Riverdance is a traditional Irish step dancing show that reached its height of international popularity in the 1990s. Its founders were Michael Flatley and Jean Butler who have since left the show to pursue other endeavors, including Flatley’s Lord of the Dance. The content of the show draws from mostly Irish influences and is loosely based on the story of the Irish people. Though today dancers are highly trained and participate in competitions around the world, Irish step dancing remains a folk tradition of the common people with origins reaching as far back as the 18th century.
The name Riverdance relates to the history of the Irish people and their diverse origins. Like a river with many tributaries all feeding into the same basin, the people of Ireland originally came from many different places and brought with them their own traditions that have all contributed to the formation of Irish identity. Though essentially a show of Irish step dancing, Riverdance draws from other influences as well, including African-American, Russian and Spanish dances. These various sources are again akin to tributaries that have come together to form the basin known as Riverdance.
History of Irish Step Dancing
Irish step dancing developed in the 18th and 19th centuries as an informal dance performed by highly skilled dance masters. The first step dancing was characterized by rapid, intricate steps that were essentially improvised elaborations on the slower Round and Long dances popular at the time. Sailors played an important role in the development of step dancing, using the dance as a form of entertainment at sea. Step dancing has a long tradition of competition, and dance masters who would stage public “dance-offs” that ended when one of the dancers would collapse from fatigue.
Riverdance is essentially a performance that celebrates Irish heritage. However, the international influences on the show are unmistakable. In act two, Riverdance reveals its important African-American influences, namely Harlem tap dancing. The section of the show known as Marta’s dance draws from Russian and Siberian influences, while the Andulucia section incorporates elements of Flamenco dance native to Spain.
Riverdance Show History
A shortened version of Riverdance premiered at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. The show and accompanying music grew quickly in popularity, with a single that reached number nine on the UK charts. The show enjoyed tremendous success, performing throughout the UK and beyond. In March 1996, Riverdance opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Co-creator Michael Flatley left the group in 1997, allegedly due to creative differences with the show’s producer. The show continued to grow throughout the 1990s, with record breaking concert, video and album sales.
Origin of Songs and Themes
Riverdance is based on the story of the Irish people. The beginning of the show deals with the first settlers coming to Ireland and realizing the power of the land. This part of the show incorporates symbolic elements representing the sun, the moon, thunder, lightning and water. The stories and themes are heavily influenced by Celtic mythology. The second half of the show deals with the Irish people’s emigration to America. Scenes depicting Irish immigrants and African-Americans sharing dance and song illustrate the unifying power of these human experiences. The Riverdance finale shows how the Irish people have joined the various communities of the world while retaining their heritage through music and dance.
Charlie Higgins is journalist, editor and translator based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has written for a variety of lifestyle and niche market websites, including International Food Trader, The Olive Oil Times, microDINERO, Sounds and Colours, Connecting Worlds and The Buenos Aires Reader.