Irish Dance and the Flatley Factor

Michael Flatley's 'Lord of the Dance'Four years is not that long when you think about and in that amount of time from now, Riverdance will become 20 years old.  Where has the time gone?  The year was 1994 and a little something known as the Eurovision Song Contest, a competition that is a fixture in Europe, was being hosted by Ireland.  As host, it was their duty to provide a piece of entertainment with hopes of impressing audience members and television viewers alike.  What could they use?  The country is steeped in musical history so it shouldn’t have been too difficult to come up with something.  How about the centuries-old art of Irish dance?  Ooooh…big gamble.  You’ve got a rigid art form that, up until then, wasn’t known outside of the culture and was something that was viewed as very traditional, consisting of rules such as don’t lift your arms above your waist, keep your head straight, and don’t smile. At first glance, it’s easy to think that this is about as far from entertaining as one can get. 

Enter Michael Flatley.  Who?  The American-born son of Irish immigrants started Irish dancing later in life than usual.  The lad’s first exposure to Irish dance was at 4 years old, but he wouldn’t take his first formal lessons until age 11.  That’s what lit the fuse.  As he grew into adulthood, this entertainment powder keg performed in small venues and Irish cultural events here and there, even touring with the famous Grammy-winning Irish band, The Chieftains.  His talents were called upon in the early to mid 1990’s to be the male lead in Ireland’s piece for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest.  This 7-minute performance opened with a choir of angelic voices and the gentle but determined soft shoes steps of Jean Butler which were followed by the lightning-quick taps of Michael Flatley.  Buckle up, audience.  You’re about to go for one hell of a ride.   

Feet of FlamesAs Bill Whelan’s composition was performed with flawless vigilance, Flatley commanded the stage on his own.  He lifted his arms, he looked away, he nodded his head, and he smiled to the audience, all the while his Irish hard shoes rapped out a series of beats.  He did everything an Irish dancer was not supposed to do…and the audience loved him for it.  In a matter of seconds, his solo work was soon augmented by Butler’s reappearance and backed up by a line full of champion Irish dancers.  It was riveting, it was adrenalizing, and it was tear-inducing.  The audience leaped to their feet with a rousing ovation.  Irish or not, it didn’t matter.  Flags waved from all nations throughout the excited audience.  There were flags from Greece and Norway and any country not named Ireland that were carried back and forth in graceful motion with grateful exuberance.  What the Point Theater in Dublin experienced that night was about to take the planet by storm. 

It wasn’t long after that moment when Riverdance became a full-fledged, 90-minute touring production.  Now some may use the word ‘unfortunately’ here, but I will say ‘fortunately’ Flatley soon had a falling out with the show’s producers due to contractual disagreements.  Why was this a good thing?  He was about to embark on an even greater journey than before.  Calling upon the musical talents of Ronan Hardiman, Flatley sought the former bank teller to compose the score for his own production, Michael Flately’s Lord of the Dance.  In a matter of just a few months, a complete dance troupe was assembled, the choreography was finished and a set was built…all funded courtesy of Flatley’s earnings from his days in Riverdance.  Some told the accomplished performer that this would never work, that he should go back to his previous show, but on the 27th June, 1996, Lord of the Dance premiered going back to the scene of the crime; the Point Theater in Dublin, Ireland.  If that night was a launch pad, then the show was the rocket. 

People occasionally ask me what the difference between the two shows are and some, when they hear the title Lord of the Dance, reply with, “Oh, isn’t that that Riverdance thing?”  Um, no.  Both shows are highly entertaining, but Riverdance displays more of a variety show with an Irish base.  You will also find American tap dance (which is derived from Irish dance), traditional Russian dancers (the dervish is awesome to see live), uilleann bagpipes, and a choir.  Lord of the Dance is all Irish with a dash of rock n’ roll focused around a basic yet enduring tale of good versus evil.  There is your full troupe of dancers and four dance leads which consists of the hero, otherwise known as the Lord of the Dance, the main villain Don Dorcha (pronounced Dark-uh), the hero’s love Saorise (pronounced sheer-sa), and Morrighan the Temptress.  The show also graces its audiences with a modern dancer as a Tinkerbell-esque character known as the Little Spirit, incredibly talented dueling violinists, and one very accomplished female singer as Erin the Celtic Goddess (pronounced kell-tick), who is a Mother Nature of sorts.

