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Riverdance: The Irish Dancing Phenomenon

Updated on July 7, 2011

For my sixteenth birthday, my parents took me to see Riverdance the show at our local theater. I have always loved Irish culture and I had seen Riverdance on tape before, but to actually be in the same room as these dancers with the Irish music filling up the vaulted ceiling, the beat of the drums synchronizing with the beat of your heart, is truly a unique experience. Needless to say, it was one of my favorite birthdays, one I will never forget.

Riverdance is a dance and music show that came out of Ireland. It showcases traditional Irish dancing and music with a modern, progressive flair. Although based on Irish traditions, Riverdance also exhibits dances and music from around the world. Riverdance helped to rejuvenate the traditional Irish dance and to introduce this tradition on an international level.

Irish Dance

Irish step dancing has evolved out of centuries of traditional dance. The Irish Dance is set apart from other forms of dancing by elements such as rigid postures with arms down and quick steps with either hard shoes or soft shoes. The visual effect is an exciting dance that can be very fast-paced yet is always controlled.


Soft shoes

Reels and jigs are danced with softshoes. Women wear soft shoes called ghillies. They look similar to ballet shoes and are made of black leather. Men wear soft shoes that look like jazz shoes with hard heels.

hard shoes
hard shoes

Hard shoes

Hardshoes are used for heavy dances such as hornpipes. Hard shoes are similar to tap shoes, but instead of metal taps, hard shoes are given taps and heels made of fiberglass. There are eight striking surfaces on a hard shoe.


Riverdance began as a seven minute interval act for Eurovision Song Contest 1994 which was held in Dublin, Ireland. This first show of Riverdance starred Michael Flatley and Jean Butler with music composed by Bill Whelan. What started as a short sideshow grew into a full-length theatrical production that premiered at the Point Theatre in Dublin in February 1995. Riverdance has been running for fifteen years now, touring in several continents. It is currently (2010) on its farewell tour in the UK.


Bill Whelan

Born: May 22, 1950 in Limerick, Ireland

Bill Whelan composed the music for Riverdance. He is an Irish musician and composer. He has produced and arranged music for musicians such as Kate Bush, U2, and Van Morrison. He composed musical scores for the films Dancing at Lughnasa, Some Mother’s Son, and Lamb. Bill Whelan won a Grammy in 1997 for his Riverdance CD.


Moya Doherty

Born: 1957 in Donegal, Ireland

Moya Doherty is the producer of Riverdance. She is married to Riverdance co-founder John McColgan. She has worked extensively in television, radio, and theater. She is currently a director of Tyrone Productions, which produces television in Ireland. Moya Doherty is considered one of the richest women in Ireland.

John McColgan

John McColgan is the director of Riverdance. He is married to Moya Doherty. He has had a long career directing television and theater, and has received many awards. John McColgan directed the play The Shaughraun at The Abbey Theatre.

Jean Butler

Born: March 14, 1971 in New York

Jean Butler, whose mother is Irish, was the first leading female dancer of Riverdance. She helped choreograph the first Riverdance. She was joined by Colin Dunne after Michael Flatley left the show. Later on, Butler and Dunne created their own show called Dancing on Dangerous Ground. Jean Butler was Artist in Residence at the University of Limerick’s Irish World Music Centre from 2003 to 2005.

Michael Flatley

Born: July 16, 1958 in Chicago, Illinois

Michael Flatley, an Irish American, was the first leading male dancer of Riverdance. He was the first non-European dancer to win the All-Ireland World Championship for Irish dance in 1969. He helped choreograph the first Riverdance. After leaving Riverdance, Michael Flatley has been involved in his other shows: Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames, and Celtic Tiger.


The Music of Riverdance

Riverdance is more than just fast feet however. There couldn’t be dancing without music. The music of Riverdance is based on traditional Irish reels and jigs. Traditional instruments such as fiddles, bodhran drums, and uilleann pipes take center stage. Modern instruments like the saxophone are added into the mix. The result is a familiar yet progressive sound. Not only are there Irish songs, but music from other countries is also featured.

A very important part of Riverdance’s music is the use of vocals. Anuna, an Irish choral group, sang for Riverdance the first few years. The haunting vocals of Katie McMahon gave Riverdance a unique and intriguing sound.


Notable Songs

Reel Around the Sun

This is a fast-paced reel that hooks you at the very beginning of the show.

The Heart’s Cry

The beautiful vocals of Anuna are announced in this a cappella song.

