25 years of Riverdance: a history of the Irish dance phenomenon

25 years after Riverdance took the world by storm during the interval of Eurovision 1994, we take a look back at the history of this Irish dance phenomenon.

Irish culture is recognised in many forms across the world, and the world of Irish dance fascinates all who bear witness to it. However, what many people don’t realise is that the Irish dancing they are often so familiar with is actually that of Riverdance.

In 1994, when Ireland was hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, they had to develop an interval act that represented Ireland. For seven minutes all watching Eurovision held their breath as the international success story, Riverdance was born.

The origin – where it all began

25 years of Riverdance.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Due to Ireland having won the Eurovision more than any other country, we have also had the privilege of hosting it many times. During one such privilege in 1984, there was an act called ‘Timedance’, a three-sectioned piece that featured Baroque-influenced music and ballet.

One of the composers, Bill Whelan, was allowed to compose another piece for the interval act of Eurovision 1994 and decided to do something similar to ‘Timedance’, but instead go back to Ireland’s roots.

He composed a score filled with haunting vocals and drums and decided what better accompaniment than some Irish dancing. It was from this idea that Riverdance was born.

The phenomenon begins – the start of something amazing

The history of Riverdance.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

During the interval of the Eurovision Song Contest 1994, the first performance of Riverdance was aired. With over 300 million people tuning in, the seven-minute routine changed the face of Irish dance forever.

Introduced as a “full-bodied orchestral dance piece,” viewers were not prepared for what was to come.

The jaws of viewers worldwide were left hanging as they became transfixed on their screens as Jean Butler and Michael Flatley flew across the stage, their feet a blur.

In the debut performance, Irish dancing had changed; it wasn’t just the steps but also the style and look that were utterly transformed.

At the end of their debut, the crowd erupted in deafening applause as they took to their feet.

People around the world had just witnessed a cultural awakening that was to launch the beginning of one of the most successful stage shows of all time. For the first time in Eurovision history, the interval act, Riverdance, had eclipsed the main acts.

The early days of their success – the beginnings

25 years of Riverdance.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Within days the ‘Riverdance’ single release went straight to the top of the charts in Ireland and reached number nine on the UK charts.

The original seven-minute version of Riverdance was then invited to perform at the Royal Variety Performance in November 1994 where it gained an ever-greater following.

Nine months after their debut performance, Riverdance – The Show opens at the Point Theatre, Dublin.

For five weeks they sold out the theatre with record-breaking sales of over 120,000 tickets. This trend continued as they performed in The Apollo, London for a sell-out four-week run, and after much public demand, the show gets a second run, which is extended twice!

Riverdance’s success was not confined to Ireland and the UK. In 1996 they had eight sell-out shows in Radio City Hall, New York. The ‘Riverdance’ single also entered the Billboard World Music chart at number one.

For the next 23 years, tours continue across the world in over 515 venues throughout 47 countries across six continents.

Behind the success – how it happened

Behind the success of Riverdance.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

The success of 25 years of Riverdance largely stems from the composer, Bill Whelan.

It was from his Grammy award-winning score, which all the other elements were developed and chosen. As the music was mostly traditional Irish with a modern twist, they needed a dancing style that reflected this.

Two Irish dancing world champions, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, seemed only fitting to be both the leads in the show and also have the all-important job of choreographers. Both accomplished Irish dancers, they used their experience and expertise to create the energetic show we know and love.

The stereotypical idea of Irish dancing was transformed on the night of 30 April 1994. Gone were the rigid bodies and stiff arms of traditional Irish dancing. In their place were dancers prancing about making full use of the stage with the carefully choreographed hands and arm movement and placement.

The traditional jigs and reels were replaced by storytelling through dance, and thus the Irish culture of dance was reinvented and given a new lease of life.

The next upcoming Riverdance show takes place in July in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin and it is bound to be as riveting and as magical as the debut was 25 years ago!

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