 Michael Flatley

Lord of the Dance and its spinoff Feet of Flames, have entertained millions upon millions around the world, filling 100,000+ seat arenas, was the #1 selling video in Germany for 51 straight weeks, and performed for world leaders everywhere such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton and current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  Riverdance also continues to dazzle countless spectators around the globe as both shows set their sights on untapped Asian and South African markets who are clamoring to see the shows.  Flatley left Lord of the Dance in 1998 only to make his return some years later with his latest creation, Celtic Tiger; a show that tells the history and perseverance of Ireland through 90 minutes of song and Irish dance.  Though this show was billed as bigger and better, it is tough to beat its predecessors and Flatley had to end the tour prematurely due to ill health he was experiencing at that time.  Only a few months ago in December of 2009, Flatley made his long-awaited return to the stage, taking the re-ignited Feet of Flames to Taiwan where record ticket sales and a series of 8 shows in 6 days brought in a reported $20,000,000 payday for the champion flautist and most successful dancer of all time (info courtesy of michaelflatley.com).

What Michael Flatley brought to the table was more than some fancy footwork.  He brought business-sense and the mindset of a fan and as a result, opened doors for the art of Irish dance and countless dancers and musicians everywhere.  Even those performers whose names we’ll never see in lights have had some kind of grateful impact from the one-time Golden Gloves boxer and former Guinness World Record holder for fastest feet at 28 taps per second…that’s no typo…28 taps in 1 second.  Believe it. 

I recently had the chance to talk with two such talented performers who were influenced by the Irish-American Flatley.  Pat Campbell and Justin Boros are both former dancers in Lord of the Dance, each having their own unique experiences performing in front of audiences in North and South America as well as Europe.  One was affected by the live show’s wow-factor almost overnight while the other was anchored in Irish traditions from his youth.  What did the pair have to say about their experiences?  Read on to find out…


Pat Campbell

Pat Campbell at the 2008 Cleveland Irish Festival

Interview with Pat Campbell

WSB:  How old were you when you started Irish dancing and who influenced you?

Pat:  I started dancing at the age of 6.  My older brother and sister danced before me.


WSB:  How long were you in Lord of the Dance and what kind of position did you hold in the show?

Pat:  I was in Lord of the Dance for 7 years.  I was a chorus line dancer from 1998 until 2001.  I played the Lead Bad Guy “Don Dorcha” from the end of ‘01 until the end of my dancing career.


WSB:  Acting as Don Dorcha, the story’s main villain, can you explain what it was like to be a lead in the show?

Pat:  It was absolutely amazing. From getting the costume on to getting pumped up side stage.  The bad guy does not start until the 4th part of the show.  There is no room for error when you are out there because the spot light is always on you.  It is also one heck of a workout.


WSB:  Despite being the arch nemesis of the Lord of the Dance, audiences took to the character instantly.  Why do you think this is?

Pat:  I think it is because there is more of an opportunity for the “bad guy” to act more.  The Good Guy is always smiling and coming to save the day, whereas the bad guy can cause all sorts of mischief.  Mind you, I have never won and always get booed, but it is fun.  My record is 0-587. 

WSB:  Haha!


WSB:  Though Irish dance is hundreds of years old, Michael Flatley was the one who put it on the map.  As a result, he is not only well-known in the landscape of Irish dance, but in the world of entertainment.  What was it like to work with him?

