It’s no longer surprising to see Irish dance schools (and successful ones) even in the most remote places on this planet. Four years ago in Dublin I had the opportunity to meet some dancers from Mexico who told me that they decided to make Irish dance their career and were on the pursue after their TCRGs. Later on I met teachers from Israel, Romania, Germany and even my homeland of Serbia now has two official dance schools. It’s no greater surprise to see people Irish dance around the world than it is to see them figure skate (and the two are often compared, even more so now that there’s a growing idea among younger dancers that Irish dance should be added to the list of Olympic sports). But it wasn’t always so. Twenty years ago it was merely a national dance of the Irish with schools only in the British Isles, the USA and Australia – basically, just for the Irish communities.
So, what made Irish dance the cultural phenomenon and one of the most popular forms of folklore in the world?
To answer this question, I went back and thought about all the things that, in my late twenties, made me decide to take up dance for the first time, and what was it that made me fall so deeply in love with this art form. I was caught by the first wave of the worldwide epidemic and these were the first symptoms.
Back in the 1994, the world stood silent for those couple of minutes while Jean Butler and Michael Flatley, together with then cast of what was to become Riverdance, performed their Eurovision interval act. In the video below you can actually see it, the audience stopped breathing and there was that split second when you couldn’t hear a sound after that final step, and then the standing ovations of people who look as if they’d just been woken up from an enchanted dream. Mind you, most of the people in the audience were Irish, since the contest was held in Dublin that year, so it’s safe to say that Riverdance not only made Irish dance popular throughout the world, but it also helped its popularity at home.
How many times have you seen it? Can you even count? For those out there who are younger, Lord of the Dance was probably the first Irish dance performance you saw. It was the 1994 interval act for the generations of 2000.
After leaving Riverdance, Michael Flatley became the pilgrim and the preacher of Irish dance culture by creating the most popular, most glamorous and the shiniest Irish dance show. This lineup of excellent dancers and breathtaking choreography inspired many to try Irish dance. By performing everywhere in the world he made Irish dance the most popular national form of dance in the world.
Some days I just take a look at my dance shoes, all several pairs of them, all used and raggedy, and solo dress and pictures of performances and I can’t help but laugh at my younger self thinking how I would never be able to do it, to dance the steps they did, to even call myself Irish dancer. Well, guess what. Here I am now, and it’s all thanks to Michael Flatley.
Titanic was one of those epic movies that everybody saw. Years after it hit box offices, there are still moments that we all remember from the movie. Of course, there’s the sinking scene, the Every Night in My Dreams scene, and then there’s the Third Class Party Scene with Jack and Rose show off some dance moves, and a lot of sean-nos and set dancing all around. It launched the band Gaelic Storm’s career but it also showed that Irish dance is, first and foremost, passion and joy. When we take off our wigs and funny dresses, our jackets and vests and wash the make-up from the face, what’s left is a heart full of music and feet that just can’t stop moving to the rhythm. It’s not just an art form, not just sport, it’s a love story between the dancer and the dance.
By the time Sue Bourne’s documentary about competitive Irish dance was out, Riverdance and Lord of the Dance were already part of global human heritage and everybody knew what Irish show dance was. Jig the Movie painted the picture of that other side of Irish dancing, the sport. It appealed to both dancers and non-dancers equally.
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