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
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game