Pat:  He is an amazing dancer.  His show presence is by far the best out there.  He has been able to enable dancers to continue their careers and love for Irish Dance.  Before any of the shows came out, you would quit dance after high school!!


WSB:  What does life after the show hold for you and how important is it for you to maintain your footwork and pass on the tradition?

Pat:  Life after has been crazier than expected.  At the moment I teach dance with my wife, Rebecca, who also was a lead dancer in Lord of the Dance.  We have over 100 kids and teach 3 nights a week.  We also have a pub (PJ McIntyre’s) that we run as well.  When I dance really hard at a practice, I feel it a lot more than I used to.  I am getting old!!!


WSB:  What is your advice for anybody out there who has hopes of joining a professional Irish dance troupe?

Pat:  Follow your dreams and try to fulfill your goals.  I believe everything happens for a reason.  Stay focused and put in that little extra that others are not doing!!!!!

 Pat Campbell

To see Pat’s footwork in action from Lord of the Dance and for more information on the Brady-Campbell Irish Dance School, please visit http://www.bradycampbellirishdanceschool.com/the-instructors/patrick-campbell.html.


Justin Boros

Justin Boros from 'Lord of the Dance'

Interview with Justin Boros

WSB:  You were in both an abbreviated version of the show at Epcot and later in the full-fledged tour.  What were some of the differences between the two experiences?

Justin:  I joined Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance in June of 1999.  I was asked to join the ‘Best of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance.’  This production was a 30-minute show that took the most popular numbers from Lord of the Dance and presented them in a concise 30-minute story line.  The Best of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance performed at the American Gardens Theatre in Epcot Center 4 times a day, 7 days a week, for several months.  We were considered Troupe 4, and Troupe 4 consisted of many dancers from all the Troupes touring the world performing the full length 90 minute show of Lord of the Dance.  This was a much more intimate production that seated just a few hundred people for each show.  The stage was nearly 120 degrees while performing due to the hot Florida weather in addition to the production lights that added heat to each performance.  It was an honor to be asked to join the Best of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance and perform with many of the world’s most prestigious Irish dancers.  

After a short break at the conclusion of Troupe 4’s run at Epcot, I was asked to join the US touring troupe, Troupe 2, in January of 2000.  Troupe 2 traveled around North America, South America, Mexico, and Canada performing the full length 90-minute production of Lord of the Dance.  This was pure rock and roll!  During this time in what now has been 14 years the show has been running, Lord of the Dance was at its peak in 2000.  We performed in arena-size venues selling out everywhere we went playing to over 25,000 people a night.  Not only was Lord of the Dance the biggest touring production in the world, and sold more tickets than U2 and many world famous bands combined, but in every city, we were the ticket!  Irish dance had taken over the media while Lord of the Dance was taking over the world.  Tour buses, nice hotels, extravagant catering, television shows, partying, lines of people waiting for autographs, and having major celebrities attend performances was a typical day in the life on tour. Touring with the largest production in the world is something that cannot be imparted unto someone, it’s pure experience that can only help someone understand what it was like, and especially at this time when Irish dance was at its peak.  Touring during this monumental time in the lifeline of Irish dance was an experience that I will always cherish and be thankful for.


WSB:  What was your audition process like?

Justin:  I had just started Irish dancing a year and a half before I was asked to join the show.  I studied the video of Lord of the Dance every night in my basement until the sun began to rise for nearly a year.  Kids my age were out socializing while I was in my basement putting rhythms together and envisioning my goal which would soon become real.  I made an audition tape of me performing every male dance in the show Lord of the Dance and on a vacation to Florida in 1999, gave it to the dance captain of the troupe, which he informed me would take several months to get to.  Several days later while I was in the audience, the troupe manager asked to see me after the show.  I met with him by the entrance to the venue after that night’s performance and he informed me they watched my tape and he wanted me to come back after the park closed and audition on stage that night.  Later that night, he drove me to my hotel and I retrieved my hard shoes and went back to a dark Epcot around 11 pm.  Pretty soon I was dancing all the dances from the show on stage in front of several dance captains and the troupe manager.  After about 45 minutes I thanked them for the honor and they said they will be in touch.  The next day I received a phone call and a 30-page contract that was faxed over to me.  Within the next three days I had flown home to Ohio and gathered my things and was back down in Florida rehearsing with the troupe.  The rest is history.


