Learning the art of Riverdance

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Two decades after wowing the world in an interval for the Eurovision Song Contest, Riverdance is turning 20. Katy Wheeler went to Dublin to learn the iconic dance.

The distinctive drumming of Riverdance reverberates through the wooden floor as nervous excitement fills the air.

The Riverdance 20th Anniversary Tour will do a  six-night run at the world famous Winter Gardens Opera House, Blackpool, from October 21-26

The Riverdance 20th Anniversary Tour will do a six-night run at the world famous Winter Gardens Opera House, Blackpool, from October 21-26

In front of me is a sea of wannabe Riverdancers pounding their feet in tune, each trying to impress the stars of the show in a special workshop.

One instructor is a six times Irish dance champion, one’s a lithe blonde who can jump as though she has springs in her shoes, another’s an international dancer who’s performed Riverdance for everyone from Michelle Obama to the Queen – all have been in the tentative steps of the young dancers as they spend hours honing their skills in pursuit of turning their passion into a career.

The speedy feet of the current, and past, cast has helped the dance, which started life as interval entertainment at Eurovision 20 years ago, evolve into a world-famous touring show.

In between gruelling shows its stars host workshops to help inspire future dancers who will keep the Riverdance legacy tapping on for another 20 years.

“Good cuts” yells one of the instructors in reference to the side bend of the leg in front of the other that’s become such a famous component of the dance.

Despite knowing none of the terms – and being in possession of zero grace – I was up next.

‘There’s no way my leg will bend that way,’ I thought to myself. But there’s no time for thinking once the music kicks in, you just have to go with the beat, albeit badly, in my case.

Clumsily, I tried to follow the Riverdancer’s lead. Her feet moved effortlessly in a quick succession of trebles, cuts and heels. My movements were sloth-like in comparison. I don’t think there’s any danger of me joining the cast.

After half an hour leaping about I was knackered. But it was a mere light warm up for the dancers, who were on stage that afternoon in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre where they’re performing as part of a three-months summer residency.

As part of my trip, I went to see the matinee performance.

Ireland was the perfect location for my first time seeing the show live, a show that’s so ingrained in Irish culture. It’s got an energy to it that can only be truly felt by seeing the show in person as the beat drums through your body.

I’m used to seeing the famous, rigid line of dancers in TV performances, but that’s only one element to the show.

The narrative which flows through it is of ancient Ireland and the power of song and dance before external elements forced them to move around the world, taking with them their passion and culture.

As such, the show dips into other dances: the punchy jazz taps of New York, sultry Spanish moves and racy Russian acrobatics.

Many world-class dancers have pounded out the ebb and flow of the show’s rhythms. The cast regularly rotates to keep it fresh.

The Gaiety is one of the most intimate theatres to see the show, which changes size depending on the stage so that you always have a long line of dedicated dancers which stretches from one side to the other.

New York’s famous Radio City stage, which spans a mammoth 140ft, requires the most dancers. But no matter what the overall size of the stage, each cast member has just a metre to perform in line.

“You can’t just learn one spot on stage, you have to learn them all,” explained dance captain Padraic Moyles. “We come in at about 6pm for a 7.30pm show to do rotations. It means the dancers don’t get bored and it keeps the show fresh.”

Padraic joined Riverdance back in 1997. He found sitting in the audience of the show in its early days so inspiring, he made it his mission to join the troupe.

He reached his goal, becoming dance captain, principal dancer and associate director.

“I just fell in love with Riverdance,” he said. “Everyone used to say to me ‘will you stop tapping’. I’d be going back to the hotels that night and tapping in my room.”

Among those who also knows the show inside out is dancer Jason O’Neill, who has performed it in 200 cities worldwide. He started dancing at the age of five, but his was a Billy Elliot-esque road to Riverdance.

“For a long time I didn’t tell people I danced,” he explains. “Now it’s a lot more acceptable. It’s so athletic, you become like a well oiled machine and I’m proud to dance.

“People who used to say things to me about my dancing are now the ones messaging me saying they can’t believe I’m dancing in China.”

There’s no denying the athleticism required of the Riverdancers.

Eight shows a week can take its toll on the body, but everything possible is done to keep their bodies in the peak of fitness.

Masseuses and physios travel with them on tour to ease any strains.

And there’s also a goosebump-inducing ritual at the end of each show to ward off injury. Waiting in the wings for performers after the curtain falls are huge buckets of ice which dancers dunk their legs in for ten minu-


Fiery passion and icy intensity: that’s the key to twenty years of Riverdancing.

•Riverdance is at Sunderland Empire from November 10-15. Tickets are priced £37.40 - £44.90 from Tel. 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.

Facts and Figures

Since Riverdance began, the show has:

•Played 10,000 performances

•Been seen live by more than 23 million people in over 350 venues world wide, throughout 45 countries across six continents

•Travelled 600,000 miles (or to the moon and back)

•Played to a global televi-sion audience of two billion people

•Sold over three million copies of the Grammy Award-winning CD

•Sold 10 million Riverdance videos & DVDs

•There have also been 42 Riverdance weddings between cast members