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Wild Irish footwork

When Irish music's playing, the feet of the Riverdance troupe move so quickly they almost blur. And that's no blarney, as its sold-out audiences attest.

By CHRISTOPHER BLANK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 1999


When John McColgan first brought his Irish dance show to a European stage, nothing could have prepared him for the reaction.

"The people in the audience leapt to their feet. They were waving Irish flags. We knew then that there was an appetite for this type of music," he said.

After that show -- a seven-minute interval act for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest -- Riverdance only got bigger.

The Irish rockettes became an international spectacle. Riverdance, which opens tonight at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center for a two-week run, has been a bonanza for traditional Irish dance, spawning a best-selling video, an award winning soundtrack, and more than one competitor.

But timing may have played the most important role in the Riverdance success story.

The concept came to fruition shortly after two Englishmen introduced Broadway to Stomp, a show in which cast members make music by banging on found objects. More rhythm-centric, working-class dance followed. An Australian show called Tap Dogs arrived, with the performers dressed as construction workers, dancing in steel-toed boots. Bring In 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk was an American entry, a tap show co-created by Savion Glover.

Riverdance fit right in with these gimmicky spectacles of movement and sound, and in some ways surpassed them. With upper bodies stiff as ramrods, and feet hard at work below, the performers did more than showcase Irish dance. They reinvigorated it.

"The footwork is very true to traditional dance, but the hemlines are shorter," chuckled dance captain Kevin McCormack. "Probably the main innovation is a chorus line of dancers. That has never been done before. Also, the music doesn't follow the time signatures of traditional music. That's how we would normally tell the difference between a reel and a slip jig. The music gives us more variety."

While staunch traditionalists have been critical of Riverdance's updated look, McCormack said that before the show kindled a new interest, Irish dancing wasn't particularly popular in Ireland.

"At some point every child is exposed to Irish dance," McCormack said. "My parents sent me to lessons when I was three, but it wasn't something that you did openly or liked very much. Dancing was subject to ridicule, especially with guys."

McCormack had not competed for several years when Riverdance producer Moya Doherty began looking for dancers. What she found was an energetic group of local amateurs, many of whom are still with the show.

"We were not professional Irish dancers," said McCormack. "There were no professionals. The only forum for Irish dance was in competition every year. I never thought that it would become as big as it did."

The Riverdance video has sold more than 4-million copies. The soundtrack to the show, a fusion of Celtic and world music composed by Bill Whelan, won a Grammy Award in 1997 in the "Best New Musical Show Album" category. Now, with two North American touring companies and a third in Europe, Riverdance has burgeoned along with the competition.

Incidently, the main competition comes from former Riverdance choreographer and lead dancer Michael Flatley, whose work still appears in the show. Flatley left Riverdance to produce his own Vegas style Irish-roots show, Lord of the Dance.

After his departure, Flatley turned into something of a celebrity, appearing with his company at the 1997 Academy Awards. He was well known enough to be parodied in MTV's Celebrity Death Match, a claymation duel of pop icons. Flatley kills his opponent by step-dancing on his head.

"Michael wanted a different show," McColgan said. "He wanted Riverdance to be more of a vehicle for himself. He didn't think the show could survive without star-power. But even after he left and became the Lord of the Dance, Riverdance remained extremely successful. People come to see these dancers because they passionately believe in what they are doing."

Certainly there is enough room on the world stages for Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, and even smaller Irish-themed shows such as Spirit of the Dance, which all cash in on a steady appeal for flashy moves and energetic music.

They speak from tradition, without being traditional. They urbanely embrace other ethnic influences.

McColgan describes opening night in Radio City Music Hall: "There was a lot of nervousness when we came to New York. We were big in Ireland, but we weren't sure it was going to be successful outside of it. The night was electric. By the end, everyone was cheering. We knew then that we had it."

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