Updated: Feb 12
As Irish dancers, we often wonder how our efforts and abilities as dancers compare to other dance styles. Because Irish dance is so unique, there are few ways to directly compare the specific choreographic skills required of dancers to other, more commonly known forms of dance. While there are many technical similarities in Irish dance to ballet or tap, comparisons have never been measured directly or scientifically. Dr. Roisin Cahalan, a former competitive Irish dancer, set out to quantitatively measure and report biopsychosocial differences between contemporary and Irish dancers.
The biopsychosocial approach includes biological (like genetics and nutrition), psychological (emotions and behaviors), and social (environment and stress) factors and their complex interactions into understanding a person’s health. To get a complete picture of each dancer’s biopsychosocial characteristics, Dr. Cahalan and colleagues measured general fitness levels, amount of sleep, mood towards dance, as well as weekly time spent dancing, duration of warm-up, injury history, and many other variables in exclusively full-time student dancers.
Several variables measured showed statistically significant differences between contemporary and Irish dancers. First, contemporary dancers spent more time dancing per week and had longer warmups than Irish dancers. The authors suggest this time difference is due to the high-impact nature of Irish dance--which is unsustainable for long periods of time. Additionally, a slightly higher injury rate among Irish dancers may be due to the difference in warm-up time, as warm-ups have been consistently established as key to both injury prevention and performance optimization.
On the psychological side, the only significant difference between the groups was the level of catastrophizing when an injury was present. Catastrophizing is having irrational thoughts leading you to believe something is much worse than it actually is; for example, rolling your ankle and seeing it as the end of your dance career. This leads to an increased experience of pain and a longer time period required for mental and physical recovery. These researchers found catastrophizing behaviors were more common in contemporary dancers, but these dancers were also more likely to completely stop dancing when they were injured.
Furthermore, the researchers measured two different types of passion in the dancers: harmonious and obsessive passion. Harmonious passion is the result of an activity occupying a significant--but not overpowering--space in a person’s identity, whereas obsessive passion results from dependence on the activity. Obsessive passion is further associated with risky behavior and over-dependence, usually leading to chronic injury. Both contemporary and Irish dancers displayed overwhelmingly harmonious passion for their respective dance style, and while there were a few with obsessive passion, there was not a significant difference between groups with respect to type of passion.
The authors concluded that despite the drastic differences in choreography, the biopsychosocial aspects of contemporary and Irish dance are markedly similar. It should be noted that these results are based on a small sample size (only 27 and 28 Irish and contemporary dancers, respectively), and all dancers are full-time dance students, so the findings are not representative of all contemporary or all Irish dancers. Additionally, this paper is only a report of the baseline values of each variable. The researchers plan to remeasure each variable in all of the dancers over one year to compare the change between groups. However, this research and its conclusions are still valuable to the dance community as a whole as there is little to no previous research on biopsychosocial risk factors for injury in dancers. As Irish dance continues to gain popularity and evolve to become even more athletic, research on Irish dancers’ well-being will become even more necessary.
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Cahalan, R., Comber, L., Gaire, D., Quin, E., Redding, E., Ni Bhriain, O., O’Sullivan, K. (2019). Biopsychosocial Characteristics of Contemporary and Irish University-Level Student Dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 23(2), 63-71, doi: 10.12678/1089-313X.23.2.63.