Riverdance Comes to PPAC

“Come and meet those dancing feet. On the avenue we’re taking you to.” – old Weybosset St.

No, not THOSE feet. These feet are the thunderous, stage-vibrating,  Irish step-dancing feet that belong to the large cast of Riverdance, The Show, the sensation taking over the stage at Providence Performing Arts Center June 2 through 4.

Years back, they said it was over, but apparently not. Here they are on their 20th Anniversary tour. A whole new generation of fans is just now beginning to enjoy, appreciate and emulate this phenomenon.


The Riverdance  humble beginnings started in 1994 in Dublin, Ireland, as an interval filler in between judging during the Eurovision Song Contest. It was broadcast by, heard and seen on Irish public radio and TV. Produced originally by Moya Doherty, the segment was artistically based on the life of an Irish river, starting as a stream and finally submitting itself to the sea. The cast featured two American-born traditional Irish dancers, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, a choir and a slew of step dancers. With haunting music specially composed by Bill Whelan, this number, aptly called, “Riverdance,” became wildly popular. So much so that it was expanded to become a full stage show that opened in Dublin in 1995 before heading to London.

That show was taped and broadcast here in North America by PBS stations and used during their donation pledge performances. Its popularity garnered generous donations for public television. Another  broadcast version of the show was performed and filmed at New York at Radio City Music Hall in 1996. This one was headlined by Jean Butler with Colin Dunne, a more traditional Irish dancer taking the role created by the bombastic Michael Flatley. Flatley was an exciting performer, extremely fleet afoot, but rather egotistical leaning toward the more “Vegas-like” performance rather than true traditional Irish dance and music. Flatley was fired for artistic differences, but soon created his own successful productions, the dramatic Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames, both of which were performed in his flashier style.

These PBS showings created throngs of young, dance-class students (predominately little girls) pleading – and succeeding – with their parents to spend a great deal of money on beautifully embroidered dresses and hard black shoes. And then there are those banana-curly hairpieces, often painfully attached to their own tresses, which bob up and down in unison as they dance. At touring performances, you can almost be assured there will be a number of dance-class members in attendance.

The dance form itself is similar to clogging, with the exception of the stiffly erect stature and (mostly) lack of movement of the upper body and arms. The performers are often shoulder to shoulder in a straight line or circle.

It’s amusing that the Irish embraced the show so lovingly. Pre-PBS, in the “old country,” many children (boys and girls) were forced to dance and hated to dance. Then all of the sudden it became cool. The show’s dancing was lovingly ridiculed and comedians imitated the form, thus only adding to its appeal.

The true intention of Riverdance, the Show, is to showcase the Irish history and culture, and journey to other worlds by dance. Excellence in performance is key — bios in the program show that many of the dancers are champions. The music accompanying the large cast of beautiful people is contagious. The instruments, which include a fiery fiddle, the strange Uillean Pipe and the feet stomping, tapping percussive rhythms, are contagious. It’s hard to sit still watching these amazing dances. In addition to the Irish spectacles, there are dazzling  flamenco, urban and Russian numbers depicting the mingling of cultures. The finale of the show is thunderous with most of the entire troupe participating.

Irish music and dance is alive, well and living comfortably in RI. Whether with live instrumental accompaniment or taped music, dancers are still jigging and the curls are still bouncing.