With the epic Lord of the Dance show tapping its way into Abu Dhabi, Melati Jay looks at the steps it took to get here
When Michael Flatley danced and tapped his way onto the stage for the first time in 1994, an unlikely phenomenon occurred. With his choreographed steps and pogo-stick leaps, Flatley made Irish dancing cool.
In theory, Irish jigs should be the dance world’s version of Star Trek, with pasty-faced redheads prancing about to the twee strains of a fiddle. It’s the ultimate nerd recipe, baked into a spandex-frilled cake. Yet with the launch of Riverdance in 1994, Flatley stomped onto the scene to show the world just how electrifying old-fashioned Irish folk boogie could be. After all, he doesn’t hold the Guinness Book of Records for fastest tapping speed (35 per second) and most expensively-insured legs (Dhs147 million) for nothing. And judging by the global popularity of the show, it’s money well spent.
In early 1995, however, Flatley had abandoned the Riverdance act he had painstakingly crafted, blaming ‘creative differences’ with the show’s producers. It seems the old folks directing the subtle, subdued, sophisticated style of Riverdance were not particularly gung-ho about Michael’s vision. To them, multi-coloured laser lights, apocalyptic theme music and gold, frilly cowboy jackets had no place in the hallowed halls of the conservative Irish jig. After all, step dancing has its roots in Irish heritage and oppression. One story suggests that the reason the form requires such a stiff upper body is because Irish captives in British jails would, to amuse themselves, try to dance in the open upper window of their cells without the soldiers realising what they were doing.
Granted, this myth has a few gaping holes in it (were the soldiers deaf to the suspicious clattering coming from the cells of these poker-stiff captives?), but the sentiment behind the story has informed the style ever since. It pays homage to those who fought the repression of Irish culture in darker times. Even Flatley featured the theme in one of his most recent acts, Celtic Tiger.
Lord of the Dance may have abandoned the proprietary dignity of the tradition, but Flatley’s big vision brought Irish stepping onto the world stage, where it has remained ever since. After all, what promoter could possibly resist the triumphant ‘lightning bolt’ postures of the leading man, coupled with the whims of an over-excited costume designer? What other show dares to combine fiddles with flaming pyrotechnics and leather pants?
Sadly for us, however, the master will not be making an appearance. Flatley handed the franchise to new principle stars back in ’98 so he could stick to his captain role and launch fresh stage troupes. He recently announced he’d be heading up Lord again in Europe this autumn, so it seems Abu Dhabi has missed the boat by about six months.
Flatley or no Flatley, however, only the truly soulless could fail to get swept up in a Lord of the Dance performance. Having been to one ourselves back in the ’90s, we can attest that the pitch-perfect pounding of the dancers is an intoxicating rhythm. Audiences leap to their feet in standing ovation at the show’s finale, dying to get up there and start jigging away themselves.
For anyone out there who’s secretly tried the dance at home but found they don’t quite cut it, the upcoming performance will give you a taste of the real thing. To prepare for the big night, Time Out recommends you buy the pink cowboy hat with the encrusted insignia from the merchandise website. It’s just the piece you need to channel your inner Michael Flatley.
Event: Lord of the Dance When: June 23-25 Where: Adnec, Abu Dhabi Tickets: Dhs295 to Dhs795, www.timeouttickets.com.