Thursday 17 October 2019

What it feels like to... take the lead in Riverdance

She wasn't born when it was first performed, but now Amy-Mae Dolan (20) is following in the footsteps of her heroine Jean Butler on the Gaiety stage in Dublin every night

On tap of her game: Amy-Mae Dolan performing as the lead in Riverdance
On tap of her game: Amy-Mae Dolan performing as the lead in Riverdance

I wasn't even born when Riverdance was first performed - I entered the world a few years later. But my parents, Siobhan and Francie, watched it on the Eurovision that night in 1994 like everyone else in the country.

I was two years old when I started dancing. Whenever my mum played the music from Riverdance for me, I just loved it. I don't remember the first time I heard it - I must've been very young - but I've always loved it. The music gets me every time.

I grew up in the countryside in Castlederg in Tyrone with my sister Rylee (16) and my brother Alex (13). My youngest sister Scarlett (4) also loves Irish dancing. I think she's more obsessed than I was.

I travelled to Belfast to the Carson-Kennedy Academy of Irish Dance in Belfast and the journey was long - about an hour and a half. It was a big commitment three times a week and every day I would be practising at home for two hours.

I started winning competitions when I was young. I was five or six years old when I won local competitions, and I won the World Championship when I was 12 in 2010. That was massive for me - the only goal I had set for myself was to win a World Championship. I came second in the world six times and it was always amazing for me to stay up there.

I may not have had as much natural ability as others, but I was so passionate about dancing and I worked really hard. Maybe my parents realised I could be good at this. Nobody ever thought I was going to have a career in it. I never imagined I'd be good enough to get into Riverdance.

Amy-Mae performing with the Riverdance cast
Amy-Mae performing with the Riverdance cast

My plan was to go to university. Irish dancing disciplined me really well and I worked hard at school, where I planned to study medicine. I had applied to do medicine when I did the Riverdance summer school in July 2016. A few weeks later they asked me to join the team to go to China. That was the same week my A Level results came out. It was a big decision but I knew when I got the call I wanted to go. It wasn't until I did the summer school that I knew I wanted to see where I could fit into Riverdance. I had applied to the school by sending in a video of myself dancing. It's a bit like an audition. You don't have to be a world champion to be in Riverdance but you do have to be passionate and a really good team member. The summer school is a time for you to show how hard you can work.

When my mum got the call from Riverdance saying they were casting for China, it was seriously mixed emotions for my mum and dad. They knew how much it would mean to me but I'd have to move away. I left for China in November 2016 and was there until February last year.

It was my first time away from home and China is so different from Ireland. Around Christmas I got a wee bit homesick. But I was surrounded by so many amazing people - they were becoming like family on the tour. They looked after me and I looked after them in return.

I was a troupe dancer in China. When I came home I had no idea when I was coming back to Riverdance. The US tour had already been cast. In April 2017, I decided to compete at the World Championships in Dublin. Padraic Moyles, associate director of Riverdance, was presenting the award for my competition that day. I came fourth and when he was giving me my medal he told me they were going to train me in for the lead with Riverdance. My legs just buckled on stage. I kept pinching myself afterwards wondering, did he really say that?

It's amazing to be part of the show but to be the lead is phenomenal. It's a role I looked up to my whole life. All the lead dancers have been brilliant over the years.

Within the lead role, there are three leads and we rotate it every night. I'm the newest lead dancer and I hope I can be as good as the others someday. Everyone used to joke with me when I was younger 'there's Jean coming' because I have red curly hair. I looked up to Jean Butler all my life.

The show is on at the Gaiety every night. It's very hard to put into words what it's like when I hear the music. My heart starts to beat really fast and I can feel the adrenalin in my body. I get excited and nervous because there are hundreds of people waiting for me to come on.

Dancing gives me so much joy and I want the audience to feel that - I can't wait to get out there. The music from the show never gets old. It's in my body. People say when they're watching me dance that I take my breath with the music.

My family have come to see me at the Gaiety. I could see them standing up out of their seats. I'd like to think they're feeling proud, and I hope they think all the hard work paid off. It's down to them - they got me to class every week.

I feel like I've been dreaming for the last two years and haven't woke up. I'm so proud to be part of this. I want it to last forever.

Riverdance runs at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin until September 9.

In conversation with Kathy Donaghy

Irish Independent

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