It's like dancing on Eire

Siobhan Dolan discovers why so many get a kick out of copying Riverdance

Dancing cheek to cheek is not an image readily associated with Irish dancing, but so huge was the turn-out at the South Bank's recent Down by the Riverdance day that by the end of the stepdance class for beginners, most participants had, in trying to master the devilishly tricky footwork, knocked heads with the novice next to them. Still, unlike most other dance lessons, the pain did not extend to an elbow in the face: this was Irish dancing in its most formal sense, so any arm movement was strictly verboten.

The event, part of the SBC's Blitz festival, which runs until Sunday, featured workshops and performances celebrating both the established and more progressive strands of Irish dancing. An estimated 1,000 enthusiasts attended, many from overseas - including visitors from Slovakia, France and Spain - as well, of course, as a substantial Irish contingent.

Yet, until recently, the organisers of Blitz would probably not even have considered putting on such a day, let alone imagined that it could prove such a crowd-puller. Irish dance used to have a serious image problem. Expressionless, humourless, sexless - it scored perfect sixes on every count.

But that was before Riverdance. Amid all the nil points and cheesy beats of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, something much more significant launched itself before a global audience of 300 million. When the lord of the dance himself, Michael Flatley, exploded on to the stage, arms flailing, it was as momentous in its own way as William Webb Ellis's decision to pick up the ball and run.

Three years later, the beat goes on, and despite the widely reported rift between Flatley and his co-revivalists, both traditionalists and modernisers in the industry continue to bask in Riverdance's glow.

Moira Clerkin, organiser of Down By the Riverdance and co-founder of Clerkinworks, has no doubt about Riverdance's impact on public perceptions. "It has had great influence in terms of profile," she says. "People now know how skilful our dancing is and don't think of it as some fringe, folk, weird, backward thing. The Irish dancing world hadn't been prepared to step out and look at itself until, it has to be said, Michael Flatley and Moya Doherty saw its theatrical potential and realised it could go on a world stage."

For Linda Fryday, who runs dance schools in Dartford and south-east London, Riverdance has opened up new doors for her pupils. "Before, Irish dancing came to a standstill when the girls got to about 17 - they either gave it up or became teachers. Now there's such a great demand from follow- ups to Riverdance that they can work towards auditions. It's wonderful."

John Brooks is also a teacher, as well as a competition judge. His son Ciaran is currently touring with Riverdance. Brooks reports a surge of interest in Irish dancing from people of all ages. "I get hundreds of phone calls, in particular wanting to know where there are adult classes," he says. "Certainly, every teacher I know is getting a lot more enquiries. As well as encouraging a lot of young people to start, Riverdance has also brought people back in who drifted away when they were 12 and 13."

Brooks confirms the knock-on effect Riverdance has had in improving standards in the traditional competitions. More participants means more rigorous standards and higher quality. "These days, dancers competing at open level have to be very fit," Brooks says. "They have to put more in - give up their football, for example - if they want to take it seriously."

While acknowledging Riverdance's role in making Irish dancing more palatable, Clerkin emphasises that its success owed a lot to numerous other professionals who had been strengthening and developing the tradition for some time. "I have to say that others of us saw the potential years ago but unfortunately didn't have the necessary money or the glitz," Clerkin says. "We've got such a firm basis with the discipline and what can be done with it that it cries out for elements of it to be played about with in a theatrical way. Irish dancing has always had people prepared to do something different with it - to move the upper half of the body, for example, and to experiment with other types of dance. Some might say that stops us being different but I think we can be confident enough of its beauty and skill not to worry that it will get diluted."

As the South Bank's workshop proved, it's not just those of Irish extraction who have been persuaded to take it up. June Armstrong, who lives in London but is from Barbados, was an instant convert in 1994. "I was mesmerised by Riverdance. The music really gets to you and I love the rhythms. The hardest thing for me is the discipline, keeping my hands by my side. We, as West Indians, like to move them and stamp our feet." Her whole family, which also includes a large Asian element, is similarly enthusiastic. "At Christmas, we all put Riverdance on, stand in front of the television and practise our moves."

Clerkin believes that the fact that Irish dancing is so rigidly different to other dance forms is integral to its popularity. "You've got dancers who are able to leap through the air and do amazingly dextrous things with their feet with not so much as a flicker of a muscle in the upper half of the body - the result is a unique dance form which everyone wants to come and look at."

The synchronised tapping of the feet on a vast scale has also captured audiences' imaginations. "Irish dancing adapts itself very well to tricky Balkan rhythms," Clerkin explains. "5/8 and 7/8, for example. It gets your head in a spin, as we're used to 4/4 and 6/8, but this, combined with the intricate footwork, is what makes the experience so exciting."

Perhaps the most significant change wrought by Flatley, Butler and company was a much-needed injection of sex appeal. Clerkin agrees: "When you look at the traditional costumes, masses of green velvet and embroidery, they're absolutely appalling to move in - it's like dancing under a pair of curtains," she says. "Suddenly, we've got shoulderless, backless, low-cut mini-dresses and long black legs. Of course it's sexy." She also points to the Mr Darcy effect; in her eyes, mean and moody also draws audiences in. "There is something very seductive about dancers with totally expressionless faces, while all this power is going through their feet."

Irish dancing may be at an all-time high but Clerkin is convinced that it will continue to get stronger through embracing elements from other cultures. "Look at how Irish music has developed with other world music," she says. "That's not to say that there's no room for tradition - there's room for both. But, ironically, by experimenting with new things, it makes audiences all the more interested in going back and seeing where it started and what it's all about."

But forget the sell-out world tours of Riverdance, the spoofs on Comic Relief and Guinness's decision to use Irish dancing in its pounds 4m advertising campaign for Harp. What more evidence do you need than the fact that, for the first time in Blitz's 12-year history, Peggy Spencer's ballroom dancing day has been toppled from its position as the No 1 crowd-puller. Thanks to Down by the Riverdance, even Peggy's been tangoed.

Blitz is at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (0171- 960 4242) today and tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home