River-dancing up the aisle
Sixty couples and dozens of babies have been made backstage of the world wide phenomenon...
In the 20 years since it began touring, 'Riverdance' has been Ireland's most reliable matchmaking facility. There have been 60 marriages and 86 babies out of roughly 1,000 crew and cast members. Three more babies are on the way. There has been one known separation.
There have been 60 marriages and 86 babies out of roughly 1,000 crew and cast members. Three more babies are on the way. There has been one known separation.
This prodigious rate of coupling-off is hardly surprising. Twenty million people in 46 countries have seen the music and dance spectacular. A lot of boys have danced with a lot of girls and lots of girls with girls and boys with boys (though so far, all the marriages are between opposite sexes). Many buses have been slept on, many minibars cracked open and many weary nights spent in strange lands.
Imagine what would happen in the office if the bosses locked all the doors and barred all the windows, and the workplace became a Celtic fantasy visited by Russians and Flamenco and American tap dancers; a spell cast over time.
'Riverdance' is the office romance electrified. And meeting backstage over massages, or being spun around to a standing ovation is considerably more romantic than pressing a switch for someone in an elevator.
'Riverdance' is, like any travelling tribe, self-sustaining, a reversion to that which kept us going since before civilisation began. But there is something special about this social experiment. We saw it from the moment Michael Flatley (a self-confessed playboy) skidded on stage at the interval of the 1994 Eurovision, leaping with a maniacal desire Ireland didn't hitherto associate with its rigid native dance; in the body language between he and the luscious Jean Butler, who glares at him while he rends her by the waist. Bill Whelan's music had a goosepimpling quality. That and the intoxication of its success created a frisson that couldn't but percolate around cast and crew.
And it still does. Danny Erskine, a production and stage manager talking on the phone from Herning in Denmark, where 'Riverdance' is performing, says love is part of life on the road.
"It's an aspect of being on tour. It gets very insular. The dancers share hotel rooms; they share dressing rooms. It's very sweet. At the moment, one of our lead couples has ended up a romantic couple. You see moments when the couple meet eyes and they smile and that just leaps off the stage, that chemistry."
'Riverdance' is a life extraordinary with the discipline of ordinary life. The dancers work hard to maintain their position. They are physically excellent. They live life on the road without (forgive the cringe-inducing anachronism) the drugs and rock 'n' roll that corrupts most stars. Too young for infidelity, too serious as performers for the usual binge-drinking indiscretions, a lot of Riverdancers make very good monogamous choices while still in their early twenties.
'Riverdance' is also good practice for having a family. Danny says: "The same character types are drawn to this business. You're going from hotel room and bus to busy venue to venue. This is an ensemble operation. You have to find out how best to work together."
Commitment is a chance you'd take, if someone has supported you through every bump of the road.There is also the mundane explanation that Moya Doherty and John McColgan, the husband and wife production team behind 'Riverdance', are not tyrants to work for. They are said to be warm and kind. They are very wealthy because of their high standard. Meaning theirs is an elite matchmaking mecca.
So who is going to mastermind its rival?
Niamh O'Connor and Padraic Moyles
When Niamh joined 'Riverdance' in 1994 she thought it would be for a week or two. Ten years later she met Padraic. Twenty years later they are expecting their first baby (due roughly today).
Niamh and Padraic grew up across the street from one another in Dublin's Castleknock. Like in the melancholy airs of Riverdance's emigration scene, Padraic's family emigrated to the States when he was nine. He grew up in the Bronx and joined 'Riverdance' in 1997. He met Niamh in 2004 in Las Vegas, when they wound up in the same company.
Padraic recalls the moment he recognised the seraphic Niamh at rehearsals. "She was on the stage. I was like, 'Oh my God, wow'. She was wearing a black leather jacket, black jeans and these brown cowboy boots. Her hair was so perfect. It was blonde, it was long. I kept trying to cast my eye through the curtain to see if I could get another look without being noticed."
And Niamh? "I didn't really have a moment." But she remembers "when he plucked up the courage to tell me he liked me". It was after a night, appropriately on the riverwalk, in San Antonio, Texas. The cast were eating out in their usual mob.
"I knew I liked her before that, I was just too scared to do anything or say anything. I was too scared I'd get rejected."
Padraic's friend Ryan Sheridan put in the footwork. "Ryan said, 'I'll set it up'," remembers Padraic. It happened in the mortifying location of a hotel bedroom filled with drunken members of the troupe, who all joined in the fun as Ryan told Niamh Padraic liked her. "I don't drink, so I could hear the whole thing. I was nervous in case I'd hear the words 'no way'," remembers Padraic. But it went fine.
Their bond thickened from touring together. "When you are having a down day, missing home, missing your family, you have that person who you can trust and talk to," says Niamh.
Having danced in more than 6,000 shows, Niamh retired from dancing last year and became dance director and production coordinator. Padraic still plays the lead, with other beautiful young females. How does that feel for Niamh?
"I like to see him up there, whoever he's dancing with," she says. "Obviously it doesn't affect me. It's complete performance, you're playing a role. I just wish sometimes it was me!"
