Michael Flatley doesn’t look much like a dancer. Gone are the blond mullet and leather trousers, replaced by an unostentatious haircut and dark jacket and shirt. He appears exactly what he is: a prosperous and successful businessman on a trip to London.
But those feet, currently encased in black boots, and planted firmly on the floor of the Dorchester Hotel where we meet, are about to make a flying comeback. Nine years after he officially retired, and 12 years since he last performed this particular work, Flatley is returning as Lord of the Dance, the high-energy, percussive leader of the Irish step dance show that made his fortune.
He’s 52, and under those well-cut clothes, there is a definite roll of middle-age spread. The Sunday Times Rich List has him down as worth £246m (€295m). So why on earth would he want to put himself through the kind of punishing routines that — even the last time he danced them — left him lying for hours backstage, with his legs encased in ice?
“I don’t know,” he says, and then he explains. He was watching Lord of the Dance, which is still touring the world with different dancers, in Cairo with his wife Niamh. “By the end I was standing up screaming and acting like an idiot, just like everyone else there. And my wife gave me the elbow and said 'you’ve got to go back and do this.’ And that was the start.” So he got back into shape and took to the stage in Taiwan.
“We sold out five arenas and three football stadiums, and it was a big buzz for me. It was a wonderful feeling to be back live on the stage again and to make sure the old guns were working.” He taps his legs, once insured for $40 million, appreciatively. “It was great.”
Surely, I persist, you must dread the training you are going to put yourself through for the forthcoming dates in Britain and Ireland? And isn’t dancing, Irish dancing above all, with its rapid beats and high-speed taps, a young man’s game? “Now, now, what do you mean by that? I’m only a child,” he replies, with a sudden flash of twinkling Oirishness.
“I’m like a little kid. Fifty is the new 30. At the end of the shows in Taiwan, I felt like a powerhouse. And I think it is a blessing because I had my wife and my son there and it is great to be able to dance for them as well. So no, looking forward to it.”
That unshakeable self-belief, that glint of steel beneath all the surface charm, is what has propelled Michael Flatley through a career that has never followed any usual patterns. Born in Chicago to Irish parents, he started dancing at the relatively late age of 11, but then became a world champion.
Yet it was only in 1995, when he was 37, that a segment of dance he created for the Eurovision Song Contest led to Riverdance, and Flatley’s emergence as a star. He left eight months later, after a dispute with the producers over artistic rights — a dispute settled in 1999 with a confidential out-of-court settlement.
But his progress was unstoppable. He created Lord of the Dance as a new vehicle for his dancing, framing his own ability to produce 35 taps per second with ranks of straight-armed, long-legged girls moving around the stage in strict unison. Celtic Tiger and Feet of Flames followed, all initially putting Flatley centre stage, all ultimately turned into brands which toured the world starring other dancers and laying the foundations of Flatley’s wealth.
Ridicule and controversy dogged his every step. He was criticised for his egotism, mocked for his flying hair and bronzed, oiled chest, for his tendency even then to a thickening waist. A legal dispute with his manager, an entirely false accusation of rape, a controversial autobiography and an abandoned fiancée all kept him in the headlines.
Some of the stories are hard to square with the mild-mannered man sitting in front of me. But he says, with only the slightest hint of irritation: “I stand by everything I did. I worked hard and I’ve no excuses and no apologies to make about anything.”
Flatley has, I suspect, been changed by two crucial events in the past four years. Firstly, he married Niamh, a dancer in his company with whom he had worked for many years; they now have a son, Michael St John who is three.
Then, just after their wedding in 2006, Flatley was laid out with a mysterious illness. “I couldn’t perform, couldn’t walk, couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything,” he says. “I was really bad and I just knew something was radically wrong.” He was cured, eventually, he says, by an Irish faith healer — an event he vividly describes.
He puts his recovery down to energy. “My system was just completely blocked, but in fairness I was burning the candle at both ends for a long, long time and it was bound to take its toll. I believe in the power of positive energy and energy moving.” It would be easy to mock that answer.
Flatley is a shocking name-dropper – “I was having dinner with Muhammad Ali the other night” – and he has a habit of laying on the blarney, of coming out with the old saying — “I’m not as good as I once was but I am good once as ever I was” — or the bit of obvious charm — “No, now, don’t be fighting me every step” — that is meant to win you over to his side, but has rather the opposite effect.
But I found him impossible to dislike. He has an openness about his achievements and his faults that is appealing. And when he talks about dancing itself, the smooth businesslike front vanishes, to be replaced by something very like wonder, as he describes how months of hard work build up to the moment backstage “when the lights go down and the audience starts to swell. There’s a feeling there, knowing that you have done the work and you are ready, that is almost indescribable. Then the dancers will begin their routine, the drum starts, the curtains open and it’s my turn. That’s why I am here. That’s what I do.”
That’s the born performer talking and what gets lost in the tabloid headlines of his career is that Flatley was once very good at what he did: he transformed Irish step dancing from a folk tradition into a mass entertainment.
I worry that in making so late a comeback, he will blur the image of the best that went before. Flatley suffers no such self-doubt. “I love to work, I love to dance,” he says. “It is what I was born to do. It’s my only magic act. I don’t think I should do it with my tail between my legs, apologising. I think I should get off my ass, get out, work hard and make it happen.”
* Michael Flatley returns as 'Lord of the Dance’ from October 28.