Dance a Health to the Irish
In 2013, according to the U.S. Census, more than 35.5 million Americans listed their heritage as Irish. So it’s not surprising that for many Americans the month of March has become synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day.
Also known as the Feast of Saint Patrick (Lá Fhéile Pádraig), St. Patrick’s Day is no longer a purely religious feast day for the patron saint of Ireland, but is now an international celebration of Irish culture that typically mixes parades and oceans of green beer with traditional Irish music and, of course, Irish dance.
While drinking beer, green or otherwise, can rarely be described as a healthy pastime, according to various studies, some other aspects of Irish culture, such as Irish dancing, most definitely can.
While the history of Irish dance and Irish music are historically intertwined, it could be said that the resurgent popularity of Irish dance can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when the Irish dance phenomenon, Riverdance, exploded onto the world stage.
Since its first stage show performance in Dublin on Feb. 9, 1995, Riverdance has visited more than 450 venues worldwide, and
been seen by more than 25 million people. With the show’s enduring popularity has come a renewed interest in Irish dance - both step and set dancing - all over the world, including the United States.
In 1996, Irish dancer Sheila Ryan Davoren was one of Riverdance’s few American Irish dancers. Today, Davoren is a certified Irish dance teacher, or T.C.R.G. (Teagascóir Choimisiúin le Rinci Gaelacha), and directs and owns a non-competitive Irish dance school in Lafayette - the Ryan School of Irish Dance. According to Davoren, while Irish dancing has always been physically demanding, it has also evolved since her time in Riverdance, becoming far more intricate and physically challenging.
“Irish dancers are athletes,” said Davoren. “And not just because Irish step dancing is obviously highly cardio, but because of the strength and stamina involved.”
Studies show that dancing, in all its forms, comes with a variety of physical and mental health benefits. It is no coincidence that dancers typically develop long, lean, and strong physiques. Studies show that the health benefits of dancing include improved heart and lung condition; increased muscular strength, and improved muscular tone; increased endurance and aerobic fitness; better coordination, agility and flexibility; weight management; and even a decreased risk of osteoporosis.
According to Davoren, Irish dance training, especially competitive Irish dancing, incorporates other types of athletic training such as running, Pilates, and yoga.
“Today, competitive Irish dancers have to strengthen every muscle in their bodies,” said Davoren. “In order to have proper posture, you have to strengthen your core muscles; Pilates is perfect for that. In order to excel, you have to have very strong legs and be very flexible; yoga is perfect for that. Running is great for building stamina, and ballet training is useful in working on your arches, your turnouts, and your crossovers. So you bring other athletic forms into your Irish dancing to help you become the best you can be. It is like cross-training for Irish dancing.”
In 1998, fellow T.C.R.G. and Irish dance champion Joni Muggivan was the first Irish dancer from Louisiana to compete at the World Championships in Ireland.
Now, as owner and director of the Muggivan School of Irish Dance, she teaches students from three to 50 years-of-age. While many of her students do go on to dance competitively, Muggivan stresses that Irish dancing is also an enjoyable way to keep fit.
“If you want to dance competitively, fabulous,” said Muggivan. “But if you don’t, then that’s fine too because Irish dance is still one of the most fun ways that you can keep fit. It is great for strength, stamina, and flexibility. It can also help with things like posture because, while it is very athletic, it is also very precise.”
But, according to Muggivan, one of the most important things that Irish dance can teach is self-confidence and perseverance.
“As well as strength and stamina, you have to believe in yourself,” said Muggivan. “Like any other fitness activity, your belief in yourself is what will carry you through the program. That is something very important that Irish dance can teach - to believe in yourself and simply go for it.”
Believing in oneself and learning to overcome shyness is something that one might think comes naturally to those who have made their career in the media. But, according to 51-year-old Melinda Morris, community news producer for NOLA.com and The Times Picayune, another major health benefit of Irish dance lies in building that self-confidence.
Morris became involved in Irish dance more than 15 years ago. As a child, her parents’ religious beliefs prevented Morris from taking ballet dance lessons, something, she says, she very much wanted to do. When Morris’ daughter Caroline was seven years old, she became enamored with Irish dance after seeing Irish dancers in New Orleans’ St. Patrick Day’s parade. Morris immediately enrolled her daughter in Irish dance classes.
“When my daughter started taking Irish dance lessons, it didn’t even occur to me that you could take adult Irish dancing lessons,” laughed Morris. “But after Caroline started taking lessons at the New Orleans School of Irish Dance, I saw a sign there for adult Irish set dance classes. And I thought, I have always wanted to dance, and I can do what I like now that I am an adult. So I enrolled too.”
Today, as well as dancing with the New Orleans Irish Set Dancers (NOISD), Morris also takes tango and ballroom dance classes.
“Irish dance really opened up a new world for me,” said Morris. “I have physically changed so much since I started dancing. I was always naturally pretty thin, but I am in much better shape in terms of tone and stamina.”
But, according to Morris, it is the social aspect of dancing that she loves most.
“My social world would be completely different without dancing,” said Morris. “My Irish dance group is like my family; they have supported me through very difficult times in my life. And the beauty of going to dance classes is that I get to see these people all the time.”
Photo Courtesy of Muggivan Photography
According to a 21-year study, led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, dancing can do much more than just help your figure and your social life, it may also improve cognitive function at all ages, and even ward off dementia.
Lead author of the study and Professor of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Joe Verghese M.D., theorized that “unlike many other physical activities, dancing also involves significant mental effort and social interaction.”
According to the study’s researchers, the interactive nature of dance - especially social dances such as foxtrot, waltz, swing, tango, and Latin dance - stimulates “rapid-fire cognitive decisions” which effectively forge new neural pathways in the brain. By constantly challenging the mind and the body – effectively “use it or lose it” – dancing appears to be able to improve not just one’s physique, but one’s cognitive functioning as well.
It is, the researchers emphasized, learning something new - something that challenges the brain - that seems to bring the most benefit when it comes to preserving cognitive function. And, in terms of mental effort and social interaction, Irish dance is not the only kind of social dancing in town.
Community and Laughter
In 2014, New Orleans native Chaille Mount founded the Bookoo Rueda Cultural Association (BRCA), the stated mission of which is to build community centered round Cuban culture and dance.
“The main style of dancing we use for newcomers is casino,” said Mount. “But most people walk out of the class not even knowing how much exercise they are getting, because you are engaged with your partner, and you are engaged with the music. And then there is the mental challenge learning the steps. It is very fast-paced, and it gets the endorphins flowing.”
But, according to Mount, one of the biggest health benefits of dancing, both Cuban and Irish, is joy.
“We always talk about the benefits of laughter,” said Mount. “And I think that people learn better when they are having a good time. Having fun is really important, especially when it gets people engaged in activities that are going to benefit them health-wise.”
Dance and Heritage
When it comes to Irish dancing, there are other important factors, according to Sheila Davoren.
“There is a cultural depth to learning Irish dance, as well as the physical benefits,” said Davoren. “If you enjoy it, you will introduce other people to it. So you are not just learning a beautiful art form, you are helping to pass on the Irish culture. And that is the whole point of culture, to pass it on. ”