The old phrase about two kinds of people in the world - those who are Irish and those who wish to be Irish - is working overtime in the dance world. With the success of "Riverdance," and now, its dueling twin, "Lord of the Dance," Irish dancing has stepped its winsome way into the spotlight.
The unlikely pairing of the traditional form, translated into the glitz of the rock concert, has produced one towering figure, Michael Flatley. The Irish-American performer established his public persona with "Riverdance" and has polished it to a super-star sheen in "Lord of the Dance."
Flatley not only conceived and choreographed "Lord of the Dance," but he also appears as its lead seven times weekly with eight solos per performance.
Flatley's style combines the sexual innuendos of Spanish flamenco, the macho- appeal of rock icons like Elvis Presley, and the fluid torso of modern dance, set on top of the compelling, stamped-out patterns of Irish step dancing.
In its variations in "Lord of the Dance," which retells the mythic story of the triumph of good over evil by the advent of a golden-haired hero, the pumped-up choreography is nothing less than riveting. Flatley's troupe consists of 40 dancers, a soprano, and eight musicians who perform Ronan Hardiman's driving, rhythmic score.
Time was when Irish dancing meant rows of little girls with their hair styled in sausage-curls and eyes looking straight ahead, as they performed the age-old steps that their grandparents brought from the old country.
But in 1994, the then-unknown Flatley teamed with Jean Butler and burst on the European television audience in a seven-minute piece called "Riverdance," broadcast as a number in the Eurovision song contest. The success of the piece led to the two-hour expansion into a show and video that has set audiences into a frenzy on its worldwide tours.
Flatley left "Riverdance" after six months for reasons that have led to a legal dispute. (The "Riverdance" video features Flatley as leading performer.)
No matter. Flatley who says he "always dreamed of a show of my own, since I was 11 years old," put together "Lord of the Dance," which opened in Dublin last July. The video it spawned was the No. 1 bestseller in England last Christmas. If "Riverdance" was a hit, then "Lord of the Dance" must be counted a megahit for its instant acclaim, with sell-out houses everywhere it travels.
It's not often you meet a man dressed totally in black, topped by a leather jacket with Celtic runes on its sleeves and a black unicorn emblazoned on its back - not to mention one gold earring in his left ear. Flatley came to Boston recently, in advance of his April 27 performances at the Fleet Center, an arena that usually hosts the Celtics, the Boston Bruins, and rock shows.
For all the hoopla around his personality, which has taken its knocks in the media, Flatley is soft-spoken and unassuming in person. During a recent appearance in Boston with a corps of little girls from Rita O'Shea's string of Irish dance schools, he was happy to let the girls take center stage. Ms. O'Shea, who has been teaching in Ireland and the US for 40 years, as well as judging Irish dance competitions, has known Flatley since he was a child.
"I first judged Michael in competitions when he was 12 or 13. From the beginning he had great charisma and a respect for his teachers. I'm very excited for him, but not surprised," she says.
Flatley was taken to Irish dance classes in his native Chicago when he was 11 years old by his parents who emigrated in 1947, his father from Sligo, his mother from Carlow, Ireland. His grandmother had been Leinster champion dancer.
"Dancing was something I did once a week, then twice a week, and more and more as I became good at it, along with sports. I started competing almost immediately because in Irish dance circles, competition is one of the ways that people all get together," he says.
When he was 16, Flatley became the first American to win the All-World Championships in Irish Dancing.
No overnight wonder, Flatley spent four years touring Ireland with the Chieftains, an Irish musical troupe, before the "Riverdance" bonanza. "I knew that the response to the dance that I was doing was really warm. I guess in my own heart I figured out that if I could get a big group of dancers together and teach them my own style, it would be successful," he says.
In person, Flatley is surprisingly small in stature, unlike his authoritative presence on stage. But when he speaks he is clearly driven." I was eight weeks from the table to the stage for 'Lord of the Dance,' " he says. "I had the show finished in my head before I sat down because I didn't have the money to have people standing around waiting for me. I put in all my own money. I made it back in six weeks," he says.
Flatley is intrigued by the film offers that have been pouring in, but his immediate future is with "Lord of the Dance."
"The Irish rock bands have done so well, the actors, the directors, and now Frank McCourt; the dance just needed to break out, and it has done so in a wonderful way," he says.
* 'Lord of the Dance' recently began an extensive US tour, which runs through early July.