Riverdance represents the perfect rhyme between thundering drums, Irish fiddles, and feet tapping at the speed of lightning. It’s been 25 years since the first appearance of the show that enchanted millions and went on to establish its own worldwide tour. They’ve performed in countries from the east to the west of the globe.
In celebration of their silver jubilee, Riverdance planned several tours over the past few years in different countries around the world. In this article, we bring you the beginning and history of this breathtakingly harmonious organisation of talent and hard work. Then we will get to know their most significant acts, what they had planned in celebration of their silver jubilee, and their upcoming tours.
The Beginning of Riverdance 1994
The composer of Riverdance, Bill Whelan, cooperated with fellow Irish musician Dónal Lunny and Planxty, an Irish folk band, to create an interval show at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1981, which Ireland hosted. The trio created a memorable piece called Timedance, using traditional instruments in Irish folk music and infusing electronic instruments, and Planxty later released it as a new single.
Thirteen years later, in 1994, when Whelan was again asked to compose another piece for a new interval at the Dublin-hosted Eurovision Song Contest, Whelan confirmed Timedance was his main inspiration to name the new piece Riverdance. The Riverdance act at the ESC interval is widely seen to be the greatest and most successful interval in the history of the contest.
Critics loved how lead dancers Michael Flatley and Jean Butler took tap dancing to an entirely new level. Accompanied by Whelan’s intricate and timely composition of music, Flatley and Butler drew a standing ovation from the entire audience at the ESC venue in Ireland, the Point Theatre. This success inspired the dream team—Moya Doherty and her husband, John McColgan—to take the act to the next step, becoming a full-length entertainment show.
Riverdance kept catching eyes for the remainder of 1994; the show was also released as a single and stayed at no. 1 in the Irish charts for 18 weeks, making it the longest hit song to stay in this spot. The hit song by Anúna, in cooperation with the RTE orchestra, is considered the second-highest grossing song in Irish history.
By the end of the year, Riverdance was invited to perform at the regal Royal Variety Performance at Dominion Theatre in London. Prince Charles was head of the attendance at the show and was eager to enjoy the show.
The Official Inauguration and Continuous Success
On February 9th, 1995, the premiere of “Riverdance: The Show” was scheduled at the Point Theatre in Dublin. The show was much anticipated and the tickets sold out within only three days. Lead dancers Flatley and Butler led the dancing troops, many of whom were the original cast from the Eurovision show the previous year. When the recorded version of the show was released in April 1995, it went to no. 1 on the Irish charts right away.
Riverdance became one of the most sought-after shows in 1995. Prince Charles invited the performers to enchant the audience at the 50th anniversary of the VE Day celebrations on May 8th, 1995, which was aired on television and introduced the act to new fans from across the UK. The following month the video recording of The Show made its debut in the UK and went straight to the first spot on the charts; it remained there for more than seven months, alternating between no. 1 and no. 2.
On July 17th, 1995, Riverdance was lucky to perform in front of the highest-ranking royalty in the UK, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Princess Margaret. This particular performance was a testament to how successful the introduction of Riverdance as a show was in the UK. The next month, they returned to the Point Theatre for another sold-out show that lasted for six weeks.
Michael Flatley’s Departure
The last quarter of 1995 was not as bright as the beginning of the year for Riverdance. Lead dancer Michael Flatley clashed with the producers several times and the reasons were never confirmed. Flatley said it was about his creative contribution to the choreography of several numbers in the show, while other parties said it was a difference about money. Nevertheless, the show lost Flatley hours before they were to open for another sold-out show at The Apollo Theatre. And to make matters worse, Jean Butler was unable to perform either, as she showed up with her leg in a cast a few days before the show.
To salvage the show, the producers opted to cast dancers Colin Dunne and Eileen Martin as the lead dancers and the show opened as planned. In fact, the act blew the audience’s minds so they requested it to be extended for two additional runs, which earned the show a record-breaking 151 sold-out shows at The Apollo. During the extension period, Riverdance also performed for a second time for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at the Royal Variety Performance at Dominion Theatre.
The End of the 1990s: Between Success and Departing Artists
The last quarter of the 1990s saw massive success of Riverdance, most importantly, expansion to the US entertainment market. On March 13th, 1996, the show opened at the Radio City Music Hall in New York for a sold-out show. Later the same year, the show kick-started their US tour from the same theatre and established a management branch of their company called the Lee, named after the River Lee in Cork. They had several successful runs that year in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, and Minneapolis.
Despite the extraordinary success the show was able to achieve, several cast members began to leave starting in 1996. Anúna was the first to leave in 1996, followed by lead dancers Jean Butler and Colin Dunne in 1997 and 1998 respectively.
