Practicing at home – a not-so-secret, secret to sucess

 In Rising Tide Irish Dance Academy

When I was a kid, I HATED practicing at home. Whether for piano, violin or Irish dance, I avoided at home practice as best I could. It was hard, and there was a time where I had to practice in our garden shed (until a family of raccoons moved in underneath the shed, and my mom worried I would crash through the floor into their den), which was not very appealing. But my disinterest mostly stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know how to practice at home effectively.

Practicing at home isn’t required of Irish dance, but it’s a not-so-secrect, secret to success. When I figured out the best way for me to practice at home, I saw a big improvement in the quality of my dancing. Particularly for dancers with big goals (whether you want to move into prizewinner, perfect your back trebles, or qualify for worlds), practicing at home makes a big difference. Knowing how to practice at home can help ensure you’re getting the most out of your efforts. Here are some tips on what and how to practice at home.

When you’re learning new steps

When you’re learning new steps, it’s important to make sure you’re practicing the choreography at home. Class time is meant for perfecting the steps you’re working on, not relearning choreography over and over. At Rising Tide, we provide videos of all steps for dancers in our Beginner, Advanced Beginner, and Intermediate classes, which can be helpful tools as you’re learning the choreography. 

When you’re just learning the steps, practicing small pieces slowly, and gradually adding on more pieces of the step (and picking up speed) can be the best way to practice at home. Doing so makes sure you know exactly what your feet should be doing in each moment of the step. It can feel boring to start slow, but there’s no point racing through the step just to say you’ve practiced it does you no good if you’re not doing the choreography properly. Going through your steps too quickly also risks picking up some bad technique habits. Start slowly, and when you know you’ve got the choreography down, pick up the speed.

When you’re perfecting your steps

When you’ve got the choreography down, and it’s time to really perfect the step for competition, drills are your best friend for at-home practice. Generally speaking, home is not the place to work on your stamina (though fitness training can help with that, more on that later). Most of us don’t have the space at home to be able to run our steps full out with the same speed, sharpness, and distance that we have in the studio; better to take small pieces of your steps and drill them, and use studio time to put all the little pieces together.

There are a few ways you can drill your steps at home. One way would be to start at the beginning of a step, and take everything two-three bars at a time. Take the first two-three bars of your step and drill them over and over, paying close attention to your technique: are you crossed, turned out, off your heels, standing tall, kicking your bum etc.? When you’re able to consistently execute that section of the step with good technique, you can move on to the next two-three bar section, repeating until you reach the end of the step. This kind of practice can take time, so you may only get through a few steps in a practice session.

If you don’t want to work through a whole step, you could pick certain pieces of your steps you want to work on (e.g., the points in your first step, the drums in your third step, the spins in your second), and drill those pieces over and over. When you’re consistently executing that piece with good technique, you can move on to the next.

It sounds repetitive, but repetition is how we build muscle memory, and muscle memory is what helps dancers execute their movements on stage with minimal conscious effort. It’s important to build that muscle memory in with good technique – paying attention to your technique when you’re doing these drills is important. It’s not helpful to drill your steps with bad posture, or bent knees – you might think you’ll be able to fix it when it matters, but what happens in practice is what shows up on stage.

One on one with the champ

When you want to improve a specific skill

Practicing to improve a specific skill (e.g., skips, skater spins, back trebles, clicks) is a combination of practicing when you’re learning the choreography and when you’re perfecting your steps. When you’re practicing a skill it’s important to understand the mechanics of the skill, for example in a skater spin you would need to understand which leg you’re taking off from, which leg is helping you get around, which leg you’re landing on – that may require you to go slowly through the skill to make sure you know what your legs and feet need to do before speeding it up. Once you’ve got the mechanics down, you can drill the skill over and over with good technique. When I practiced clicks at home, I would set a target for myself – I could stop when I hit 10 clicks in a row (with good posture, turn out, cross, etc.). If I missed a click (even click #9), the count started again at 1. Again, it’s not just about the number you do, it’s about consistent execution of the skill with good technique. 

What about fitness?

Cross training, fitness and exercise are great things to add to your at-home practice schedule, particularly if you are in preliminary or open championship. While it shouldn’t replace your at home practice entirely, you may decide to swap one at home practice day for a fitness day. Reaching New Heights, Target Training, and Feis Fit are just some of the great resources available to help plan your fitness training to augment your Irish dance training.

Whatever you’re practicing at home, mirrors or a video camera can be very helpful – they let you see what you’re doing and really judge how well you’re executing each movement. Practicing with a buddy can also help – having someone to give you feedback is incredibly valuable, plus you can motivate each other to keep your energy and focus up throughout the practice.

If you’re still unsure about what to practice at home, talk to your teachers – they’re a great resource for where you should focus your efforts to improve your dancing. 

While practicing at home can be hard, it’s an important part of the puzzle as you work towards your dance goals. Knowing how to practice at home can help you get the most out of your at home practice, and (maybe, possibly) even make it a bit fun!

What do you love practicing at home? What do you find most challenging to practice at home? Let us know in the comments below.

– Laura Hopper, ADCRG, TCRG

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