Irish dancing: the real Riverdance

When Michael Flatley and Jean Butler spun each other for the last time and gave us the nod that the first ever Riverdance was over. The crowed paused… this was supposed to be just the interval entertainment

Cue deafening applause and a standing ovation, both of which have never really stopped since that first ever “gap-filling” Eurovision performance. A quick look on Riverdance’s Facebook page today hints that the magic has endured:

“Please never stop the show!”

“Was absolutely fantastic tonight!”

“Love, love, love Riverdance.

Highland dancers, Londonderry-Derry city
Highland dancers, Londonderry-Derry city

The old way

In Tralee, on Ireland’s west coast, far from the Dublin auditorium where Riverdance first made Irish dancing sexy, another audience sits wrapt.

On stage at Siamsa Tire, Ireland’s National Folk Theatre, four children dance with their father. Unbeknownst to them, their stepmother slides in and out of trees behind them, dripping with jealousy and hate.

The Children of Lir ­– a traditional Irish fairytale of wicked stepmothers, children turned to swans and bereft fathers – has been re-imagined as dance. Just like Riverdance, it ends with a standing ovation. Unlike Riverdance, though, there are no clicking shoes, designer dresses, epic ringlets or vast chorus lines. This is Irish dancing stripped back.

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A fluid style

 “The type of traditional dancing you’ll see at Siamsa is a looser, less dramatic, but more intimate style of dance,” explains Catríona Hickey of Siamsa Tíre

Many of our visitors comment that they feel our performances are more “authentic” than other dance shows they‘ve seen – although obviously both have their place. In this video, John Fitzgerald moves from the less showy Munnix style to the more dramatic contemporary style.”

While Flatley and Butler kept their upper bodies rigid, Munnix dance is much more fluid in the body, and the upper body is part of the step. Few understand the history of the style more than Siamsa dancer, Jonathan Kelliher.

When his feet hit the floor, they’re guided by a feeling of tradition: “There is a connection to the past as the steps I dance are from a very old ‘Munnix style’. This style is unique to north Kerry and, indeed, to Siamsa Tire, so it is always nice to feel you’re keeping their tradition and memory alive.”

It’s not only in Ireland’s west where memory is kept alive. Skip north for a taste of the highlands.

Island high spirits

Tradition sits thick in the air in Northern Ireland. Thanks to a rich Ulster Scots heritage (large numbers of Scots migrated to Ulster in the 17th century), the spirit of the Scottish highlands is alive all along the north coast. No more so than with the dancing.

The sight of pointed-toe jigs, bagpipes and tartan uniforms atop Derry-Londonderry’s city walls is a colourful blast of the old ways. But it’s not only on aged battlements you can sample the style. There are enthusiastic highland dancers all over the top end of the island, stretching from Donegal to Belfast, and down to County Down.

According to the Ulster Scots Agency, the tradition of highland dancing requires more than just a little energy and a massive amount of stamina and arm strength.

It’s a tradition that’s alive and kicking, you might say.

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