Michael Flatley can recall the times spent on the “pay your dues” circuit, traveling the country as a warm-up for headliners like The Chieftains. After all, he didn’t make his everlasting mark on the world stage until well into his thirties.
“I’ve got no regrets,” Flatley said. “It’s been a hard road but a good road.”
The kid from Chicago now presides over a multi-million-dollar business empire. He currently has three troupes performing around the world, and his London-based Unicorn Entertainment company owns all the merchandising and video rights. His shows, Lord of the Dance, and Feet of Flame have grossed millions of dollars.
Flatley and his four siblings — a brother and three sisters — were born and raised in Chicago, where his father, Michael, from Co. Sligo, owned a successful construction company. Michael’s mother, Eilish, a native of Co. Carlow, was a stepdancer of note in her day, and her son was determined to follow in her footsteps. He started formal lessons at the relatively late age of 11, but made up for lost time, winning his first Irish World Dance Championship when he was 17. He wrapped up his competitive career with an astounding 168 championships in various events, a record yet to be met.
“You go to Ireland and people have so much pride and passion and personality, and they’re oozing with character, and it’s such a contradiction that they dance like this (he makes a stiff upper body move). I can understand it in competition, but when I got off stage I just wanted to cut loose. I remember the first time I did the Moonwalk on tour with the Chieftains and everyone just started screaming, and I knew there was no turning back.”
Flatley and another Irish-American dance star, Jean Butler, were asked to perform in 1994 as the intermission act for Eurovision, staged that year in Dublin. The two performed a seven-minute high-octane routine that was an intoxicating combination of revolutionary dance skill and breathtaking stage presence. Irish dance hasn’t been the same since.
Riverdance was expanded into a fulllength show and was an instant hit when it debuted in Dublin in 1995.
Just when Flatley thought that things couldn’t be better, the Riverdance management team claimed their star developed an out-of-control ego. He said he just wanted to maintain some sort of creative control over the show he helped develop. Riverdance replaced Flatley, and the show took London by storm.
It’s not an episode he cares to talk much about now, but he has nothing but words of praise for the show. “I don’t have any hard feelings now. I wouldn’t be where I am today if all of that didn’t happen.” Thus came Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance in the summer of 1996.
“I always wanted to do something that was completely Irish,” says Flatley. “I wanted it to be a simple storyline, a good versus evil story, and that’s how Lord of the Dance ended up.”
In 2002, Flatley decided to leave the stage. However, even in retirement, Flatley continuously worked on the next project. Flatley’s world is a place where there are always new horizons to conquer. His projects for that year included breaking ground on an Irish casino on land he purchased on the Las Vegas strip, a Broadway opening for Lord of the Dance, tinkering with a film script, and making an album of flute music. Not to mention a rigorous workout routine for a new show.
“I’ve been working on doing a cool new kind of Irish-American show with a big patriotic American finish,” he said. “I think I have to put it on hold until the war is over. I have to be careful. The last thing you want in this day and age is anything that could be perceived as political.
“This is a show that’s tied in deep with my heart,” he said. “It’s taken me these few years to get the body back, the dancing back.”
Flatley is still interested in making a film, an idea he’s had on the back burner for some time, and he’s always toying with a screenplay.
“I’m so tired of seeing these Irish movies that are so depressing,” he says, “with people cursing and shooting each other. I’m always a fan of doing something upscale and classier.”
Flatley spends most of the year living in his palatial French Riviera retreat. Some years back he also spent millions on an historical Irish castle in Co. Cork called Castlehyde. “Ireland is the only place for me,” he says.
When he first made the purchase, it was so he could be closer to his fiancée, Dubliner Lisa Murphy.
“Lisa puts up with a lot from me. She knows my life is mostly business and I don’t get to see her very often, but that’s just how life is.”
Flatley wouldn’t have it any other way. ♦
Flatley launched Celtic Tiger in Budapest on July 9, 2005. He and his fiancée, Lisa Murphy split in 2004 but have since reunited.