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On your feet for 'Riverdance'

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2000

The craze for dance musicals -- from Chicago to Tap Dogs to the latest hit on Broadway, the Tony Award-winning Contact -- has created a cottage industry for chiropractors and masseurs. Dance-related injuries are among the biggest problems onstage nowadays.

"Irish dance is particularly hard," said Michael Patrick Gallagher, the principal male dancer in Riverdance, which makes a repeat appearance next week at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

"You've got a lot of pounding and jumping, and there are a lot of sprains and strains. But it's part of the profession. We've got our own sprung floor that travels with us. We have our own chiropractor and masseur. I get a half-hour massage every night before the show."

Gallagher, 24, speaking from Fort Lauderdale, where the troupe was performing two weeks ago, has been with Riverdance since 1996, first in Europe and then for the past two-and-a-half years with the North American tour. He didn't perform during the second week of the engagement in Tampa last year because he was injured.

"I found out I had two stress fractures in my shins and was out for eight weeks," he said. "I wasn't feeling any pain when I was walking about, but as soon as I started to dance, there was no give in my leg. Every time I went to jump I felt pain."

Injuries aside, Bill Whelan's score and the production by Moya Doherty and John McColgan has done wonders for the job prospects of fresh-faced Irish dancers, whose leaping, stiff-backed, hands-on-hips style has become the stuff of pop culture legend. There are three Riverdance companies, including the Broadway show that opened this year on the eve of St. Patrick's Day.

Then there are a pair of competing spinoffs, Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames, developed by former Riverdance star Michael Flatley.

In Ireland, where it all started, the show hasn't actually been performed for four years. The European company will play Dublin for eight weeks starting in July.

Irish step dance before Riverdance, whose first incarnation was as a seven-minute number during the 1994 Eurovision pop-song contest, was largely an amateur pursuit.

"It was just a competitive scene," said Gallagher, who is from Donegal in northwest Ireland. "You went to different competitions every couple of weeks. You had the provincial championships, the all-Ireland championships, the world championships. Usually, once you reached the age of 21 or 22, your competitive career was over, and all you could do was become a teacher and an adjudicator. Now we have dancers in the show who are 30 or 31. Michael Flatley is in his forties now, and he is still going strong."

Riverdance is something of a full-employment act for Irish step, or hard-shoe, dancers. The American tour has 35 Irish dancers as well as eight Russian folk dancers, three tap dancers and a flamenco dancer.

Gallagher was studying law and Spanish at Queen's University in Belfast when he won an audition to be in the show. "My place is still there in the university if I want to go back to it," he said. "But for the moment I'm just enjoying this and hopefully can continue to do it for the foreseeable future."

Theater preview

Riverdance opens Wednesday and runs through June 25 at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $41-$62.50. Call (813) 229-7827.

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