GROTON — I’m Irish. Okay, maybe half Irish. No, actually I’m not Irish at all. But I feel Irish. After I was born my mother married into a serious Irish family full of Dohertys, Devlins and McGaffigans, and over 10 years ago I married into an Irish family of Colgans. I am as Irish as you can get without being Irish. Perhaps I am Irish by association?
This week I sat down and tried to think of an exercise routine that I haven’t already covered in my six-month exploratory journey into fitness. I’ve grooved, walked, biked and hiked, and participated in karate, yoga, Pilates and kickboxing. I thought I had done it all until I chatted with my fairly new friend, Katie. She said, “You haven’t had a workout until you’ve tried Irish step dancing.”
You may ask, “Is Irish dancing exercise?” In an article in Irish Dance magazine, there was a teenage girl, Alexandra Hahn, who is an Irish dancer and her friends insisted that her dancing didn’t take as much effort as other “sports.” Fed up, she decided to find out just how her sport ranked.
Hahn decided to calculate the MET value (metabolic equivalent) of Irish dancing, using heart rate monitors on fellow Irish dancers during a five-week study. Calculating MET allows you to measure a physical activity’s intensity. The harder your body works during the activity, the higher the MET will be. Along with calculating the MET value of Irish dancing, Hahn won a 2004 Young Scientist of the Year award in her native Australia.
Hahn found that the MET value of intermediate-level Irish dancing is 8.2. To put this in perspective, hockey is an 8.0, jogging is an 8.5, vigorous biking is a 10.5 and aerobics is a 5. Convinced that this dance form is a legitimate exercise, I started to search for a local place to try it out.
I went back to my friend Katie to find out where she learned that Irish dance is a good workout. She led me to the Bremer School of Irish Dance, offering lessons at the Groton Grange on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
On a warm summer evening I met with Kimberly Morgan Iverson for a private lesson, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of others. (As I have mentioned in previous articles, I am not terribly coordinated.)
Iverson, who is part Irish and part Scottish, told me a little about the dance/sport before we began. “People study about 30 official Ceili (traditional Irish social dances) that have been handed down for hundreds of years. It is an extremely traditional, vibrant art form,” she said.
Irish dancing has increased in visibility and popularity, perhaps due to 1994’s Riverdance and perhaps to St. Patrick’s Day festivals, she said.
“When I moved from Tennessee to Boston 12 years ago, I saw an Irish dance demonstration and something clicked inside of me,” she said. “I thought it was absolutely beautiful and graceful and I have been studying it ever since.”
The students at the Bremer School, led by director Sheila Bremer, TCRG, are as young as 4, but they have people of many ages participating in classes. They take weekly group classes and some add private lessons to prepare for feiseanna, or Irish dancing competitions, and the New England region “Oireachtas,” where dancers can qualify for the world competitions held in Ireland.
I know I won’t be qualified to go to a feis anytime soon, but Iverson told me if I can count to eight and know my left from my right, I can do the dances. We worked on two basic steps that are present in most Irish dances — the “hop 2-3” or the Irish Skip, and the “jump over 2-3.” After about 20 minutes, I was covered in sweat and my thighs and calves were working overtime. “Irish dance is half sport, half cultural art form,” Iverson added.
I found that in order to learn and “get” this dance style, you have to think and remember a lot.
“It is very disciplined, but I also want my students to have fun and acquire an appreciation for the dance while they are doing it,” Iverson said.
That seems to be exactly what happened during the hour I was with Iverson. I was so enthralled with the dance that on my way home, I actually called my friend Sheila on my cell phone to tell her that we had to try Irish lessons together in the fall.
Iverson wasn’t kidding when she said that, as a cardio workout, Irish dance kicks your butt. But it is also a fantastic lower-body workout, and it requires incredible core strength to lift your legs, jump and balance. The next day, I have to admit, my legs were a tad sore okay, maybe more than a tad but I found myself practicing the steps anyway in my kitchen while no one was watching.
For more information on The Bremer School and classes at the Groton Grange, visit www.irishdancesalem.com. Iverson is absolutely fabulous and inspiring. She makes the class difficult and fun at the same time.