That's right, we're talking about Irish dancing. Some might see Irish dancing as a twee pastime dominated by Michael Flatley-types but in actuality, regular Irish dance workouts contain massive fitness benefits (and it doesn't require wearing shiny shirts and headbands)
Irish dancing became suddenly relevant to fitness fans back in 2017 when Baltimore Ravens running back Alex Collins broke onto the NFL scene, with his own story about how Irish dancing transformed his own career. Collins even had an Irish dancing touchdown celebration.
"I really love it because it builds my lower body muscles, my calf muscles and it really works my lower body. Translate on the field, I'm more explosive on the field and it helps a lot."
Collins was in Ireland last year to dance with some actual Irish dancers.

So what are the actual health benefits of Irish dancing and what can fitness enthusiasts gain from regular Irish dance classes?
To learn more, we interviewed Christina Woods, a Belfast-based certified Irish dance trainer who spent five years with RiverDance for 2005-2010. Woods is the creator of ReelRobics, the world’s first Irish dance fitness class. We asked Christina some questions over email about the fitness and aerobic benefits of Irish dancing, what a standard Reelrobics workout is like and what sort of expertise is needed to jump into an Irish dance workout.

This might sound obvious but what kind of muscle groups are you working in an Irish dancing workout?

Obviously the main muscles getting worked in Irish dance are your quads, hamstrings and calves. Not so obvious are your core muscles. In any type of dancing, posture is key, and for our bodies to perform safely and to the best of our ability, we need to engage our core with every movement. The deep abdominal muscles that stabilise the spine should be used in order to lift our legs, and indeed ourselves off the floor. 

Then of course, it’s the old joke about Irish dancers not using their arms or upper body at all. Until Riverdance, with choreography from Michael Flately and Jean Butler, we hadn’t really seen Irish dancers using using their arms. I took what I had learned from my time at the show, and choreographed arm movements into easy to follow routines, so that shoulders, biceps and triceps would all be used during a ReelRobics workout, not just the legs. 

What are the overall fitness benefits of Irish step dancing?

There are so many physical benefits of Irish dancing. It’s a great cardio-vascular exercise, helping to improve our overall heart and lung health. The fast paced steps raise the heart rate, our dancers can burn up to 500-600 calories during a one hour ReelRobics class. 

It is also great for improving muscle tone and strength, as well as building stronger bones and lowering our risk of osteoporosis, which is very important, particularly in females. 

It can give your brain a workout too! The hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, emotions and motivation, shrinks as we get older. However studies have shown that in participants of weekly dance lessons, the hippocampus has not only stopped shrinking, but grown 1 to 2%. The changing steps, formations and rhythms help us stay in a constant learning process, and there are plenty of changing rhythms in jigs and reels! 

In our stressful modern life, it’s become ever more important to be able to switch off from technology for a while, and ‘dance our cares away.’    I recently asked dancers to leave one or two words about how they felt about ReelRobics on a piece of paper after class. “Stress- busting”, “Exhausted but happy,” and “Brings me back to my youth” were just some of the answers I received. 

Can give us a run through of what a standard Reelrobics/Irish dance workout would be like? 

ReelRobics classes are 60 minutes long. We begin with a a 10-minute warm up, usually dancing to a reel, in a large circle with exercises such as lunges or squats, in between the traditional 1 2 3s, ‘Threes’. We would then perform around 6 - 7 choreographed dance routines, with varying degrees of difficulty. We also include Irish dance type relays, dancing in short bursts at maximum effort, with rest periods in between. We’ll finish the a slow slip jig as a cool down and some stretches, as well as some balance and stability exercises. I’m about to finish my Level 3 Diploma in Mat based Pilates, and I’m excited to incorporate more core work into my programme. 

Do you need any experience in Irish dancing or dancing to start with your courses?

Not at all. A lot of people in Ireland attended Irish dance lessons as children, but some have no dance or Irish dance experience at all. When I created ReelRobics, I wanted everyone to feel they belonged, regardless of ability or experience. There are no wrong steps, and everyone is welcomed. Those who danced when they were younger love the nostalgia of dancing again, but in a more relaxed environment. 

Those who have no dance experience love the challenge of learning a new skill, even after the first class they feel they’ve accomplished something. I always hear, “I felt like I was in Riverdance” with newcomers. It doesn’t matter what their previous experience of dance or exercise was, what matters is that they moved along to the music, and had a great time doing it! 

You can learn more about Reelrobics by visiting their Facebook page

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