It’s easy – and tempting – to make fun of Irish stepdancing as soulless “white people’s dance,” on account of the rigidity with which the upper half of the body is held while the legs and feet move with lightning speed. But there’s a historical reason grounded in its working-class origins why the artform is traditionally performed that way: In rural cottages with floors of stone or pounded earth, dancers in need of a flat wooden surface – both for springiness and for the echo required for the tapping that is characteristic of the hard-shoe style – are said to have sometimes taken a door off its hinges and laid it on the ground. Such a tiny “stage” allowed no room for flailing arms, and so the style evolved to focus on prowess of the lower limbs alone.
For all its humble pedigree, Irish stepdancing turned into a goldmine for Michael Flatley, an American-born All-Ireland dancing champion who created the phenomenally popular stage show Riverdance as an interval entertainment for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994. Riverdance quickly became a sensation that toured the globe, turning the once-obscure folk art of stepdancing into a pop-culture meme that shows up in all sorts of media.
But that wasn’t big enough for Flatley, a Guinness World Record-holder for his ability to tap 35 times per second. He left the show in 1995, citing “creative differences” and dreaming of a stepdancing theatrical extravaganza that wouldn’t be bound by either the limitations of cultural tradition or the size of a normal theatre or concert hall. The result was Lord of the Dance, which is designed for performance in a huge arena or stadium – and also allows the troupe of dancers to move their arms at least some of the time. The show went on to become an even-huger worldwide hit than Riverdance; it has reportedly been seen by more than 60 million people.
The grand finale number of Lord of the Dance, in which the dancers tap a cappella, is titled “Planet Ireland,” which should tip you off that the storyline does not adhere quite so closely to the Celtic folklore that inspired Riverdance. In fact, it puts a bit of a sci-fi spin on the old Irish sagas, which shows in the more modern style of the sets and costumes. The title character has to battle the evil dark lord “Don Dorcha,” who’s trying to take over Planet Ireland. A romantic subplot concerns a parallel battle between idealized love, personified as “Saoirse, the Irish Cailín,” and the wicked “Morrighan, the Temptress.” Presumably the Celtic war goddess triad known as the Morrigan is not amused, but her wrath doesn’t seem to have done any harm to Lord of the Dance at the box office.
Flatley no longer dances the lead role – he has gone on to even more ambitious projects – but two companies continue to perform Lord of the Dance all over the world. One of them is coming to the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie this Friday, February 15, so you too can join the 60 million who have been dazzled by this cultural phenomenon. The show begins at 8 p.m., and ticket prices range from $37 to $57 ($48.40 and $69 after you add the exorbitant fees charged by TicketMaster). You can order tickets at www.ticketmaster.com/event/0000496DA6759DAE?artistid=1046393&majorcatid=10002&minorcatid=12. For more info, call (845) 454-5800 or visit www.midhudsonciviccenter.org.
Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance, Friday, February 15, 8 p.m., $37 (+ $11.40 fee)/$57 (+ $12 fee), Mid-Hudson Civic Center, 14 Civic Center Plaza, Poughkeepsie; (845) 454-5800, www.midhudsonciviccenter.org.