What is Riverdance?
At a basic level, Riverdance is a display of music, dancing and singing. On a deeper level, it is the story of Ireland and its people. Like a river fed by many tributaries, then flowing into the ocean, the Irish people came from many different places, and then centuries later, moved out of Ireland to other parts of the world. On another level, it is the story of humanity’s creative exploration of nature through the arts. The show not only features Irish dance, but Spanish, Russian and African-American dance as well. This creative expression came from different sources, like tributaries, but all merge into the mighty river that is their common creation.
Origins of Riverdance
Riverdance was originally conceived as the interval act for Ireland’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest 1994. Nobody ever dreamed that one seven-minute dance would make Riverdance the success it is today.
Following the success of that performance, producer Moya Doherty, composer Bill Whelan, and director John McColgan expanded the piece into a full-length stage production that explores the evolution of Irish music, song and dance.
When he was writing the music for Riverdance, composer Bill Whelan was inspired by Ireland's Liffey River. The river, which originates in the Wicklow Mountains and runs through the Republic of Ireland's capital—Dublin—before emptying into the Irish Sea, gave Whelan an idea for the name of the show that celebrated Irish culture. Whelan says, “It was based on the life of the river: quiet at source, it would interact with the land, feeding it and nourishing it, and rush out to sea.” Since Riverdance’s world premiere at Dublin’s Point Theatre in 1995, over 21 million people worldwide have seen the show.
A (Very) Brief History of Ireland
Archeologists still debate the origins of Ireland’s first inhabitants, but Spain is a likely source. There is evidence of a civilization that existed for over 2000 years before the Celts arrived from parts of France and Britain. Prior to the 5th century AD, when St. Patrick converted the people to Christianity, pagan beliefs prevailed. Vikings from Denmark and Norway invaded in the 8th and 9th Centuries. The Vikings settled in and helped to build some of the first cities, including Dublin.
In 1169 AD, during one of many feuds among the warlords, an ousted king requested help from King Henry II of England. Henry sent an expeditionary force of Norman barons to assist the ousted king and then followed up with a full-scale invasion, conquering the entire nation. The English then established feudalism in Ireland.
During the 18th century, the English began a plantation policy that resulted in the Irish becoming tenants on land owned by the English. In the 19th century, successive seasons of blighted potato crops caused nationwide famine, and many Irish left their homeland for, principally, America. As the Irish began emigrating from Ireland to the United States they experienced employment discrimination, meeting “No Irish Need Apply” signs on the doors of most businesses. They were greeted by prejudice and poverty, but the Irish culture and spirit survived to be passed down through generations of Irish-Americans.
In 1569, Sir Henry Sydney wrote to Queen Elizabeth about the Irish people: “They are very beautiful, magnificently dressed and first class dancers.”
Irish dance dates back to ethnic traditions in 16th-century Ireland and is synonymous with Irish independence and cultural identity. Throughout history, these ancient dances were never documented or recorded due to Ireland’s occupation by England, which controlled the documentation of their history. In Ireland, the British banned all Gaelic cultural traditions during the 400-year period known as the Penal Days. Through this adversity a beautiful art form was born.
Despite England’s attempt to anglicize the children of Ireland, step dancing evolved behind closed doors. There, parents taught children Gaelic tunes with rhythms tapped out by their feet in front of the hearth.
At family gatherings a sort of one-upmanship took place between family members. If Grandpa performed one click, the niece or nephew might show off a double click and so on. Father and son would often try to outstep each other through a series of complex steps and rhythms. This tradition evolved into what is well known as a “challenge” in tap and hoofing circles.
After the Penal Laws were lifted in the late 1800s, inspiring the Great Gaelic Revival, Irish dancing gained momentum. While many Irish were facing discrimination in America and were unable to find work, many resorted to careers in show business. On Broadway during the days of Vaudeville, the African American boot dancers met Irish step dancers and created what we now call American tap dancing or “hoofing.”
Traditional Irish dancing is tightly choreographed and all attention is directed to the speed and accuracy of the footwork, the spacing of the ensemble and the precisions of the dancers’ movements. The dancer’s arms are held tightly to the sides. Dances are performed in hard shoes (jig shoes) and soft shoes (ghillies) with steps set to traditional reels, jigs and hornpipes. Hard shoe dances or step dances are noted for the thunderous beat of the tap-like shoes. In soft-shoe dances, the dancers execute small jumps, quick beats and ankle-twisting crossover steps.
The Gaelic word for dance, damhsa, shows the mixed quality of Irish culture; its origins are from the French word danse, brought over by French-speaking Normans. Until the 18th century, most Irish dancing was communal, that is, danced by large groups of people. In a time before television, movies and the Internet, dance parties in houses or at the crossroads were often a community’s sole form of entertainment. Solo steps were first developed by dance masters in the 1900s. Many of the dances you will see at Riverdance—the reel, the jig, the hornpipe—were developed at this time.
The Dance Master
Dance styles were extended through Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries by traveling teachers and performers known as dance masters. Dance masters would wander from town to town, staying in a village for up to six weeks, sleeping in the kitchen or barn of a kind farmer, teaching the children of the village how to dance. The people of rural Ireland knew the folk dances taught by their parents, but people wanted the dance masters to teach them the new dances from far away places like France. It was considered a great honor for a town to host a dance master. Dancing was so popular among peasants and farmers that the coming of a dance master was a time of celebration for the whole village.
Dance masters wore bright colored hats, knee breeches, shoes with large silver buckles and held staffs while they walked. Dance masters would usually have their own territories, usually not more than 10 square miles. Often masters would meet at fairs and compete to see who was the best dancer. The winner would take over the loser's territory.
During this time, places for competitions and fairs were always small, so there was little room for the Dance Masters to perform. They would dance on tabletops, sometimes even the top of a barrel. Because of this, the dancing styles were very contained, with hands rigid at the sides, and a lack of arm movement.
Though Riverdancers make lots of noise, they use shoes that are quite different from tap shoes. The heel is 2 inches high and the shoe’s tip is fiberglass. The dancers actually travel with several pairs. It takes a lot to break in new shoes, which often look as if they’ve been run over by a car. Each dancer breaks in shoes differently, and all the dancers are responsible for maintaining their own shoes.
Riverdance showcases the musicians onstage alongside the dancers and singers. Usually in a musical or opera, the band is in the area just under the lip of the stage called “the pit.” But composer Bill Whelan came from a rock’n’roll tradition and insisted that the Riverdance band be visible, to interact with the performers and the audience.
Traditional music in Ireland has always been tightly joined to dance, with the four types of dancing - set dances, hornpipe, reel, jig — also the four types of traditional instrumental music. In creating the music for Riverdance, composer Bill Whelan mixed his rock and roll roots with traditional Irish music, making something haunting, memorable, and entirely new. So in the band, you'll see traditional Irish instruments, like the uilleann pipes and the bodhrán alongside a saxophone, synthesizer and full drum set.
Some Traditional Irish Instruments
Pronounced “illyun” pipes, this instrument evolved from ancient
Irish war-pipes. “Uilleann” is the Irish word for “elbow,” which is the body part that moves the pipes’ bellows. Seen by many as the classic Irish instrument, the uilleann pipes takes years to learn.
A slender one-sided drum covered with goat skin, the bodhrán is meant to be played very loud. The percussive instrument takes its name from the Irish word for “deafener.” Played with a stick or the hand, the tone and pitch of the open-ended drum can be changed by the placement of the hand on the inside of the skin.