March is the month when Americans turn their eyes to all things Irish. We guzzle our green beer, eat our yearly quota of corned beef and cabbage, and dutifully line the streets for parades celebrating a holiday that is little-known on the Emerald Isle itself. However, in recent years the world has extended its fascination beyond Irish kitsch to the richer elements of Irish culture. One of the art forms that has benefited from this interest is Irish dancing. Riverdance brought the form to international notice, and since then audiences have flocked to performances and dance studios around the world to marvel at the flying feet of Irish dancers. Spokane audiences can get their fix on March 27 at the Spokane Opera House when Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance" comes to town.
Many people are familiar with Flatley's showmanship. Images of his well-oiled bare chest and record-breaking feet have become the stuff of legends -- and of satire -- in recent years. But Flatley's role in the phenomenon of Irish dance cannot be denied.
Born in Chicago, Flatley's path to becoming a dancer is reminiscent of the film Billy Elliott. His dad signed him up for boxing lessons, but Flatley loved a different kind of footwork, and by age 17 he became the first American to win the All-World Irish Dancing Championship. Though he later opened a dance school, performance was his first love, and he followed every opportunity to advance his career as a dancer.
His big break came in 1994 when his seven-minute dance number created a sensation at an international song contest in Dublin. By 1995, Riverdance was in theaters, Irish dancing was a worldwide sensation, and Flatley was a star. However, just a few months later, Flatley left the show due to "artistic differences" and had to decide what was next.
For Flatley, the choice was to create a show of his own, and by July 1996, "Lord of the Dance" was on a Dublin stage. The costumes were flashy, the music had a modern beat, and the dancers actually moved their arms, but audiences loved what they saw. "That's something that made him a pioneer," explains Don McCarron, a dancer and dance captain in the troupe that is en route to Spokane. "Traditional Irish dance is a very rigid thing. [Flatley] wanted more arm movements, more flowing movement." Flatley, who is also an award-winning Irish flutist, made some similar adjustments to the music of "Lord of the Dance." "The music in the show is from the tradition of Irish music, but he brought a different sort of sound to the traditional music," says McCarron.
McCarron has been dancing since the age of five, along with his two brothers and a sister. Dancing was part of growing up for him. "It's not as common for lads to do as girls," he says. "Lads do more sports... I sort of got bitten by the bug, I guess." In 1997, at the tender age of 17, McCarron joined the cast of "Lord of the Dance" and went on the road. But he intended to stay just a year or two and then go to school. "To leave home so young is a big deal," McCarron admits. "I didn't intend for it to be an actual living, but I just kept staying on and staying on... One of the reasons I'm still here is that I'm having fun...You're doing your thing and you look down and see a kid's face and it's really fun."
In his time with Flatley's organization, McCarron has traveled and danced with all four Lord of the Dance troupes all over the world. He also danced in Flatley's "Feet of Flames" which ratcheted up the pace of Irish dance with its hyperactive foot speeds. He has really enjoyed watching the increasing popularity of Irish dance. "Especially in America," he jokes.
"Everyone here can sort of trace their roots back to Irish culture. But even back home more people are joining classes. It's a bit of a craze."
McCarron says that another reason he enjoys this show is the fact that the dancers get to play things up. Flatley's creation includes elaborate sets and lighting, costumes that some people say are more suitable to Las Vegas than to Irish dance -- in fact, the show has had a run in Vegas this winter -- and a flashiness that some critics say has cheapened the art form. But McCarron disagrees. "I think all that enhances it," he argues. "I enjoy the showmanship. You have to play up to the crowd a bit. It is a show, not a traditional competition."
McCarron also enjoys the level of quality the dancers are expected to keep up. Even though Flatley stopped dancing regularly in the show in 1998, he has kept close creative and quality control over the shows he has developed. He works periodically with each of the troupes and is even starting his own dance academies to train dancers who may eventually join his shows. Flatley's own enviable skill as a dancer raises the bar even higher for performers like McCarron. "You can never really emulate him," he says. "But it gives you something to aim at."
As a dance captain, McCarron is one of the watchdogs who assures that Flatley's standards are met. "We have to line up the show, watch the show and take notes," he explains. "We've got to keep the show up to a certain standard." And that's not easy with the rigorous schedule of performances and the built-in physical demands of Irish dance. "We have a hard schedule in the show and it can be a bit hard on your legs as well," McCarron admits. "We've actually got a great stage that we dance on, and a masseuse...You learn to look after yourself."
The show itself isn't just a selection of dances. "Lord of the Dance" tells a sort of modified Irish folk tale. "It's a spirit's dream," explains McCarron. "It's a good versus evil idea...I dance the good guys." In fact, McCarron has been dancing the role of "The Lord" since shortly after joining the show. In the role, McCarron contends with one of the bad guys, competing with their dance prowess for the hand of a woman.
"There's also a good girl and a bad girl," McCarron adds. "They both want the good guy." With this quadrangle in place, the show moves through its twists and turns, literally and figuratively.
One of McCarron's favorite moments in the show is a number called "The Jewel. "I like it because it's acting along with the dance" he says. "You can sort of play with the audience and milk it more." The fact that the audience gets so involved with the show makes McCarron very happy. "It's high-energy. It's exciting," he says. People leave on a high. It gives you a good feeling as a performer."