Michael Flatley was eleven and living in Chicago when he first saw Irish step dancing. He knew immediately it was to become his passion. “I was impressed with the sheer masculinity of the dance,” he recalls, speaking to Irish America after his opening Feet of Flames 2001 national tour performance in Miami.
Flatley, who leaped to fame in the original Riverdance, went on to Lord of the Dance and now Feet of Flames. Along the way he has departed from the rigid traditional interpretation of Irish dance, building a freestyle, loose-armed version while retaining the precision stepping that he honed as a boy.
Whether that transformation is for better or worse, Irish dancing is forever changed. No longer do young Irish dancers wish to hold their arms frozen at their sides and no longer do the boys wear kilts during dance competition.
Flatley says he agrees with the absence of kilts. “The lads feel more secure,” he says in his soft voice, a pleasant mixture of Irish and American Midwest accents. “And I really don’t know what to say about the female dancers’ curls,” he answers when told of the chagrin of mothers trying to curl their straight-haired daughters, because long, bouncy curly locks, emulating the free-spirited female troupers in Feet of Flames, are all the rage.
He has fielded female dancers with straight hair and even one with short hair, but admits that he does prefer a uniform look to the lines of the intermingling weaving dancers and said varied hairstyles might be distracting.
How does he choose the dancers for his shows? He says he looks for the ones who work the hardest, those who seem to be the most dedicated. “I always choose a good dancer with a great attitude over a great dancer with just a good attitude.”
Flatley’s onstage appearances are interspersed between the haunting chants of the Dun chorus and stellar performances from the two female leads “Saoirse” and “Morighann” (the roles will rotate between different dancers in this tour). There is the eightpiece band, composed of “only the best musicians in the world.” Yet, it’s definitely Flatley’s stage. He dominates with a recherché masculinity and as always dazzles with the sheer brilliance of his dancing.
With a reputation for Las Vegas style extravaganzas, Flatley’s concept was to make Feet of Flames the “biggest and most spectacular show” to date. The production features some dazzling multi-colored laser, strobe and other lighting effects playing on an unheard-of four tiers of dancers.
The stage, with its four rising tiers, will travel to all 20 venues of the U.S. tour, which closes in Dallas on July 29.
It is the same stage, Flatley explains, that the dancers have practiced on and in which they have complete confidence. It’s particularly comfortable for those daring dancers who perform on the upper levels. It’s also the stage Flatley likes best, whether it serves as a platform for his aerial flights or his flute solo. The set is 86 feet wide and 42 feet deep.
While some critics don’t buy the Egyptian theme flowing through the production, the overall appeal is a combination of American razzmatazz with an embracing Celtic soul.
Flatley, who says he would prefer to keep a lower profile in his private life, remains close to his family, although he says he wishes to spare them from the eyes of prying reporters. “My parents, my brother Pat and my sisters are my best friends.” It was his father, Michael, from County Sligo, he said, who instilled in him the work ethic that has paid such colossal dividends. His mother, Eilish, a native of Carlow, and his grandmother taught him to appreciate and love Irish dance and music. He dedicates his flute solo, “Whispering Wind,” to his mother. His grandmother is poignantly remembered by a front-row empty seat at each performance.
His girlfriend, Lisa Murphy (Flatley was divorced from Beata Diaziba, a Polish makeup consultant, in 1997), whom he met in a Dublin nightclub in 1999, is not traveling with Flatley on tour. “Lisa is spending some time with her family.”
The dancer, who is also a former Golden Gloves boxer, says he has retained his stamina through sheer hard work. He exercised and lifted weights in his villa gym in Monte Carlo to get in shape for the tour. He says his balanced body – his shoulders and arms now match his muscular legs – helps him “paint a picture” with his signature flights through the air.
What is not among his aspirations is to take part in any rock-and-roll dance movie such as Grease or a disco film, such as Saturday Night Fever. “I wouldn’t consider it,” he says. However, he does have a movie in the works, but it features Irish dancing alone. It’s a $20-million movie with a working title of Lord of the Dance and co-written by Shane Connaughton and himself. After finishing the U.S. tour, which he says is his last, Flatley will perform on August 3 in Monte Carlo and then return to London for some work on the movie at Elstree Studios.
He won’t be using either Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire as guides for his movie dancing. Although he expressed admiration for them, he didn’t think of either man as a role model. “I think I’ve gone beyond them,” Flatley says candidly.
So who would have been Flatley’s role models? They’re mostly American sports figures and include heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, NFL running back Walter Peyton who played for the Chicago Bears, and Canadian hockey star Bobby Hull. “They’re all people who worked hard to be the very best at what they do.”
Although he owns spacious homes in Monte Carlo and London and his family lives in Chicago, he says he feels Castlehyde in County Cork is his home. He bought and refurbished the ancient mansion with an eye to returning there as often as possible.
As for the future, Flatley sees his productions continuing indefinitely after he parks his shoes. “There are 500 people to consider,” he says. “They are buying houses and other things. They have financial obligations and other needs. Everyone, from the dancers and the singers to the stagehands, van drivers, lighting technicians and all the others, love their jobs. You’re welcome to ask them. They want the show to continue and I want to continue it. They have year-round work.” ♦