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Riverdance – where it all began in 1994

Riverdance first burst on to an unsuspecting world in 1994 – bringing Irish music and dance to an international audience on a scale never seen before and scarcely ever imagined.

The stars of show, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, became overnight sensations. The show, based on music written by Irish composer Bill Whelan, went on to attract sell-out audiences all across the globe. Irish dance classes suddenly found themselves inundated with people wanting to learn this wonderful art form which to them seemed totally new yet, of course, dated back centuries in Ireland.

Jean Butler and Michael Flatley following Riverdance performance during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest
Jean Butler and Michael Flatley

Irish dances suddenly became popular again at wedding receptions and social gatherings.

No one was more surprised by the success of Riverdance than the show’s creators themselves. It wasn’t intended to be a huge international touring phenomenon. Its initial intention was far more modest.

It was simply to be a six-minute interlude in the Eurovision Song Contest, a huge annual extravaganza in which countries across Europe compete to see who can produce the best tune. The show is famous for its showbiz glitz and the songs are chosen for their instant catchiness rather than any lasting quality.

The Riverdance performance was designed to fill time while each country cast its votes for the song they thought should win. No one anticipated what happened next.

The performance began with a haunting melody performed by the Irish choir Anuna. The simple beauty of the melody provided a welcome alternative to the garish ‘desperate for attention’ melodies being performed during the competition.

The audience was hooked from the first few bars and the theatre seemed to sense that something special was happening.

Riverdance performance in 1994
Riverdance performance in 1994

The show was introduced in Irish as well as English, giving it an extra Celtic flavour and a sense that this was something different.

The TV presenter introduced Riverdance as: “An exciting and uniquely Irish performance, specially commissioned for tonight’s show…Riverdance, a full bodied orchestral dance piece composed by Bill Whelan, involving traditional Irish dancers, the Celtic choir Anuna, the magical dance partnership of Jean Butler and Michael Flatley.”

The dancing began with Jean Butler performing a solo routine, Dance of the River Woman. This was followed by a drum roll and then Michael Flatley danced across the stage for his solo performance of Earth Rise.

Flatley and Butler then performed a stunning duet before being accompanied by the full cast of dancers for a grand finale. The performance earned a standing ovation from the packed arena.

BBC TV presenter Terry Wogan, an Irishman himself, summed up the feelings of the audience: “Good grief. That brought the folk memories out…small hairs rising on the back of every Irishman’s neck, but you don’t have to be Irish to love that.”

The reaction of the theatre audience and the millions of people watching on TV across the world meant the show could not end there.

Plans were made to take the performance on the road and it quickly grew into the one of the most successful dance shows in the world.

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