Susan Ginnity and Ryan Sheridan
Ryan Sheridan is best known as a singer/songwriter. But he started as a dancer and that's how he met his wife, Susan. She was just 16 when she took herself out of school to perform in the 1994 Eurovision. On tour, Niamh O'Connor and Andrea Curley minded her like big sisters. "On the road, it's very hard to meet people outside the group. But seeing so many different cities, you didn't have a chance to get bored or claustrophobic," says Susan.
Susan and Ryan struck up a flame when they moved to Broadway in 2000.
"When you're on tour it's like one big happy family, and suddenly romance blossoms," she says. "When he joined, he was always the kidder, cracking the jokes, full of life. I just loved the way he made me laugh. He would dance up beside me in the line and under his breath, he would try to tell me stories."
Susan was dance captain and understudy for the leads, while Ryan was a troupe dancer.
"It was hard when I had to give out to him for not doing something right, or being out of line. Sometimes you go harder on your partner, to make an example," says Susan.
They lived the life when they were dating. "We had a beautiful apartment in the Upper West Side, and Ryan was living in Queens. I loved the hustle bustle, the sirens, the shopping, the really hot summers, really cold winters. Ryan and I –" Susan pauses "– Let's just say he was a very romantic kinda guy, and great with the gifts. We worked six days. On our day off we'd go to Central Park, the beach, to restaurants – we love to try new foods. On a Sunday, you'd be dying for your roast dinner. You'd go to a good Irish pub and get bangers and mash."
Thus began an 11-year on-off-on-off relationship. Susan moved home to Dublin in 2005 and Ryan became a musical hit, and eventually followed her. The couple got married in 2011 and have a six-month-old baby, Toby. Susan teaches adult Irish dance classes and Ryan is recording his second album.
"He's my best friend in the word," says Susan. "On tour, you need those strong people around you because it's very tough. It was a great comfort to have someone there with you."
Andrea Curley and Martin Brennan
Andrea Curley started out in the original Eurovision troupe and Martin, who comes from Oxford, joined when 'Riverdance' was being split in two, in 1996. They met when they were shooting the video in New York.
"We had crossed paths – Irish dancing is a small world. I was assistant dance captain. I was very serious about it. He was more outgoing, in the middle of everything, not as serious about the dancing, he knuckled down later," recalls Andrea.
Martin strains his memory for the details. "She was a beautiful girl. And she was extremely clever. I was a young, handsome man."
Indeed, but when did this young handsome man get to show off to his clever, beautiful girl? "The first number in the second half was a big ceili number and we were partners in the dance, so that was very close quarters."
"I don't think we really had a first date. Unfortunately everybody knows everything about you, so you didn't have that luxury of keeping it a secret," adds Andrea.
They got married in 2001 and now have three children: Luke (10), Fionn (six) and Holly (three), the littlest the keenest Irish dancer so far.
"We didn't want to get married on the road," says Andrea, recalling the colourful Russian weddings that took place in transit. "The year we got married, 2001, we went to seven or eight 'Riverdance' weddings that summer. Dancers, singers, a Russian and a stage manager. They're all still together, which is great."
Andrea studied during her time in 'Riverdance' and now lectures in computer science at DIT. The couple run Brennan Irish Dance in Newbridge.
"Even now, myself and Martin have that common interest. I don't think people realise how huge the interest is, and how deep it goes. It's a really big hobby. Going on tour, they're the only people that you see, and they're the people that you grow up with."
"My memories of 'Riverdance' are fantastic," adds Martin. "I got to meet my wife. If I have something to blame John and Moya for, that's it. So that's not so bad."
Karen Bolton and Anthony Ferguson
Karen and Anthony met in the courtly setting of the UCD sports hall when their company was rehearsing. It was 1999 and Karen remembers being taken aback by the suntanned dance captain in the tracksuit.
"I was very shy and it was a very daunting thing. We came in tentative, we didn't know ourselves. You're trying to fit in," she explains.
Anthony remembers her smile. "She was very friendly. She had a very warm smile that was noticeable."
The following year they started stealing breaks between the dance numbers. "You'd sit backstage and have a chat and that developed into something. Relationships move very quickly – it's an intense environment," adds Karen.
With their per diem pocket money, they soul-searched over which restaurants were the best and where to visit on the whistlestop tours of cities, while performing eight shows a week. They absconded on adventures – to Prague while the company were in Berlin, mountain biking and to the Black forest near the Rhine. They set danced together in the farewell section of 'Riverdance', when the characters leave for America.
Things didn't unfold perfectly at all times. In 2003, the 'Riverdance' tour to China had to be cancelled after the outbreak of the SARS epidemic. Then Karen was offered the female lead in America, which would have meant touring alone without Anthony.
They decided to return home together. She became a primary school teacher and Anthony, a graduate of Trinity, works in financial services. The couple have three children: Joe (six), Aidan (four) and Ava (six months).
Karen recalls both the best and the worst of times. "When you're dancing it's a really uplifting feeling. You're physically and mentally exhausted, it could be week 26 but the music can just carry you along. You still find the energy from somewhere to do it. You have an audience, there's a connection there.
"But it can be tough, working and living with the same people. Anthony's got a good perspective on life so that helped. He doesn't sweat the small stuff."
They still dance occasionally, if requested to. "We normally would get up and do a set together – bits and pieces of steps from the show. That's what people like to see."
'Riverdance' will return to Dublin for a summer season at the Gaiety Theatre from June 23 to August 31. Tickets from €20