6 essential pilates exercises for Irish dancing

These days it’s not just enough to go to class for a couple of hours a week – if you’re serious about your dancing, you’re cross training and stretching outside of class too (and regularly reading Ready to Feis, obviously). If you’re tight on time but still trying to make the most of your dancing, these 6 pilates exercises are the ones you should add to your daily routine. Why pilates? According to TCRG and pilates instructor Caitlin Golding, “It is important we know how to properly care for and respect our bodies as they are our tools of expression.” Pilates is a form of exercise that focuses on strength, flexibility, coordination, muscular endurance, balance, and good posture, all essential for Irish dancing. According to Golding, “If you have begun to recognize any muscle imbalances, are prone to injury, or want to prevent the onset of either, practicing Pilates 3x a week (at least) can greatly improve your overall strength, mindset, and Irish dance technique.”

Below, Golding demonstrates and explains the 6 essential pilates exercises for Irish dancing, so that you can add them to your daily routine.

1. Treading

Start standing with your body in total alignment. Shoulders over hips, hips over knees, knees over ankles, feet in parallel. Make sure that your core is engaged and you are neither sticking out your chest or your glutes.

Take a deep inhale and on this breath raise your arms overhead feeling the energy course through your fingertips. Exhale and begin curling your fingers towards the ground. Begin rounding your spine by pulling your navel back towards your lumbar vertebrae. Scooping all of your abdominals as you get closer and closer to the ground- visualize your body as a candy cane. Once your hands reach the ground, walk them out in front of you while keeping your heels pressed firmly down. Sink back into your pelvis and release any tension in your wrists, neck, and shoulders. Continue to deepen this stretch by alternating gentle bends in the knees, always keeping the opposite heel pressed firmly into the ground. After 16 alternating reps, walk your hands back up to your feet and begin articulating up to standing- rolling through every individual vertebrae, navel pulled back to the spine, and energy flowing through your fingertips. Once you are standing reassess your body alignment to make sure you are neither sticking out your chest or glutes.

2. The Hundred

Begin by hugging the knees into the chest. Take a deep breath inwards and on the exhale curl your upper body off the floor until only the tips of your shoulder blades are grazing your mat. Release the arms from the legs and reach them long beside your body at shoulder height. Extend your legs out on either a 45 degree angle or straight up to the ceiling. Turn your legs out with your heels together forming a “pilates V”. Your spine should be in neutral – imagine a blueberry underneath your lumbar vertebrae that you cannot crush! Once in this position, take 5 short and deliberate inhales and 5 exhales while pumping the arms by your sides. Repeat 10 times or until your take 100 individual breaths. In this exercise you are meant to be squeezing the stale air out of your lungs, don’t be afraid to be a little loud on your breathing!

Concentrating on your breath while performing the correct form and technique of this exercise can directly translate to your dancing. If you know when and where to breathe during your competition or performance steps, your stamina, focus, and mindset will greatly improve.

3. The Rollup

Begin by laying down, arms extended overhead and legs long with heels in a Pilates V. On your inhale, raise your arms towards the sky and lift the crown of your head, chin, neck, shoulders, and articulate through the spine – exhale until you reach all the way down towards your toes. Hold for a count of 3 and then inhale to begin rolling back up through the spine, sitting tall on your sitz bones, with arms stretched strong out in front of you. Imagine you are sitting with your back against a wall and you must sit as tall as you can – like a string is attached to the top of your head and is pulling you to your tallest form. Exhale and scoop out the abdominals as you contract your core – pulling your navel to your spine – and roll back down all the while reaching towards your toes. Bring the arms back overhead. Repeat 6x.

Always keep reaching through your hips during this exercise to feel a stretch along those hip flexors. Irish dancers tend to develop tendonitis in their hips among other serious hip injuries and this exercise is all about using the core to lift instead of pulling through your very tiny hip flexors! They are not muscles, and as Irish dancers we must learn to relax them and use our core to lift instead. This one is my fave!

4. Leg Circles

Begin by laying down, legs extended and arms by your side. Pull the right leg into your chest, left hand just below your inner knee cap and right hand by your outer ankle. Take a breath inwards and on the exhale pull your leg deeper into your chest. Inhale and extend the right leg towards the sky without shortening your hips – keep the right and left hip squared. Give your right leg a tug either on your calf or your hamstring, never behind the knee – it is a hinge joint and has limited mobility. Release your leg and place your arms long beside your body.Turn both legs fully out and point through your toes. Inhale, and circle the leg towards the midline of your body, down to perfect hip alignment, and then gently outside the frame of your body on your exhale. Repeat 5x and then reverse directions – start by circling the leg outside, then down, then across, then up. When you are finished fold the right leg into the chest and switch legs. Repeat 5x each direction.

The key to this exercise is to keep both sitz bones (basically your butt bones), hips, core, and shoulders on the ground without movement. Do not allow your shoulders to creep up like earmuffs – remember the tips of your scapula (shoulder blades) should always be in the center of your back. If you draw this connection and feel the engagement of your core and upper body while executing the leg circles with minimal movement, this exercise will help you greatly improve your posture and carriage while dancing.

5. Scissors / Single Leg Stretch

Begin the same as leg circles by folding the right leg into your chest and extending it to the sky, grabbing either behind your calf or hamstring. Keep the legs in parallel during this exercise to work different muscle groups. Irish dancers tend to overdevelop certain muscles and under develop others – it is important to condition your body in all forms to maintain balance, strength, and overall health. Take an inhale and raise your upper body off of your mat until your gaze meets your lower belly. Gently pull the right leg twice and switch to pull the left leg twice. Inhale and exhale on the double “pull” alternating between right and left legs. Finish by folding the legs into the chest and resting your head.

This exercise is a perfect example of dynamic stretching. With every contraction comes a stretch. This a great exercise to warm up and lengthen the legs for overhead kicks and front clicks while maintaining a strong core and spine.

6. Lion Drinking

This is a fundamental exercise used to increase upper body strength and awareness. Despite not using our arms much in competition dancing unless we are doing ceilis, we need to balance our upper bodies with our typically overdeveloped lower bodies or we will suffer back injuries or poor posture.

Start on all fours, knees hip distance apart, hands directly under shoulders, fingers facing one another, and spine in neutral or slightly exaggerated like in “cow” exercise in yoga. Begin by inhaling and bending through your elbows, lowering only your upper body to the ground. Your head and neck should be neutral and your gaze straight ahead. Imagine yourself as a lion drinking out of pond, always keeping a lookout for potential danger. Once your chin reaches your hands, begin straightening your arms through your elbows, curling up through your thoracic spine, dropping your head and neck, and pushing through your shoulder blades to feel a deep stretch like “cat” in yoga. Once your arms are back to full extension, release the spine back to neutral or “cow” and lift the head and neck.

I love this exercise because it is serious tricep workout and also keeps me aware of all of the muscles in my body. Your core should always be engaged and your belly button pulled back toward your spine. The complexity of this exercise is similar to the thought process we go through while dancing and it is challenge to always be mindful and conscious in the moment! Great practice to manage the influx of thoughts or bodily feelings.

Do you do pilates? Do you have any favorite exercises to keep your body in shape? Leave a comment below or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

A special thank you to Silpa Sadhujan of Rince and Repeat for her incredible photography for this story. Silpa is a professional portrait and dance photographer based in New York City, as well as an Irish dancer. Silpa is available for dance photo shoots. Be sure to check out her Where We Dance photo series.

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