Celebrate St. Paddy's Day With Irish Step Dancing

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This post was written by guest contributor Mickela Mallozzi, a professional dancer and travel/arts blogger for Bare Feet™. All views and opinions expressed in the piece are hers. You can usually find her teaching dance in New York City or traveling the world, learning the cultures of other lands through dance and music. Follow her @TravelBareFeet.

It is a bit blasphemous to say the words “St. Paddy’s Day” and “workout” in the same sentence. The first thoughts that come to mind with this iconic Irish holiday are not only shamrocks and leprechauns, but pints of beer, shots of whiskey, and greasy bar food. (Fish and chips, anyone?) Of course, this is exactly what makes St. Patrick’s Day special — once a year, we are given a day where eating and drinking excessively is not only completely appropriate, but even highly encouraged. Falling on a Saturday this year, St. Patrick’s Day is sure to send your calorie counter through the roof with those extra hours of bar hopping, food snacking, and of course the option to recuperate with Sunday morning (or afternoon) brunch. 

But St. Paddy’s Day doesn’t have to mean tipping the scale to the point of no return. In true Irish fashion, I have found not only the ultimate way to celebrate the Emerald Isle’s patron saint, but also an amazing way to stay in shape.In December, my husband and I took a trip to the island; he being a musician and I a dancer, we wanted to experience the life of Irish trad sessions (live traditional music) and warm fireplaces in the small-town Irish pubs. Not only did we eat and drink to our heart’s content, but I did not gain one extra pound — and we did our fair share of drinking and eating, some more drinking and even more eating, and then maybe even a little more drinking.My secret? Before the trip, I scouted out an Irish dance group in Dublin and scheduled a few lessons with them. Since then, I’ve been hooked. Unfortunately, I'm only able to dream of hard-shoe jigs and hop 1-2-3’s, as living in a tiny New York apartment where the mere drop of a sock bothers the neighbors keeps me from practicing what I learned. I sometimes daydream of dancing on my kitchen floor with the fiberglass-heeled shoes as a vengeful last hurrah to the tenant below, if we ever decide to leave this shoebox of an apartment. A girl can dream!

With St. Patrick’s Day quickly approaching, I decided to stop my complaining and get my non-Irish butt to an actual class. I found one of the few Irish dance teachers for adults in New York City, Niall O’Leary, who not only owns a dance school but leads a weekly Irish music and dance trad session at Paddy Reilly’s Music BarO’Leary is a former All-Ireland and World Champion Irish dancer from Dublin, and his school, the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance, is the largest of its kind in New York City. I quickly signed up for both his hard-shoe and soft-shoe classes back-to-back on Tuesday evenings. If they were going to be anything like I remembered in Ireland, I knew I was going to get my heart rate up and my butt in shape!

The hard-shoe class began with simple quad stretches and quick warm-ups for the legs. Gradually we continued further with more intricate rhythms with our feet, shuffling and striking various parts of the shoe on the floor. The hard-shoe class offers a great way to tone and strengthen muscles. Posture, form, and alignment are extremely important; with your feet turned out and your legs held tightly together, you cannot help but squeeze your inner-thighs constantly to keep correct dance form. My glutes were getting a major workout during all of my treble-leaps, and my core was constantly engaged. A dancing version of an extreme Pilates class is the best way to describe what my body was feeling — and don't forget the spurts of cardio that the faster sections add in. (So maybe this is more along the lines of circuit training, Irish style?) And guys, don't be discouraged by the word "dance" — just remember Michael Flatley from Riverdance. (Ok, maybe his costume choice is not the best example of modern-day masculinity, but he's a phenomenal dancer and in fantastic shape!)

After a 55-minute class, I was already wiped out, but I was determined to stick through the next class. If I remembered correctly from my time in Dublin, the soft-shoe class would be more about cardio, which I needed. Luckily, some extra stretching in the hamstrings got me ready! The warm-up alone got my blood pumping and body sweating, which continued for the next 50 minutes. Quite opposite of the hard-shoe class, the soft-shoe class was extremely diverse — there was Otoja, the 6’5” African American actor built like a professional basketball player; his friend Polly, a ballerina in Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera; a motley crew of Irish-American gals;  a sweet South Asian girl leading the entire group; and me, the Italian-American trying to keep up. Completely winded and covered in sweat, the class ended with an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, and of course, the obvious question from our Irish instructor Niall, “Anyone fancy a pint?”

This year, as you plan your St. Patrick’s Day festivities, don’t forget to include some healthy doses of Irish Dance!  For more information on classes offered in your area, go to FeisWorx.comSlainte!

Niall O’Leary is a former All-Ireland and World Champion Irish Step dancer. His School of Irish Dance is the largest in New York City. O'Leary also leads the Niall O'Leary Irish Dance Troupe, a professional Irish Dance Company based in New York. 

Photo: Craig Daniels for Niall O'Leary Irish Dance Troupe

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