Saturday 1 October 2016

Now let's get in formation - how elite Irish dancers get in shape

It's not as easy as it looks, Beyoncé, says our reporter, as she learns the hard way how our elite Irish dancers get in shape for their biggest show of the year - Riverdance

Published 14/06/2016 | 02:30

Riverdance dancers Miriam Lee and Orlagh Carthy put Vicki Notaro through her paces. Photo: Damien Eagers.
Riverdance dancers Miriam Lee and Orlagh Carthy put Vicki Notaro through her paces. Photo: Damien Eagers.
Orlagh Carthy, Ellen Bonner, Pauric Moyles, Miriam Lee, and Siobhan Manson. Photo: Damien Eagers.

I don't think there's an Irish person alive who was around in 1994 and isn't enchanted by Riverdance. I'll never forget being eight-years-old, sitting on the floor of my parents' living room and hearing those first haunting bars - and that was before the dancing started, the thrilling, pounding, rhythmic dancing that was like nothing I'd seen before.

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So imagine my absolute delight when I was asked to go and train with some of the dancers ahead of their 21st anniversary run at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre. The woman responsible for promoting the tour even questioned my sanity in agreeing to do a workout with professional dancers, but I was too excited to worry.

However, when I walked in to One Escape in Smithfield on a Tuesday morning after a bank holiday weekend, the fear had begun to set in. I'd foolishly YouTubed some old Riverdance performances the night before, and now worried greatly for my calf muscles.

It's easy to forget when blinded by their showmanship that these dancers are, in fact, professional athletes with bucketloads of stamina and strength, as well as impeccable cardiovascular fitness.

But when I came to that realisation, it's safe to say one word ran through my mind - feck.

Still, I'm not a woman to back down from a challenge so, bleary eyed and holding in my stomach next to the lithe dancers, we got down to it.

Leading the session were the two most experienced group members - 37-year-old Pauric Moyles, who's been with Riverdance for 18 years, and Siobhan Manson (31), with over a decade as a Riverdancer under her belt.

They were joined by Ellen Bonner (25), Orlagh Carty (24), and 23-year-old Miriam Lee. I enquired as to the average age of the company and was told early to mid-20s - at 30, I was already at a disadvantage when it came to keeping up with these girls.

However, I learn quickly that the group save their cardio for the 170-minute performances at night and when they're in the gym, they're there to work on strength, conditioning and muscle tone.

We start with a few photos before the sweat really starts to pump (of course, it's very humid outside, like the weather gods knew what was about to happen), and I find it difficult to even get in formation. It's tricky to just stand in a dancing pose as they do.

Then things begin badly - for me. Pauric asks us to balance on all fours on inflatable balls and do what's known as a pike, which involves pushing the ball backwards with our legs and thighs, and then bringing it back in. The dancers sure as hell made it look easy - but I'm flailing right away. I'm unable to even balance on the ball, let alone have the coordination to pike. I fall several times (and hurt my knees) before they take pity on me and choose a different exercise.

Things get easier, but not much.

I make it through walking lunges, body-weight squats, sit-ups, push-ups, various types of crunches, leg lifts and more, all with the sinking feeling that these guys are going very easy on me.

After even the first exercise I could see things as they are - the dancers are not just fit, they're mega-fit. They train everyday and dance all night, which they tell me is a bit like high-intensity interval training - going hard for three minutes during a song and then taking a break before the next one.

These are the type of athletes that can hold a plank for 60 seconds without breaking a sweat or even breathing heavily, while moderately fit me is grunting, swearing and perspiring. I'm not joking when I say they have cores of steel, where mine is more like Play-Doh.

However, I felt I was getting in to the swing of things when we took to the TRX straps for some upper body work. The dancers challenge each other to keep up by calling out their pace, and I manage to do 30 TRX rows as quickly as the others. However, I'm relieved when that's it and I can go home. I'm right, I got only a sneak peek at how they train - normally the dancers do a longer routine and complete each minute of each exercise three times.

So bear in mind when you venture to the Gaiety this summer, where they're playing from tomorrow until September, that these people aren't just talented when it comes to Irish dancing - their daily regimen actually goes far beyond learning new routines and choreography.

Pauric tells me that they're most thrilled to be home in Ireland for a few months so that they can have a bit of stability with their training, because it's much harder to work out when they're on the road.

As someone who's been with the company for a very long time, he's been part of the Riverdance phenomenon all over the world, and although he doesn't perform as much as he used to, he's a big deal behind the scenes and incredibly proud to be celebrating such an anniversary.

As I write, it's 24 hours since my Riverdance workout, and let me tell you, I'm aching in places I didn't know I could ache. But seeing the physicality and sportsmanship it takes to be a Riverdancer was inspiring, especially because there are so many other talents required to do what they do.

The experience has encouraged me to book in with the personal trainer that I haven't seen since before Christmas, because I'm damned if I'm ever going to let an inflatable ball defeat me again.

÷ Riverdance runs at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin from June 14 - September 4. Tickets now on sale

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