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
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
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.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes