Irish Dance Revolution

These are not my feet.

The stepdancer pictured here is far more advanced than I am! But I began taking lessons at the Lyons Academy of Irish Dance back in February, and I love it.

Best. Hobby. Ever.

The popularity of Irish Dance has exploded over the past fifteen years. Of course, the Irish have been dancing jigs for centuries. But in the mid-1990s, Michael Flatley brought global attention to the art form with his mesmerizing sell-out performances of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. American kids flocked to stepdancing classes, finding a fun alternative to gymnastics or ballet.  And Irish Dance has its own vibrant subculture, with young students dancing at Celtic fairs all over Europe and North America.

So when my sister suggested that we sign up for an adult beginners class, I thought it sounded like a good idea.  I knew that I wouldn’t have enough time to train for another triathlon this year, so I needed a new physical goal.  And what could be more fun than dancing jigs with my sister while listening to fiddles, accordions and bagpipes? (Contrary to common belief, I don’t only listen to opera… well, ok, I do listen to a lot of opera. But not exclusively.)

Still, it was just a fun thing to do on Wednesday nights. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would actually compete at a feis (Irish dance competition) this year. But that’s what happened.  I blame it on our teacher, dance champion Meredith Lyons, because she is an amazing teacher.  She encouraged us to go for the gold… and in fact, I came home from the Long Beach Halloween Feis with three gold medals and two silvers! (Full disclosure: there were only a dozen people in the adult beginners category.)  I had so much fun.

Irish dancers use two kinds of shoes: soft shoes (or ghillies) and hard shoes. There are four traditional soft shoe dances: the reel, light jig, slip jig, and single jig. The difference between the dances has to do with the time signature of the music. Reels are in 4/4 time, but light and single jigs are in 6/8, and slip jigs are in 9/8. There are also a variety of hard shoe dances: the hornpipe (syncopated 2/4 or 4/4), as well as the treble jig, the treble reel and traditional set dances.

So if you need a lift, I recommend Irish Dance. It’s great exercise and it’s guaranteed to improve your mood. After all, it’s hard not to grin when you’re dancing a jig.  Just stepdance your cares away! But I warn you: it’s addictive.

Travel Fitness: the Diva Workout

Singing is a sport.

Opera singers may not look like swimsuit models, but they are actually cardio champions.

According to the American Journal of Nursing, opera singers have stronger chest-wall muscles, greater lung capacity, and more efficient hearts than their non-singing friends.

But, if classical singing requires the muscle coordination of a professional athlete, why are singers so… plump?  Not all opera singers are heavy, but many cantanti struggle with their weight. Does it have to do with body type?  Metabolism? Lifestyle? No one knows for sure.   A New York Times article cited a study suggesting that singers produce too much leptin. We do know that the sound of a human voice is influenced by the size and shape of the body. Some people believe that fat actually produces a more resonant sound! Whatever the reason, the extra curves get noticed. There is increasing pressure on opera singers to lose weight.

That’s why so many 21st century singers are signing up for total body fitness programs!  Personally, I prefer a combination of yoga, Irish dancing, and cycling by the beach. (I also list “singing Wagner” as one of my endurance sports.)

I enjoy some fitness video games: Wii Fit Plus for strength and posture, and ABBA You Can Dance for those rare moments when I’ve had enough opera and I’m craving happy ’70s music.

But how on earth do you maintain a program of cardio, strength, and flexibility training when you’re on the road? For people who travel, exercise is a special challenge. It requires a lot of planning! I like to collect tips from this cool blog: My Travel Fitness

In 2010, I traveled to Spain for an opera contest while I was training for my first triathlon. Before I even got on the plane, I wrote down the directions from my Spanish hotel to the nearest public swimming pool. I also found the nearest bike rental shop. When I got there, I went hiking as often as possible.  For me, singing always comes first, but I managed to maintain a (slightly less rigorous) triathlon training schedule. I may not have a castle in Spain… but I’ve jogged around one.

Most singers find that they can improve their energy and vocal stamina by spending more time at the gym. They are more comfortable with dancing, and swordplay, and leaping around onstage if they have taken martial arts classes, or dance aerobics, or gyrotonics. Exercise also helps melt away the stress of a major career. Cindy Sadler has blogged about her success with cycling.  Renée Fleming does Pilates.

And if you’re not a singer, but you’re looking for a fun new cardio activity, try voice lessons! Singers learn advanced breathing techniques by training the muscles of the thorax and the abdominal wall. An opera colleague of mine surprised her doctor by demonstrating that she could hold a normal conversation while jogging on the treadmill.  “Sustaining breath control over an elevated pulse?” she scoffed.  “Yeah, that’s kinda what I do.”  Singing is fun and it’s good for your heart, too! 🙂

Finally, I’d like to share an opera video has been circulating on Facebook this week. It demonstrates the advantages of being in shape (check out what happens at 0:50):