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Step carefully! Irish step dancing carries risks


Photo by Ula Kapala.

Irish dancing is demanding. "Just like other forms of dance, it requires a lot of attention to detail and a high level of skill in order to perform it without injury, and even then injury can occur," says Upstate physical therapist Kelly Meyers.

Drawing of a shamrockPerhaps not surprisingly, lower extremity injuries comprise the majority of injuries among Irish step dancers. When 69 female dancers from a single Irish dance company were studied from 2002 to 2009, researchers found 30 percent developed stress fractures, 11 percent developed pain in their knee, 6 percent developed heel pain -- and 80 percent of the dancers had multiple injuries. “The number of injuries per dancer increased as the dancer‘s level increased,” the researchers wrote in the journal, Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.

One of the trickiest moves is called the rock step, which involves locking ankles. The step produces high forces, and a potential to cause injury. Researchers writing for the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science in 2010 said the contact force at the ankle joint was 14 times a dancer's body weight, "of which the majority of the force was due to muscle contraction."

Overuse ankle injuries are common among professional Irish dancers. A study in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery found only three of 18 professional Irish dancers had radiologically normal ankles. Achilles tendinopathy was the most common ailment, followed by plantar fascitis, bone edema, and calcaenocuboid joint degeneration.

In spite of the reported high incidence of injury, many dancers are successful without these injuries. Historically, many Irish dancers may not have carried out warmup and conditioning activities that may prevent many injuries. "With proper training techniques, dancers can enjoy years of dancing with less risk of injury," says Upstate physical therapist Chris Rieger.

Meyers says it's important for Irish dancers to be strong, especially in the core and hips, in order to prevent injury. She and Rieger are both Dance Medicine Certified. Here are other ways they recommend to reduce risk of injury:

1. Allow adequate rest so the body can heal from the daily wear and tear from dance classes or rehearsals.

2. Warm up your body thoroughly before class, rehearsal or performances.

3. Adopt new training schedules slowly, because sudden increases in training can lead to injury.

4. Use proper footwear, including the correct size and type of shoe for dancer‘s foot structure. Also, wear supportive footwear outside of class to protect feet.

5. Build strength of core, hip, and ankle muscles.

6. Early recognition of symptoms is important. Stop activity if pain or swelling occurs. Consult a medical professional if symptoms persist after a few days.