The Countess Cathleen

The fiddle is prominent in this piece where the ladies of the dance show off.

Caoineadh Cu Chulainn (Lament)

The uillean pipes featured in this lament are absolutely haunting. The song mourns over Cu Chulaiinn, a hero of Celtic legends.


This piece exhibits a melding of Spanish and Irish influences.

Lift the Wings

This is a song of immigrants, about longing for home and hope for a new future.

Home and the Heartland

This song is all about the love of home, even after traveling around the world.


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    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 

      5 years ago

      I loved that Rose! It was wonderful since I enjoy Irish accents and music, plus their dancing. I have wondered what this one was like because I just wrote one on Flatley's "Lord of the Dance", I have the tape at home - I was never lucky enough to see it on stage. I voted yours up++, shared and pinned it.


    • Rose West profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose West 

      7 years ago from Michigan

      Hi Anna, thanks for reading! So glad you got to see Riverdance for yourself - what a great way to spend time with your daughter. It's definitely worth it!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Just went to see riverdance for the first time with my 16 year old daughter in Adelaide south Australia. All I can say is it was brilliant really stirring. Don't know why I didn't see it earlier, it was worth every penny spent.

    • Rose West profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose West 

      7 years ago from Michigan

      tsadjatko - haha, wow. Never knew. Quite the twist on Irish dancing!

    • tsadjatko profile image

      7 years ago from now on

      Awesome Hub!! But you left out the most fundamental fact - how Irish Dance Started

    • Rose West profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose West 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      Riverdance is still great to watch on TV. Thanks for coming by, Coolmon2009!

    • Coolmon2009 profile image


      9 years ago from Texas, USA

      I watched Riverdance on TV; Wish I could have seen it in person when I had the chance. Good Article

    • Rose West profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose West 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      itakins, thanks for reading!

    • itakins profile image


      9 years ago from Irl

      Nicely done-Great entertainment.

    • Rose West profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose West 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      Cathi, thanks for reading! So happy you loved it =)

    • Cathi Sutton profile image

      Cathi Sutton 

      9 years ago

      I loved this Hub! Thanks a whole heep!

    • Rose West profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose West 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      Zsuzsy Bee, thank you for reading! I bet Lord of the Dance was really fun to watch! Michael Flatley is a pretty amazing dancer.

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 

      9 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      I didn't see Riverdance live but I got to see 'The lord of the dance' a couple of years back in Toronto. The whole Theater was charged with energy it was absolutely fantastic.

      great hub

      regards Zsuzsy

    • Rose West profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose West 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      Jane, yes it was quite a treat :) unforgettable. It is sad that they are farewelling... at least they are on their farewell tour of the UK, and I assume that means the rest of the world as well. Thank you for your kind comments!

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 

      9 years ago from Oregon

      What great memories we have of Riverdance! That was a treat I'll never forget. Everything about it thrills me to the core. :) Great videos, too! I loved your description of the music-- you put something abstract into words, and that's hard to do (you seem to be very good at that!).

      I had no idea they were taking their farewell tour. That's really too bad- they are such a unique and highly talented group.

    • Rose West profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose West 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      Nell Rose, it was so much fun putting this together, reminding myself how much I love Riverdance. Thanks for coming by!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      9 years ago from England

      Hi, Rose, I love them too! I couldn't stop watching the videos, even though I have seen them on the TV loads of times. Great stuff. cheers nell

    • Rose West profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose West 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      tonymac04, thank you for your comment! Riverdance really is great, but it's sad that they're saying goodbye :(

      Kendall, haha :) imagine how dull life would be if everyone had the same thoughts!

    • Kendall H. profile image

      Kendall H. 

      9 years ago from Northern CA

      That's ok Rose. If we all liked the same thing it would be really boring. :)

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Rose - I have loved Riverdance since I first saw it on video in about 1996. I also love Anuna. I have one of their CDs. I love the Celtic stuff but have to agree with you about Celtic Woman - I'm not sure where they're at either!

      Love and peace and may the road rise up to meet you!


    • Rose West profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose West 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      Kendall, the music from Riverdance is so great! But I have to disagree with you about Celtic Woman :) they just don't make sense to me yet, but I know lots of people do enjoy their music.

    • Kendall H. profile image

      Kendall H. 

      9 years ago from Northern CA

      I never got to actually see Riverdance but love listening to the music! My new favorite thing out of Ireland is Celtic Woman. All those women have the most beautiful voices!


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