Irish Dancing Lord of The Dance

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Sinead McCafferty and Conor Hayes in "Riverdance" at Radio City Music Hall. The step-dancing spectacle is celebrating its 10th anniversary


How Step Dancing Became the Lord of Irish Feet


"Riverdance," the pan-Irish extravaganza celebrating its 10th anniversary and ensconced through tonight (St. Patrick’s Day) at Radio City Music Hall, begins its second half with Irish immigrants dancing in New York. For all the glitz, what they’re doing looks and sounds rather like American square dance, which is appropriate, given the profound influence of Anglo-Irish-Scottish music on American folkways.

Square dancing is partnered dance, sometimes called set dancing in Ireland. The history of dance in Ireland is complex, involving formal social dance, set dancing, rougher forms of folk dancing, ballet and modern dance, as well as step dancing, which is about the only kind people think of these days when they think of Irish dance. Thanks to "Riverdance."

Or so it would seem, given that show’s worldwide success. As it happens, however, two other Irish dance troupes have also been in the area recently, and each claims some credit for the commercial step-dancing explosion.

The Trinity Irish Dance Company from Chicago was at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx. Trinity says it "was the birthplace of progressive Irish dance which opened new avenues of artistic expression that led to commercial productions such as ‘Riverdance.’ "

And then, at the Tilles Center on Long Island, there was "Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance," from which Mr. Flatley has now retired as a performer. Born in Chicago of Irish parents, Mr. Flatley was the star of "Riverdance" and is still credited with most of its step-dancing choreography. He broke away from "Riverdance" acrimoniously and now claims that his show is more successful than its progenitor. Although one night on Long Island does not equal 10 at Radio City.

Step dancing involves a stiff torso and arms held rigidly at the sides (all these companies vary that pattern with much freer arm movements). This stylistic oddity, with rapidly kicking and tapping feet juxtaposed to upper immobility, is usually credited to Irish parish priests, concerned about lascivious corporeal display.

Each company is different. Trinity is young, almost entirely female; they look like cheerleaders, for all their dance skills. (Boys used to be the only step dancers, but girls are more numerous now.) Mr. Flatley’s show involves an elaborate plot, rather akin to professional wrestling, with cartoon spirits, villains and heroes – the Lord wears a championship belt with "Lord of the Dance" emblazoned in rhinestones.

"Riverdance," stripped down from its more opulent, rock-show-like beginnings into a slightly paltry-looking touring show, is two hours of vaudeville: acts strung together on the loose premise of a river and its "journey."

None of the soloists have the charisma or the virtuosity of Mr. Flatley. They tend toward the earnest and bland, shifting the emphasis to the corps groupings, which with their massed formations and deafening rat-a-tats are like something between a pep rally and "The Triumph of the Will." The most vivid individual performer in all three shows was Adam McSharry, who played Mr. Flatley’s villain with amusing relish. Rather like the bad guy in professional wrestling.

It’s easy to be sniffy about the "Riverdance" experience. I’ve been sniffy myself. But it is what it is, and what it is is Las Vegas-style entertainment. As such it’s far more popular than most dance. Which makes people scornful and envious. They even go so far as to deny that this is dance at all, which is silly. "Riverdance" goes out of its way to demonstrate connections between other forms of heel-and-toe-tapping folk dance, like flamenco and tap. And some of the dancing is pretty spectacular.

"Riverdance" now includes six members of the Moscow Folk Ballet Company, who came together in the Moiseyev Dance Company. The connection is instructive: just as Igor Moiseyev, now 99 years old, popularized high-gloss, acrobatically virtuosic folk routines in the Soviet manner, so "Riverdance" et al. are doing the same for Irish dance.

The popularity of these productions suggests parallels to music, which has seen amplified popular music challenge the commercial and even artistic hegemony of European art music. In music, pop has effectively seceded from classical. Hugely popular commercial dance is still a relatively new phenomenon, so mainstream dance intellectuals can still try to brush it aside.

These commercial shows are the tip of an enormous participatory iceberg. Yes, they appeal to the Irish diaspora. But they also appeal to anyone who enjoys step dancing, and that’s a lot of people: Irish dance schools and competitions have proliferated, even beyond the English-speaking world, and most professional Irish dancers seem to have won "world championships," a title distributed rather freely.

"Riverdance" is also a symbol of Irish self-assertion. Impoverished and oppressed, clinging to its noble literary tradition, Ireland is suddenly everywhere, and proud to be there. The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahearn, was at Radio City for a gala on Tuesday night, and former President Bill Clinton was supposed to be there, until he had his followup surgery.

But one would hate to see such shows obliterate subtler kinds of Irish dance. Last month in the intimate Purcell Room of the South Bank Center in London, a show called "Heel to Toe" offered three evenings described as "authentic dance traditions of Ireland’s rural communities."

The dancers, who wore their everyday clothing, performed mostly set dances, rather like those at the beginning of the second act of "Riverdance" but presumably at a considerably lower wattage level. "Heel to Toe" may never sell out Radio City. But it stakes as strong a claim to Irish tradition as its flashier competitors.

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