At the Eurovision Song Contest in April 1994, the world was first introduced to the enthralling experience that is Riverdance.
The seven minute interval act was performed in front of a few thousand people at The Point theatre in Dublin. But it was broadcast across Europe, spreading with it a new image of Ireland.
The 1993 song contest was also hosted in Ireland. But the interval act featuring well-known singers and local choirs failed to make a similar impact. That’s probably why the warm reception took so many by surprise.
Overnight, Irish-American dancer Michael Flatley became a household name. At the time, the accompanying ‘Riverdance’ song entered the charts at number one and stayed there for 18 weeks. This remains the longest reign at the top of the Irish Singles Chart to this day.
The BBC immediately booked a repeat performance for the Royal Variety Show later that year. And a full-length stage show was quickly put together too. It’s first five-week run sold out over 120,000 tickets. It then toured the UK, Europe and even reached New York.
Riverdance became a cultural phenomenon almost instantly. But what has its long lasting impact been?
Demand for Irish dance classes abroad
In 2004, ten years after the Eurovision performance, the World Irish Dance Association was set up in Düsseldorf to cater for the rising number of Irish dance schools throughout Europe. Their demand was driven by the success of Riverdance.
The Halpin School of Irish Dance in Stuttgart, for example, was set up by Áine Halpin in 1994. After moving to Germany, she joined The Celtic Cultural Society and rediscovered her love for Irish dancing. She occasionally ran her own dance courses. But after the success of Riverdance, she was persuaded to set up a permanent school. One which still runs today.
Similar success stories can be found around the world. Teachers can earn a comfortable living in places that are traditionally associated with the Irish diaspora. Think the UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. But far-flung countries which haven’t witnessed much Irish migration are home to successful dance schools too.
There’s Irish Dancing de Mexico, which was launched by Alicia Mosti after she saw Riverdance in 2000. Originally a ballet dancer, she retrained and now her school has several branches.
Further south, Danzas Irlandesas in Argentina is run by Fernando Marcos. Although there is a history of Irish emigration to Argentina, he simply discovered his passion for Irish dancing after seeing Riverdance. He then became South America’s first Irish dance teacher. Now, there’s at least six schools dotted throughout South America. You’ll find them in China, the UAE and Russia too.
As a result of Riverdance, the appeal of Irish dancing went beyond the diaspora. Appreciation now comes from artists all around the world.
Professional employment opportunities for Irish dancers
According to Angelika Masero of Western Kentucky University, the rising popularity of Riverdance brought with it rising profitability. And this created employment opportunities for dancers at home and abroad.
Before Riverdance, becoming a teacher was the only way for Irish dancers to pursue their art as a career. There weren’t any large scale Irish dancing productions, so full-time professionals didn’t really exist.
But Riverdance required large numbers of skilled dancers for its stage shows – and dance schools around the world were waiting in the wings to provide them.
Other industry opportunities were created too. Shop owners specialising in niche products, like poodle socks, shoes and dresses have cropped up around the world.
Global awareness that lasted long after the first performance
The 1994 Riverdance performance immediately brought global attention to Irish dance and culture. Some see it as a great promotion. But others feel it’s a betrayal of tradition since it features a fusion of other dance styles.
Whatever your views are, it’s clear that most people see it as an impressive spectacle and, sometimes, something to joke about. American pop culture in particular has been known to parody Riverdance.
It has featured in Heineken ads and the Friends TV show. Mike Myers even imitated Michael Flatley while hosting the MTV Movie Awards. More recently, father-son dance duo ‘Stavros Flatley’ made it to the finals of Britain’s Got Talent with their Riverdance-inspired act.
It aims to bring the phenomenon to a new generation of viewers. With an all-star cast including the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Brendan Gleeson, Pauline McLynn and Aisling Bea, it’s likely to succeed in its mission.
The new film stayed faithful to the original Riverdance performance by capturing the movement of actual dancers through motion capture technology. Moya Doherty, who originally co-founded Riverdance, also worked on producing the animation.
While many emigrants still leave Ireland taking their Irish culture and traditions with them, Riverdance has proved to be another vehicle for carrying Irish dance, music and folklore abroad – even in 2021.
At EPIC, we tell the story of Irish emigration and its impact throughout the world. To find out the stories behind our most influential musicians and dancers, visit EPIC’s Music & Dance Gallery.
Header: Riverdance Lead Dancers, credit Ewa Figaszewska & Fatima Caballero