Riverdance in the 2000s
The new millennium brought good fortunes for Riverdance; the show opened tour after tour in new different theatres around the world. An eighteen-months long run show opened at the Gershwin Theatre in New York in March 2000. The following year, the show performed for a new DVD release in Geneva, at the Geneva Arena in Switzerland.
An outstanding event in the history of the show was when the Mayor of San Francisco celebrated Riverdance’s 5000th performance by proclaiming March 6th, 2000, as Riverdance Day. Riverdance broke their own record by performing in the longest line, with more than 100 performers, at the inaugural ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games in Dublin in June 2003. The same year, Riverdance performed at the Great Hall of the People in the China’s capital, Beijing, making the show the first western act to perform at this grand hall.
In 2004, Riverdance became the most successful show in the history of the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, after which the theatre became the permanent summer home for the show. After the show returned to celebrate its 10th anniversary at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, Michael R. Bloomberg, the New York Mayor at the time, declared March 15th as Riverdance Day. The show returned to the same hall in 2010, to mark its 15th anniversary to bring its total performances at the hall to 95 successful shows.
Riverdance returned to China several times after their initial performance in 2003. They had tours in Beijing and Xi’an in 2008 and got a visit from the Irish Olympic Boxing Team on the night of the 2008 Olympic Games ceremony. The show also recorded their Beijing DVD in 2010 from the Beijing Exhibition Centre.
Riverdance: Taking Continents by The Steps
Riverdance inaugurated their first show in Africa, in 2011, by performing in Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa, to fully booked two shows. In May of the same year, Queen Elizabeth II visited Ireland and Riverdance performed in her presence and the Irish President, Mary McAleese, as part of celebrating Irish theatre, dance, and music.
When the Vice President of the People’s Republic of China visited Ireland in February 2012, Riverdance welcomed him with an outstanding performance. Later that year, Riverdance added South America to the list of continents they performed in by giving magical performances in Sao Paulo, Brazil, followed by two shows in Buenos Aires and Cordoba in Argentina. By performing in South America, Riverdance have performed on 6 continents.
In 2013, Riverdance set another world record by performing in a line of 1,693 from 44 countries on the banks of the River Liffey in Dublin as their contribution to The Gathering Ireland. The next year, the show set to celebrate its 20th anniversary by performing in different countries around the world, starting with shows in Limerick, Bill Whelan’s home city, which was also the City of Culture at the time. In March 2014, while performing in Munich, Germany, Riverdance welcomed its 25th millionth audience member.
New Generations in the Making
Twenty-fifteen marked two important milestones in the history of Riverdance. In July, the Riverdance Academy opened at Trinity College in Dublin, with a beginning class of 321 dancers from 32 countries. In August, a new number was added to the show, as a new a capella performed by the lead female dancer and the female troupe under the name Anna Livia.
Two years later, in June 2017, the Riverdance Academy opened at Boston University in the United States. The next year, the first generation born within the Riverdance families began to take the stage and perform as part of the show. These dancers joined another 500 Irish dancers in the welcoming performance of Pope Francis during his visit to Ireland.
Riverdance began to organise their tours in 2019, in celebration of their 25th anniversary and to take place in 2020. Celebratory shows were planned in London, with the participation of the Riverdance babies, who weren’t even born when the show started back in 1995. More shows were planned in New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the 3Arena in Dublin, and previously the Point Theatre.
Riverdance: The Legacy
Today, Riverdance aims to expand their venues to include smaller theatres, unlike in the beginning when they aimed at performing in major theatres around the world. The performances also include a fewer number of performers and simpler sets than earlier performances. Such new focus helped Riverdance to establish more production companies, naming each one after a river in Ireland such as the Liffey, Avoca and Foyle.
River Productions and Aniventure announced in 2020 they’ll be producing an animated film titled Riverdance: The Animated Adventure, which is inspired by Riverdance. The film was released in 2021 and 2022 in selected countries, starring Pierce Brosnan, Aisling Bea, and Lilly Singh. Bill Whelan composed the film’s score while Moya Doherty was one of the producers.
Can you Join Riverdance?
Yes, you can!
There are 2 ways to join Riverdance. The first is by applying for the Riverdance Summer School in Dublin, which offers two main levels, the juniors’ level and the normal level. The second way to join Riverdance is by submitting a Dancer application through their official website. They list the required skill level and papers needed to submit a full application.
Riverdance share all their upcoming shows and tours on their website, and executive producer Padraic Moyles loves to share behind the scene footage from their Summer School, on their social media websites. They also announced several upcoming tours in 2023, including a tour in Belgium and performances in Rotterdam, to continue the celebrations of the silver jubilee after they were cut short due to Covid-19.
If you’re a fan of Riverdance, you will understand how enchanting the show can be. The synchronisation of the tapping feet against the wildly beating drums will make your heart race as the intensity of the acts rise and fall, like a wave gaining strength from the heart of the sea in preparation for its final showdown on the shores of the sea.