What’s with the new Irish dance fitness program everyone is talking about?

By now, most Irish dancers have heard about Reaching New Heights, the new fitness program for Irish dancers. The program was developed by six-time world champion, Lauren Early and personal trainer Robert McAvoy to help dancers achieve their goals by targeting the specific skills needed for Irish dancing. Last month, Lauren and Robert launched the RNH Academy, a six-month online fitness training course for dancers hoping to improve their performance and their placements.

That brings you to me

Hi! I’m Anya. I’m an open champion Irish dancer looking to amp up my training and work my way up to my goals.anya

Earlier this year, I fell during my slip jig and broke my foot. While I recovered, I tried to stay fit, but it was hard since I couldn’t do anything that put pressure on my foot – not even swimming was allowed! I lost so much strength and fitness and needed to find some way to get it back fast! I had nationals in only a couple months and I was basically a potato with heavy shoes and a wig at this point. Needless to say, I had a long way to go to even get back to where I was before I fell.

While I was in Dublin at the Worlds, I stopped by the Reaching New Heights stand and Robert told me all about the program. I liked how he took a very academic approach. Everything he told me about the program was based in sports medicine research and designed to work alongside the training I was already getting from my coaches. I was sold.

The program costs £250 ($323), or slightly more if you pay by month, and you get a t-shirt, a binder, and access to the online training site. Even though it’s designed to take six months, you have up to a year to finish it. The whole idea of the program is to prepare dancers for competition in a way that cuts out everything that isn’t beneficial and focuses on exactly the type of fitness and strength you need for your dance onstage. One overarching quote from the program that really stuck with me is this:

“A competitive Irish dancer only needs to be the best dancer over a 60 to 120 second period in order to win.”

Basically, Lauren and Robert took the huge amount of information from sports medicine and physiology and designed the Academy around exactly what would help dancers be the best for exactly the one to two minutes they spend onstage.

So, what’s in the program?

The six-month program comprises three eight-week phases: a general preparation phase and two specific preparation phases. Each phase consists of training modules that show you what workouts and exercises to do and learning modules that support the training with information about why you’re doing these specific workouts. I loved that the information in each section came in three formats: video, audio, or pdf. The videos were fun to watch but I mostly just used them for the training modules when I needed to learn how to perform the movements. I loved the audio option because I could listen while doing other stuff and the pdf was great to print out and refer back to.

The program starts by asking you to answer questions and reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, and fitness goals. Robert points out that almost no dancer is training as hard as they could be, so one of the first things I did was make my fitness schedule and put it in my planner. The Academy walks you through each of the sessions you need to include and how to structure them around the dance classes you already have in order to maximize your progress and give yourself enough rest. Here is the schedule I came up with for the general prep phase:

  • Monday: Dance class, core
  • Tuesday: Rest, flexibility, mobility, and tissue work
  • Wednesday: Cardio training, core
  • Thursday: Dance class, core
  • Friday: High intensity continuous training, resistance training, core
  • Saturday: Dance class, core
  • Sunday: Extended solo dance practice

General Preparation Phase

The RNH Academy puts a lot of emphasis on concrete, objective measures of success, since even in competition our success if judged subjectively. Each eight-week phase begins and ends with the same tests that you can compare. This phase uses the core test and the bleep test to measure core strength and anaerobic fitness. I got to level 4 out of 6 on the core test and level 9 on the bleep test. I’m only part way through this phase, so I’ll update you with my progress in my next post.

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Core test. I was able to get my legs lowered to almost fully extended before my lower back lifted up off the ground. This was also the basis for the rest of this phase’s core workouts.

By using these tests, dancers are able to measure their success over time and look back on their previous performance further down the road. This helps to identify areas where training is falling short and areas where training is especially successful.

The workouts

RNH Academy uses different kinds of workouts to target dancers’ specific strength, flexibility, fitness, and mobility needs, and they are HARD. There are different difficulty levels for each workout that make it easy to tailor the training to your strengths and weaknesses and push yourself to the next hardest difficulty.

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I had to take a break and catch my breath halfway through my first cardio conditioning session, which tells you just how much I need to get my fitness back

I’m just beginning my RNH journey and I can’t wait to keep you updated on my progress! Check back soon for updates on my fitness and the rest of the program!

For even more info about my dance journey back from injury check out my check me out on Instagram @anya_deer and be sure to follow Lauren @laurenearly_rnh

A linguistic perspective on dance as a sport

As dancers, we know the hours of work we log in the studio. We know the time we’ve spent injured, watching class, dancing with our hands. We know the bloody feet, the sore muscles, the sweat-soaked t-shirts. We know the feeling of our bodies screaming at us to stop yet pushing for perfection one more time.

We know we are athletes.

We also know the feeling of devaluation when we hear another athlete tell us that dance is not a sport. I fought this battle numerous times, as every dancer has done, until I came to a realization about the way we talk about art and athletics.

I first critically examined how I thought about art as a sport while watching competitive figure skating. The careful examination of body placement and subjective scoring in sports like figure skating, gymnastics, half pipe, and diving mirrored the Irish dance competitions I had experienced countless times.

How was competitive dance different from other subjectively judged athletic events?

My need to feel the validation of dance as a sport came down to the power I put in the label itself. For me and for everyone I argued with, being able to call dance a sport meant recognition of my athleticism.

To examine why I needed to change my perspective, let’s talk about the dictionary. Most people think of the dictionary as a prescriptive tool – something that tells us how we ought to use words. In reality, dictionary definitions are a lot less powerful than this. A definition is actually a descriptive tool that illustrates how a word is used by most people at the time of publication.

Think of a dictionary as a snapshot of the way most people use most words. This is why dictionaries need constant revising – language is always changing. Everyone has a slightly different understanding of each word and we constantly revise and evolve our own internal dictionaries.

So here’s how I would define a sport: an athletic event that involves competition. But this doesn’t really matter to the puzzle of whether dance is a sport or not. Everyone classifies sports slightly differently. If I include all athletics in my umbrella of “sports,” dance certainly fits in. But if I think a sport has to involve a clear winner through objective points, I wouldn’t consider dance a sport, even when it is competitive. This kind of variation means that there can’t be an obvious and clear answer.

According to my subjective understanding of the word “sport,” competitive dance would fit into this category, but other dance would not. This does not cheapen the incredible artistry, precision, strength, and performance of dance in general. For every athlete, their sport involves the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears we see every day in the dance studio.

What we label dance can never detract from the hard work dancers put in. It doesn’t matter how we define dance – whether or not we call it a sport is irrelevant. A label doesn’t validate of the hours of training, the strain on our bodies, the blood on our feet, and the passion in our movement.

Photo credit: Paul Buckowski / Times Union