Learn to Riverdance in two weeks? No sweat
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Sweating and cursing, I slump to the floor and stare longingly at my handbag, which I know contains a bottle of ice-cold water and a bar of chocolate. The blisters on my feet are aching, but I know I have to dig deep and summon the energy to pick myself up and start again. As I struggle to my feet, Bill Whelan’s familiar music blares through the speakers. I lift my head, stand tall, and for what feels like the 100th time, begin dancing.
When asked if I’d be interested in learning the steps for Riverdance, I agreed without question. I’m not a dancer. As a child I used to traipse to the school hall once a week to learn my h-aon, dó, trís with the rest of my runner-wearing classmates. None of us was destined for dancing fame, but from the enthusiastic girls in the front of the class to the grumpy boys shuffling at the back, we all jumped around and stretched our limbs.
Years of primary-school dancing lessons may not have sent me straight to the stage, but it did instil rhythm. During my teen years I developed these skills by dancing the familiar Ballaí Luimní in school halls in the west, desperate to impress those strapping young Irish College lads.
That I’m not a dancer becomes quite apparent from the moment I meet Pádraic Moyles, associate director and principal dancer of Riverdance and my trainer for this experiment. He is exactly how I imagine a professional dancer to be: he’s fit, lean and moves in a way my body refuses to imitate. As a small boy, Moyles would watch and take part in the set-dancing sessions his parents held in the family home every Friday. When he was nine his family moved from Dublin to New York, where he began dancing with the teacher Donny Golden. “I didn’t like dancing at all,” he says. “It was getting in the way of football and basketball and all those American sports that I was starting to get into.”
However, at 17 he skipped school to travel to Boston for an audition with a new Irish dancing show. Within a few months he was finished high school, and in November 1997 he began dancing with Riverdance. “In one sense it’s an addiction for me now,” he says. “I absolutely love it and there is nothing like feeling the applause and the appreciation of a crowd at the end of the night.”
Twenty years later
Riverdance is celebrating its 20th anniversary since it was first performed as the interval act at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994. Two decades later the show has been seen by more than 25 million people in 46 countries across the globe.
I have often wondered what dancing in front of an international audience would feel like. As I turn up for my first class, my enthusiasm to learn masks my panic.
I imagine my new teacher is expecting a dancer more like the attractive colleagues who accompany him on stage, dancing the steps with make-up and hair perfectly intact. Sadly that’s not how I look as I grapple with the ridiculously high-speed choreography. Each step is demonstrated with mesmerising speed and dexterity. I, on the other hand, trip and sweat my way through each afternoon.
However, despite the countless falls and inability to pick up seemingly simple steps, I emerge from each rehearsal invigorated. Dancing has the ability to clear your mind of all worries and fears. It requires that you focus 100 per cent on the movement of your body, leaving no time to stress over picking up the shopping or meeting a deadline. One hour rehearsing also leaves you with an indescribable hunger. As I imagine the giant plate of pasta I will prepare post-rehearsal, Moyles tells me he tends to eat high levels of protein to maintain his strength.
“Most mornings when I wake up it’s oatmeal and egg whites with some honey. For lunch I try and eat bigger because I like to feel light going on stage and have two chicken breasts with some broccoli.”
Suddenly I can no longer justify that metre-long baguette I hoped to buy on the way home. “Don’t worry”, he adds, “I love a chocolate bar every now and then.” I breathe a sigh of relief.
Dancers lose an average of 5lb of water weight during every performance of Riverdance. “In China we lost about 15lb,” says my lean but not mean trainer. “We couldn’t find the right foods and none of us were properly prepared for the culture shock.” I empathise with those dancers, not the pounds but the water weight. I don’t think my skin has ever excreted as much fluid as during the intense rehearsals.
After 17 years dancing, Moyles says that eight shows a week, often for 52 weeks a year, is exhausting. He tells me about the challenges of being on the road for months, living out of a suitcase and searching for a launderette in China. “There are certain territories that are easy to tour, like the United States and Europe, but then there are other places that are extremely difficult, like Asia, and China in particular.” However, it’s not all sweat and blood on tour. When 18-year-olds begin dancing with the show straight out of school, they soon learn that their pay cheques won’t fly straight out the window. “We have no rent and no bills. Nowadays the most people have is a mobile phone bill,” says Moyles.
As my bones begin to ache after an hour of rehearsing, I ask him what the retirement age is for dancers. Michael Flatley (55) is still dancing, he tells me, as is Donny Golden (61).
“You’re never too old to dance,” he says, as I strap on my black, hard-soled dance shoes for the first time. “You grow old because you don’t dance. The day I don’t dance is probably the day I’m going to become old.”
Relearning to dance reawakens the 10-year-old inside me. Somehow, in the space of two weeks I am transformed from a very self conscious novice into a toe-tapping Riverdancer.
Sadly, the sweaty hours I have spent in the studio on the banks of the Liffey may not, as I secretly dream, lead to a career in performance. However, they remind me of the importance of embracing my creative inner child.
Bring on those west of Ireland céilís: the boys will be only dazzled by my dance skills in the halla.
Riverdance returns to Dublin for a summer season at the Gaiety Theatre from June 23 to August 31
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