If you have ever seen Irish dancing, you know it’s pretty hardcore. Arms are in, toes are pointed and dancers either leap and skip around the floor in the soft shoe, or aggressively bang their feet against the ground in hard shoe, creating beautiful rhythms. To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, we’re shining a spotlight on this beautiful artform, but also the insane damage it does to dancers feet! It’s not uncommon for dancers to lose toenails, get stress fractures, bruise things, tear things, and break things. Ouch!
Irish dancer and personal trainer Frances Dunne has been involved with Irish dancing her whole life. She runs a program called Fitness Formula for Irish Dance, helping dancers understand their bodies and get the most out of their training without injuring themselves. When discussing foot injuries, Frances says “Some of the worst injuries are caused from the repetition, constant strains, and the lack of rest and repair time dancers allow themselves. These include things like stress fractures, bunions, and Achilles issues. Obviously acute injuries are serious, but their nature is such that they usually heal with proper rest and rehab, and so don’t cause long term issues. The slow onset of the above however, mean that they take a lot longer to recover from, and often have long term, sometimes life-long, implications.”
Julia Baar (pictured above), an elite level competitor who has also been dancing her whole life, adds “Throughout my dancing career I have encountered many injuries to my body, including stress fractures, heavily irritated growth plates, spine injuries, ankle sprains, deep soft tissue bruising and ligament and tendon tears. All of the injuries are a major set back to my training program but the worst injuries are definitely the stress fractures, due to the fact that I was put in a boot to remove all weight off the foot. This, therefore, took me out of my training plan and competitions for 6-8 weeks at a time. Most of the injuries are caused by overuse, such as the growth plates, the stress fractures, the spinal pain and the tissue bruising, but other injuries such as tears and sprains are caused from falling the incorrect way when landing a jump and rolling over on the ankle.
Something many dancers deal with during training is the toenails falling off. Julia is no stranger to losing toenails, saying “Being a dancer who is forced to squeeze my feet into shoes that are 3 sizes too small and constantly pounding my feet into the ground, my toe nails fall off at least once or twice a year. Gross, but I guess as a dancer it’s something you learn to live with!” Frances concurs, saying “Loss of toenails is a common occurrence for dancers, usually due to the friction between the shoes and nails. The constant rubbing causes blisters on the nail bed which eventually causes the separation of the nail. As well as that, the constant impact causes bruising which then leads to necrosis of the tissue.”
As well as toenails falling off, and dealing with stress fractures, Julia mentions another disturbing occurrence. “The shoes we have to wear in Irish Dancing are worn extremely tightly for extra support, therefore, when I remove my shoes after a long training session or competition day, my feet always look very red and sometimes purple from the laces cutting off circulation. Saying this, I also get bruised tissue from the jumping and heavy landing and the pounding of my feet into the ground when I dance”. Frances often sees bruised feet with her clients, and has a few very effective ways to treat black and blue feet, including ice and gentle massage. “It’s important to keep even bruised and sore feet moving and mobilised to avoid build up of scar tissue, and stiffness of joints. Anti-inflammatories will decrease symptoms, but should be used sparingly. Various compresses such as hot Caster Oil, or gels such as Arnica or Biofreeze can also ease discomfort.”
One of the keys to dealing with injuries is preventing them in the first place through a proper routine of strengthening exercises. This is something Julia is very familiar with, having been encouraged by her parents and her physiotherapist to strengthen from a young age. “One of the main exercises I always do is calf raises – I do them either standing on the edge of the stairs or just on the flat ground and raise up onto my demi-pointe and slowly lower my feet back to the flat level. This encourages strengthening of my calves, ankles and toe joints. Another exercise to help especially with toe and metatarsal strength is putting a bath towel flat on the floor, putting your foot flat on the towel, and slowly gripping the towel with your toes and scrunching your toes in to pull the towel towards your body. I have found these two exercises to be the most effective when it comes to injury prevention.
Frances goes into more detail when discussing injury prevention, saying “The most important part of strengthening toes and ankles to prevent injuries is actually in the maintenance of joint health. Most recurring injuries, and even acute fractures and sprains, are a result of instabilities in the joints caused from scar tissue, and lack of proper and thorough rehab work.
It is super important, irrespective of whether a dancer has suffered from any injuries, to keep all the foot joints moving as they should be able to, all of the muscles in and around the arch in good condition, and proper range of motion in the ankle joints. This will in turn strengthen said areas, as they will be able to function properly in every movement made.
Failure to do so, may not only cause weaknesses and injuries in the foot and ankle, but also have repercussions in other areas of the body such as the knees, hips, and shoulders.”
Both of these talented dancers are featured in the book Parade of Champions: Inspiration for the Irish Dancer*, where they discuss their motivations and achievements in dance.
[Image source: Milton Baar, MediaImages]
2013 World Champions Tyler Schwartz and Claire Greaney
Disclosure: The editor of this website is also one of the publishers of the book Parade of Champions. She has been involved with Irish dancing for 20-something years, and can often be seen jigging around the pedicure.com office.