Outside Edge: Alan Murdoch on a Eurovision-inspired Irish dance craze

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The Independent Culture
That bastion of blandness, the Eurovision Song Contest, is about the last place to expect an upheaval in the traditionally staid world of folk dance. Yet that is exactly what Irish audiences felt they were seeing last week during the show's exhilarating 'Riverdance' sequence.

For them, the sequence even overshadowed the novelty of a third consecutive win in the main event. Proof came when the 'Riverdance' music entered the Irish charts at No 1, ahead of 'Rock and Roll Kids', the Irish song which won. Repeat showings of the dance on both Irish and British television were prompted by public demand.

The reponse was not unique to Ireland, with thrilled reaction from Continental viewers. British callers asked how they could book to see the stage show, only to be told it doesn't exist - yet.

What caught the imagination was the way that the dancers, led by the Irish-Americans Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, had overturned 90 years of rigid dancing formality. Arguing that 'there is room for something that's both Irish and progressive,' the 35- year-old Flatley, born in Chicago of Sligo and Carlow parents, brought to the specially commissioned work a fusion of hard-shoe Irish, flamenco and tap dance.

As Dublin papers observed, the effect was to put the sex back into real Irish dancing. It prompted the Irish Times to bemoan the 'damage done to real Irish dancing by Victorian revivalists', with dancers performing 'with their backs held straight as ramrods, hands held stiffly at their sides'. In all but a few outposts, it became a precise but unsensual competitive sport, based on rapid movement of ankle and knee.

The power of 'Riverdance' owes much to the vibrant rhythmic score written by Bill Whelan, a past collaborator on albums by U2 and Kate Bush. At Expo '92 in Seville, he had already staged a dance drawing on parallels between Irish and flamenco music.

A U2-controlled company is now seeking video rights to the duo's performance. Impresarios in the wings possibly planning stage shows include Noel Pearson, who made Dancing at Lughnasa an international success.

Butler, 23, will be unable to hang around to enjoy the fuss. She has to be back for exams at Birmingham University in a fortnight. In the meantime, Flatley will have time to practise his tap dancing: as the Guinness Book of Records tells us, he has the fastest feet in the world.

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