We celebrate two decades of Riverdance

Last weekend 17,000 people turned out in Limerick for the launch of the 20th anniversary tour of Riverdance. So where were you when Michael Flatley and Jean Butler took to the Eurovision stage that night in 1994?

EVERYONE remembers their first time. Where they were… who they were with… what they were wearing (or not wearing). We remember the wild flailing of legs and rising passion. The slow rhythm building to a screaming, joyful, grateful release...

I’ll stop this now as it’s making me slightly ill. We’re talking here about the night 20 years ago that pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland lost its virginity to Michael Flatley. The night that many cynical, trad-music-and-dance-hating young Irelanders realised that our culture could actually be sexy. Even if it had a mullet.

I remember the night well. I was working in the Sunday Press as a sports hack and the Eurovision was on TV in the editor’s office. We had all spent the night going out of our way to ignore it. I went into the room at least 10 times just to be seen walking out in disgust. Bloody Eurovision.

I was eating a cheese sandwich when the interval act started. Jean Butler looked pretty and colleenish. Yuck, I thought. Suddenly a man leaped onto the stage in a shiny silk shirt. The taste of cheese grew stronger. I snorted with derision.

Flatley flew and whacked his heels all over the camp. It was excruciating. More Paddywhackery for the world to laugh at. I was about to turn the TV off when something odd happened. The drums began to kick in and my hand remained hovering over the switch.

A sexy centipede of Irish dancers was filling the screen. The 4,000-strong audience at Millstreet was mesmerised. I was too. Long before they had stopped screaming, we knew we had witnessed something spine-tingling and unprecedented.

Those seven minutes changed Irish traditional culture forever. They also changed our attitudes to ourselves as a race. This was something that only Irish minds could have conceived and executed. No-one spoke about Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington’s victory with ‘Rock and Roll Kids’ that night, just the mulleted dancer and the colleen.

To say that it boosted our confidence and helped us along the road to the Tiger years is not an exaggeration. In 1994, Ireland had a world-class inferiority complex. The IRA had bombed the world to hell during the 70s and 80s, linking traditional Irish culture to Semtex. On top of this, Thatcherite Britain kept smacking us down whenever we got above our station.

Then the green shoots began to appear. Euro 88 and Italia 90 sowed their seeds. Did you wander home from the pub singing “You’ll never beat the Irish’? Of course you did. The success of Riverdance fuelled our new belief that ‘everybody loves the Irish’. We grew more confident and the next thing we knew, we were Celtic Tiger cubs.

The generation before us had the question ‘Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?’ We asked each other where we had been when poker-backed Irish dancing was buried by Flatley and Butler.

Last week, I polled the Twitter oracle to see if this was true. There was a flood of replies. Nikki Murphy Redmond (Glengarriff and Dublin) watched it in her local with friends.

“I ended up in A&E after falling down the stairs while we attempted to copy the dance moves.”

Eleanor Fitzsimons has less frenetic memories. “It was my hen night. We all crowded into my hotel bedroom in Kilkenny to watch it. Laughed first then loved it.”

Val O’Donovan watched the show on VCR. “I was at a show that night. When I came home I watched just the interval act on the video player, over and over. I was gobsmacked.”

If you’re of a certain vintage, then you probably have similar memories.

I watched Riverdance begin its life as a Eurovision ‘spring’ at the contest’s final dress rehearsal in Dublin in 1981. (Johnny Logan had won it the previous year.) The interval act was a Bill Whelan and Donal Lunny-composed suite called Timedance. It was performed by Planxty and a troupe of ballet dancers and was nice, but unmemorable.

In fairness, I was preoccupied that night with the mixture of Catholic guilt and 13-year-old randiness I felt when the Bucks Fizz girls’ skirts were pulled off.

It didn’t matter that their knickers were the same size as Superman’s underpants. This was shockingly risqué by 80s Ireland’s standards.

Thirteen years later, Timedance was given a sexy makeover and re-emerged as Whelan’s Riverdance at the Point Theatre, produced and directed by married team, Moya Doherty and John McColgan.

