Duchess of the Dance

Why do Irish folkdancers dance with their arms glued to their sides? "Well, none of us really knows what's true," says the leading lady of Riverdance - The Show's North American touring company, Eileen Martin. But there are two main theories that circulate among the youngsters in Dublin's dance schools: The more benign is that the dance was born in Ireland's tiny pubs, where dancers were packed in like sardines and couldn't flail around for fear of assaulting their friends and family. The more sinister is that the Catholic Church didn't allow any dancing that was expressive, emotionally or physically. Lightning-fast feet were okay, but the upper body had to be erect, still and untouchable. If you moved even your head, Martin says, "you were finished."

Martin learned to dance that way when she was only four years old. "For us, it was never the cool thing to do," she says, "especially for the boys, who had to wear kilts." The girls' costumes weren't much better. They wore ringlets in their hair and big, heavy dresses covered in glitter and rhinestones. But Irish parents sent their kids, like it or not, to folkdancing school, just like nearly every little American girl gets enrolled in ballet class. Martin stuck with it because she was good -- she won her first World Irish Dancing Championship at the age of 12 -- but she knew there was no future for her in Irish dancing. It was just a hobby.

Enter television producer Moya Doherty, director John McColgan, composer Bill Whelan (who ultimately won a Grammy for Riverdance), a pre-Lord of the Dance Michael Flatley and the 1994 Eurovision Pop-Song Contest.

Doherty needed a seven-minute filler piece for the show. The contest was set in Dublin, so the natural solution was to pull together an act showcasing Ireland's cultural heritage, namely a traditional dance act. But Doherty had other ideas: Dancing was fine, but it would not be traditional. She dressed Martin, then 17, and the other girls in little black dresses. She let the men wear pants. She set the dances to Irish music with a rock-and-roll edge. She told them all to move their upper bodies, just a little. In short, says Martin, without a hint of Catholic embarrassment, Doherty "wanted it to look a little sexier."

In seven minutes, Martin's uncool hobby was on its way to becoming an international phenomenon. The filler act got a standing ovation, and Doherty and her co-creators realized they had something big on their hands. They quickly developed the evening-length Riverdance - The Show, which opened to a five-week sold-out run in Dublin, shuttled back and forth to equally enthusiastic crowds in London and finally made its way across the pond in 1996.

Americans, of course, loved the show that loosed prim but gorgeous Irish dancers from sexual oppression, but the old dance teachers back in Dublin weren't pleased. "At the beginning, they were afraid it was going to ruin the traditional Irish dance," says Martin. These days, though, with students clamoring to get into Irish dance classes, the traditionalists are whistling a different tune.

-- Lauren Kern

Riverdance - The Show is at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, June 17 through 27. Showtimes are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Call Ticketmaster at (713)629-3700 for tickets, $40.50 to $69.50.


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