WSB:  Your experience was a little different from most in that you hadn’t been involved in the art of Irish dance from childhood.  What obstacles did you encounter as a result of this?

Justin:  I wouldn’t say I encountered any obstacles during my year and a half of learning to Irish dance before I joined the show.  I would say I came across things that helped me adjust my path to reach my goal, many of these being inspirational things that drove me to achieve.  When I started dancing, I was 6’4″ about 200 pounds, dancing with an all girls class of 10 and 11 year olds.  Strange, but I didn’t care.  My first competition I placed last place in every dance.  I was not discouraged, the traditional competition I did not particularly like.  It was the masculine hard shoes, lights and crowd that inspired me to start Irish dancing.  However, I realized in order for me to succeed I did needed to compete traditionally and do well.  I stayed at the dance school every night and watched the championship-level dancers dance and saw what I needed to do to reach that level, and I did.  My next feis (pronounced ‘fesh’) I placed 1st in every dance.  I was on a path that nobody could stop.  Pure passion and vision was my drug, which is a deadly combination for anyone with a bit of drive.  Like Michael Flatley said, the more people told me I couldn’t do it, the closer I knew I was.  And then I became.


WSB:  Irish dance productions took the world by storm starting back in the mid-1990’s and they’re touring today.  How do you explain all this success?

Justin:  Riverdance was really good, Lord of the Dance was great.  Most business people understand that in order to be successful you do not have to create something new, you just have to take something and make it better.  That’s what the brilliant artistic mind of Michael Flatley did in 1996.  He realized why Riverdance was a success, what worked, what didn’t work, and what people wanted to see that was missing in Riverdance.  When Lord of the Dance debuted, Michael Flatley set that bar so high, that in the last 14 years no other production has achieved what Lord of the Dance has.  In the last several years, Irish dance is certainly not as popular in theatres as it was during my run back in 2000.  This is surely due to the amount of Irish dance shows that have flooded the market over the past ten years, and the amount of touring that Riverdance and Lord of the Dance have done.  I would not say that Irish dance is still going strong today.  Like every show’s life cycle, Lord of the Dance and Riverdance will soon come to a point where it’s not worth belittling what was once a magnificent production to make a small profit.  Regardless, Irish dance has made its place in the world with the help of great shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance and kids and adults will forever be inspired to take up this magic art.


WSB:  Lastly, what advice do you have for aspiring Irish dancers, who started later in life as you did, seeking to find their niche in one of the many shows out there today?

Justin:  Three Words that Michael Flatley repeatedly said that helped me achieve my goals, “Follow your dreams.”

Justin Boros

WSB:  Thanks a lot, lads!


For more information on these fine shows, their tour dates and histories, please visit:





For all your Irish Dance needs!


Michael Flatley Collection:


Lord of the Dance DVD:

Lord of the Dance Soundtrack:


Michael Flatley Gold:


Feet of Flames DVD:


Feet of Flames Soundtrack:


The Best of Riverdance DVD:


Riverdance Soundtrack:


Riverdance Sheet Music Book:


Riverdance – Live from Radio City Music Hall (2-disc Collector’s Edition):


Riverdance – Live from Geneva:


Celtic Tiger DVD:


Celtic Tiger Soundtrack:





2 Responses to “Irish Dance and the Flatley Factor”

  1. Brian White

    Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedules, Pat and Justin, to chat with Gregg. We appreciate it!

  2. Kyles dance school

    Riverdance was and always will be incredible, not only the dance but the music as well. I think they should do something major to celebrate the 20th anniversary.