Anuna performed the vocals and the steps were choreographed by Flatley and Butler. It was such a hit that a recording of it entered the Irish singles charts and kept Wet Wet Wet’s ‘Love Is All Around’ off the top slot for a record 18 weeks. Then the BBC commissioned a repeat performance for the Royal Variety Show. The dance extravaganza was growing legs.

McColgan and Doherty began to consider how to develop the original piece. In Feb 1995, Riverdance premiered its first full-length performance at the Point Theatre. It featured the original lead dancers and ran for five weeks, selling 120,000 tickets.

After successful European runs, it made its US debut at Radio City Music Hall in Mar 1996. The show was a smash and broke the venue’s record for sales of merchandise.

Since then over 23m people have attended performances at over 350 venues in 45 countries. It has played to TV audiences of 2bn viewers. More than 1,500 dancers have performed in the show and there have been 59 marriages between members of the touring company. I don’t have a figure for divorces.

Whelan’s soundtrack has sold more than three million copies, and he won a Grammy Award in 1997 for Best Musical Show Album. Various Riverdance DVDs have been bought by 10m fans, making it one of the most popular DVDs in the world.

The Limerick composer spent last weekend watching 17,000 people enjoy the stunning launch of the 20th anniversary tour on his home territory at the University of Limerick. Being recognised in Ireland for his work is as satisfying as any global accolade.

“Receiving the Freedom of Limerick was very important to me, as important as any other event including the Grammy,” he told the Irish Examiner.

“When I was growing up in Limerick I used to dream of making music my life. I could never have imagined one day I would be bringing a show which has spent 20 years touring the world back to my own birthplace.

“I am delighted to see Riverdance finally on stage on the banks of the Shannon and I am proud as a Limerick man to have been part of its creation.”

The success of the show took Donegal-born Moya Doherty by surprise. “When Bill and I started to work on the Eurovision interval act in 1994, little did either of us think that 20 years later, not only would Riverdance have grown into a worldwide phenomenon, but that we would be mounting a six-show run in a specially-created 2,400 seat theatre in Bill’s home town.”

Her words echoes those of her husband. “I never thought we’d have this level of success for this long,” McColgan told the Irish Voice. “I did think that the show would work in Ireland, England and the United States. I thought that it would play maybe for a number of months, something less for a year.

“Nobody could have thought this. We are incredibly fortunate. It’s a unique success and a unique Irish production.” That said, Colgan believes that Riverdance transcends cultural boundaries.

“It can be enjoyed by audiences who don’t need to be Irish, or don’t need to understand Irish culture. There’s a primal element in the show that’s to do with the music and the percussive dancing that really excites people. I was talking to the minister for culture in China, and he said this is more than a show; it’s an expression of a country. It’s a country presenting itself in a very proud way.”

China is fertile territory for Riverdance. The promoters of 2010’s ground-breaking 12-city, 150,000-ticket tour were so pleased with the reception that they asked for the show to return at the end of that year.

Despite its success, Riverdance had its share of legal disputes. The most famous row involved Flatley. The shy and retiring squire of Castlehyde left the show over ‘creative differences’ before its second run in London in 1995. Unfortunately, Flatley refused the offer of an interview for this article. ‘Michael FLATLY refused’… I’ve been waiting a long time to use that line.

The show made Jean Butler a multi-millionairess and her legs were reportedly insured for £1m. (And worth every penny too.) “I earned loads of money and travelled the world, but Riverdance became a monster,” she later said. “It’s unreasonable to ask someone to do the same thing every night for so long. You’d need a lobotomy to do it.”

Lobotomies aside, Riverdance’s impact still reverberates, albeit in a smaller and sometimes ironic kind of way. It set the template for a million folk dance routines and parodies. Remember Stavros Flatley on Britain’s Got Talent?

Or Chandler in Friends being freaked out by Flatley’s legs (“They flail about as if independent from his body!”). Or Alan Partridge mimicking Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind: “Flatley my dear, I don’t Riverdance!”

Twenty years on, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge. But the river, like the cash and the puns, is still flowing strong.


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