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CULTURE | Vol. 8, No. 18, May 3, 2007
(Charter Schools In The Red)

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Traditional vs. Contemporary

by Beege Welborn

'Lord of the Dance' Controversy

What: "Lord of The Dance"
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 6
Where: Pensacola Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox St.
Cost: $30.50-$50.50
Details: 595-3880 or pensacolasaenger.com

The phenomena that is Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance" is tapping its way to the Saenger Theatre this Sunday.

And while Flatley is generally acknowledged as a bold innovator, there are still to this day some camps that fret over what his choreography has done to traditional Irish dancing.

In Flatley's defense, one could say that Irish dancing was at an impasse before the American dancer broke out of the pack. Before, one learned the stringent moves as a child, did school recitals, perhaps made the championships, if particularly gifted, and that was as far as it went.

There's one little-discussed, telling fact about Flatley in relation to the state of Irish dance: He spent years digging ditches in his family's Chicago plumbing business. At the time in the 1970s, everyone knew there was no money to be made in the traditional Irish dance art form.

As Bryan Curtis noted in an article for Slate, "The queer beauty of step dancing depends on a visual discordance: Arms are held stiffly at the sides, while the legs chop like the hands of a watch."

Knowing ballet has seen similar schisms in the recent past, Michael Wardlaw, Pensacola School Director for the Northwest Florida Ballet, is frank about the opposing camps—traditional vs. contemporary.

Wardlaw is refreshing in his assessment.

"Ballet is a prescription, if you will, for how to move your body with coordination, musicality and grace," he says. The art form has been rooted in tradition, he notes, adding, "I believe we live in a much faster paced society. But ballet, quite honestly, wasn't keeping up…."

As in the case of Flatley's step dancing innovations—greater arm movement along with elements of tap, ballet and flamenco—Wardlaw says: "We needed to compete with extreme sports, so you're certainly seeing an increase in the amount of tricks put into a ballet. For example, in the amount of turns and the (corresponding rise in the) level of technique required now to become a professional dancer."

Flatley's changes with the times have certainly brought the ancient rhythms of Irish step dancing into the public consciousness—"Lord of the Dance" has had 50 million viewers worldwide since 1996.

Marilyn Vieira, who runs the Emerald Coast School of Traditional Irish Dance, says her group is greeted at many public appearances with "Oh! You're those 'Riverdance' people." She sees it as a mixed blessing.

"Interest always increases after 'Lord of the Dance' or something like it is shown locally," Vieira says. She also knows that without those flashy productions, there would be even fewer folks who knew what it was her traditional dancers were doing.

"Lord of the Dance" is certainly memorable. The dancers in this company coming to Pensacola are all Irish dance champions and top performers, whose average age is 22 years old and who answer to a demanding perfectionist during rehearsals—Flatley.

Based on Irish folklore, the energetic Celtic dance production tells the story of "The Lord of the Dance" and his battle against the evil Dark Lord Don Dorcha, who is trying to enforce his dominion over Planet Ireland. Sprinkle in some Irish magic, some infectious new age Celtic music, and a passionate love story with state-of-the-art staging and lighting, and you have the basis of a dazzling show.

What is indescribable is the dancing that brings it all to life.

Although no longer the lead onstage, Flatley remains the artistic director and keeps close watch on all aspects of the touring production. As Janice Steinberg of the San Diego Union-Tribune notes recently, "Whatever else you say about him, Mrs. Flatley's boy can dance." 

In 1975, the17-year-old Flatley became the first American to win the All-World Championship for Irish Dance in what was a hugely scandalous decision. It was only forgiven when he swore fealty to the auld sod. Coincidentally, that same year, Flatley also took the championship in Irish flute playing, as well as a Golden Gloves boxing title.

In 1989, he set a Guiness Book of World Records mark for "most taps per second" with 28, bumping that up nine years later to 35.

Now, he's internationally known as the artist who choreographed and originated the "Lord of the Dance" role, after first coming to Irish dancing fame in 1994. That's when he developed a seven-minute intermission act with Jean Butler for the Eurovision Song Contest. It was a new interpretation of traditional Irish dance and took the airwaves by storm, becoming the genesis for "Riverdance." The rest is history.

Hero or heretic in adding his path-breaking flourishes to traditional Irish dance, Flatley has formed an extravagant spectacle out of a precision art form, and consequently enchanted millions who might never have experienced it otherwise.