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  • Writer's pictureJulia Nailor, LMSW

Irish Dancing in a Changing World: A Wellness Check-in for Dancers, Teachers, and Parents

There are many things that make the sport of Irish dancing unique, and one key difference we often overlook is the fact that we don’t have universally defined competitive seasons. In other words, we don’t have consistent time off. Sure, some schools schedule brief holiday or summer breaks that often get filled with workshops and a frenzy of administrative catch-up, but when we step back and look at the scene of Irish dancing as a whole, it’s year-round. We don’t get to pause annually as a collective and take a deep breath, restoring ourselves for the next series of performances and classes. Irish dance is a constant in our lives. It’s a book we almost never willingly put down. Dancers of all ages count on the knowledge that there is always something exciting coming around the corner, so what happened when the Covid-19 pandemic threw a wrench in that routine and shifted the world around us?

We have been coping with a rapidly changing world for well over a year, and we are long overdue for a check-in. Dancers, teachers, and parents all over the globe have spent the last year creatively transforming the Irish dance experience to meet the health and safety needs of their communities, and it has not been an easy feat. Whether you are still practicing on Zoom or making your way back into the classroom and competitive venues, every single member of the Irish dance community has experienced some kind of adjustment, and there has not been much time or space devoted to talking about what it all means. Our bodies are swirling with grief, frustration, excitement, nerves, loneliness, and every other emotion under the sun, and it certainly cannot be healthy to do a hornpipe or jig with all of those feelings left unacknowledged. Human beings were not built to be emotional long-term storage units that are ignored until something inside catches fire. If we want to step back into the studio with confidence and readiness, we have to nourish our minds first, just as we nourish our bodies.

The very first step toward moving forward from a period of uncertainty and change is to set aside some time for self-reflection. Press pause on the hustle and bustle for even just a few minutes each day to triage your own condition. Dancers, how do you feel physically after over a year of changes in your practice routine? Do you have any soreness from dancing on unusual flooring? How is your mood, motivation, and ability to focus? Teachers, check in on your stress levels as well. You have been keeping your studios afloat during challenging times. What are you currently doing in between classes to care for your own wellbeing and prevent burnout? Is it effective? Parents, your role in the dance community is vital, and your health is too. How is your self-care routine going? Do you have one, and if not, are there signs that you may need to prioritize starting one? If your dancers are too young to independently check in with themselves, try guiding them through the process. It often helps to model the activity yourself first. For example, “I feel kind of yucky today, like there’s too much going on in my head. How does your head feel today?”

Being consciously aware of our own bodies and minds opens up the possibility of acceptance, which is the necessary companion to change. To adapt to any change, we must work to accept its impact. A dancer who spent the majority of the year working on Zoom, for example, would benefit from identifying and embracing the specific ways virtual class altered their dancing. Perhaps practicing in a smaller room affected their technique on moving choreography pieces. If the dancer does not notice or accept that their technique changed, they are less likely to apply corrections offered when they return to the studio. If the dancer becomes attentive to their technique differences, they can begin setting clear goals to improve with that adjustment in mind. When we find ourselves in a cycle of change leading to acceptance leading to more mindful change, that is when we are growing. Regularly performing a mental health check-in yourself or with your dancers is critical to helping this process unfold, and now is the perfect time to start.

This year may very well see the global return of Oireachtas championships, performances with live audiences, and much of the other spectacular events that define our dance careers. With hope on the horizon, it is time to start getting back in touch with our goals that may have slipped away amidst the chaos. A goal could be achieving a specific placement, fixing a certain technical skill, feeling more confident on stage, or anything else that might strengthen your relationship with Irish dance. Regardless of what your goal is, it is unlikely you will step into the studio and magically accomplish it right away. Reaching a goal takes time, effort, determination, and most importantly… change!

Researchers have sought for many years to figure out the scientific process of breaking unhealthy habits and changing behavior. In 1983, the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology published a study by James O. Prochaska and Carlos Di Clemente which described “change” as a process with five key stages. This theory is commonly used in the mental healthcare field to help individuals examine and understand where they are in the change process. The five stages are the pre-contemplation stage, the contemplation stage, the preparation stage, the action stage, and the maintenance stage. These concepts can easily be adapted to the personal and athletic goals of Irish dancers.



Fictional example: Kelly is a novice-level dancer in the U12 age group whose teachers have been reminding her for months to point her toes. Each time she dances in class, she has floppy toes no matter how many times this is brought to her attention. She does not respond to the correction, and her teachers notice that she is not practicing in the studio between rounds to improve either. One weekend, Kelly attends a local feis, where she places 4th or 5th in every dance. She is disappointed because she has been hoping to place into the prizewinner level, but her results are not improving. The adjudicator's comments all say "point toes." Kelly returns home and informs her family that she would like to learn how to point her toes more so that she can achieve her goal of moving up a level. She starts writing down her goals on paper and making a practice plan. After a few weeks, her parents notice her starting to drill steps in front of a mirror, stopping and starting over each time she fails to point her toe. In class, Kelly's teachers notice she is readily awaiting corrections and drilling at the bar after each dance. Later that year, she attends another local feis and achieves top 3 placements in all her dances with no comments about pointing toes. To keep her point steady, she continues with routine practice and strengthening exercises even though that particular correction has already been made.


In this example, Kelly spent some time in each of the five stages of change while working toward her goal. Let's identify what each stage looked like for her:


Pre-contemplation: Ignoring corrections in class to point her toes, making no effort to practice in or out of the studio, not accepting that her flexed feet were holding her back.

Contemplation: Seeing the adjudicator comments from the feis and telling her parents she wants to improve her point, accepting the association between flexed feet and not placing where she wanted in competition.

Preparation: Writing down goals, making a practice plan.

Action: Actively drilling technique at home and in the studio, improving her relationship with her teachers by working on corrections right away.

Maintenance: Using foot strengthening exercises and continuing a practice routine to keep her technique up long-term.


In order to effectively produce change toward a goal as Kelly in this example did, it is important not to skip a stage. We are often tempted to jump suddenly from contemplation to action when we are energized about something, but failure to think through a plan before getting started can lead to burnout, injury, and poor long-term results. Each step of the change process is a valuable stage in a dancer's journey, and teachers and parents are there to help their dancers stay on track and feel supported. Coaching is especially helpful when a dancer needs some encouragement and insight to move from the pre-contemplation stage to contemplation. Change is a team effort.

As you approach this upcoming Oireachtas season, I encourage you to think about what your goals are and what changes might need to be made in order to achieve them. What stage of change are you in right now? Where do you want to be in a month, and what do you need to accomplish to get there? Using the stages of change model, dancers can track physical progress as well as mindset, as the two are very much connected. Being intentional in the training process is key to maintaining health and wellness. We have to be thoughtful when determining how to use our bodies.

Here at Irish Dance for the Soul, I will continue to provide educational resources on various topics including mindful practicing, effective rest, positive self-talk, nutrition, performance anxiety, teamwork, communication, and much more. Additional resources for parents and teachers will be published in the future as well. To stay up-to-date on these posts, bookmark this site, follow @irishdanceforthesoul on Instagram, and like the Irish Dance for the Soul page on Facebook.

Sources

Prochaska, J. O., & DiClemente, C. C. (1983). Stages and processes of self-change of smoking: Toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51(3), 390–395. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.51.3.390



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