This is the unbelievable tale of how a British Army soldier followed his dream, learned Irish dancing, joined Lord of the Dance, and became the Dark Lord.
Today you have unprecedented backstage access to Lord of the Dance; thanks to new technologies, you can chat in real time with the dancers as the show itself is being performed. But we’ve only had this for the last nine months; what about the previous twenty-four years?
As we mentioned a few days ago in “Tapestry” with the photos from Owen Joe McAuley, there are entire stories that have just never seen the light of day.
It’s time for that to change.
One of the most amazing stories, and the subject of this journal entry, is the story of David Johnston.
“Up until Eurovision, my entire life was the British Army,” David begins. “I don’t do things in half-measures. As far as I was concerned, I’d signed up for 22 years. I was going through basic training in the Army at that time and was on break for a couple of weeks. Michael Flatley came out onstage in Eurovision in 1994, did that amazing solo, and as an Irishman it was like a spark went off inside me. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, and from that day forward, there wasn’t a single day that dancing wasn’t on my brain.”
The catch is that David was 17 – considered far too old to begin learning – and was already signed up with the armed forces. So over the next two years while Michael Flatley created the world’s first professional Irish dance show, was unceremoniously removed from it, and then fought back with his second show, David was in the British army, training as a communications specialist and posted to Cyprus and later Bosnia.
Dreams can lie dormant if not nurtured. But sometimes the universe can tap you on the shoulder if you’re meant to go in a certain direction. In Bosnia, David saw video footage on TV of Lord of the Dance on tour, along with an interview with Michael Flatley.
“It’s like I’m never gonna get away from this!” David jokes. “It’s following me around the world! When you’re on active duty in the military there’s a lot of monotony, so I got very physically fit – and I made the decision that when I got back to the UK I would try to find a dance teacher to train me. The problem is, can you picture a twenty-year-old British army guy walking into an Irish dance school and asking to train?”
Sometimes, the universe tests you to see how determined you truly are. David’s opportunity came when he was stationed in Wales. He found an Irish dance school, but there was catch: it was two hours away in Cardiff, so this would mean a four-hour round trip twice a week. Further, David and his dance teacher were an unlikely partnership: David being a British soldier, and his teacher, Jim Smith, being from the Falls Road in Belfast.
Somehow, it worked.
“For the next two years, I traveled twice a week four hours round trip to Cardiff for a three-hour dance class. I believe in the Ten-Thousand Hour Rule, and while I couldn’t feasibly put in 10,000 hours, I could put in about five-thousand. So for those two years, I’d get up at 5:30 in the morning, go to the gym, dance for two hours, then shower and put on my uniform, go to work in the military, get changed at lunch, dance for an hour, go back into uniform and work the rest of the day, then back to the gym for two or three more hours if it was an evening with no dance class. On the nights when there was dance class, I usually had Battle PT at 4pm, involving obstacle courses or some other horrid creation designed to beat on you for an hour – after which I’d shower and start the two-hour drive to Cardiff for three hours of dancing and then another two hours back!”
The hard work paid off. David qualified on his first attempt for the World Championships. His experience there is a hilarious story full of unintentional mishaps we’ll save for a follow-up feature, but shortly thereafter, in May of 1998, David was sent to Bosnia once again, which meant six months of not being able to properly practice. Compounding this, in July, David came home for two weeks holiday, and while attending his teacher’s birthday party, did a treble reel and ended up breaking his foot! So now, he was unable to go back to Bosnia *and* unable to dance.
These sorts of tests of spirit are the things we all face in life. That could have very easily been the end of the story. We find ourselves – or find ourselves lacking – when tested. But David wouldn’t give up, even when, in April of 1999, two weeks before the next World Championship, he broke the same foot *again* in exactly the same way. So that was that.
This is where a spirit of positivity is critical. Fortunately, David has that.
“You know how you’re supposed to roll your ankle when dancing drums?” David asks. “Prior to those breaks, I could never roll my left ankle. When they took the cast off, I could roll it perfectly!”
In October of 1999, David found himself having a pint at the pub after the Great Britain championships. In July of the next year, he was scheduled to leave the army, and he was already looking forward to his next phase in life: becoming a professional Irish dancer.
“I was chatting with my teacher, and I really felt I was in a position to get a gig in a show – but I wanted to get his thoughts. As fate would have it, there was a lady, Lilian Massey, sitting next to me; she tapped me on the shoulder and said she was looking for dancers for a show on a cruise ship for four months. The pay was pretty good and the job started in August, so the timing was perfect. Best of all, it was just a half-hour show once per day, which left me the rest of the day to practice!
“Towards the end of the tour, a fellow dancer and one of my best friends – Kate Redmond, now Kate O’Connor – got accepted into Michael Flatley’s Feet of Flames World Tour and she had to leave the tour early. I was sad to see her go, but saw an opportunity. I put together a performance video and sent it off to all the shows that I knew. The day I got off the cruise ship I got offers from multiple shows, but the one phone call I really wanted was from Lord of the Dance. That was the only show I really wanted to be a part of.”
And, sure enough: the call came in from Marie Duffy. The audition was the next day, at Elstree Studios.
David was in Wales. He made the drive.
Upon arrival, Marie Duffy simply said, “Impress me.”
“I danced with everything I had,” David continues. “When it was over, a few of us – myself and a few others – got picked. Martin Flitton offered us a job on the spot. I was like a kid in a candy shop. I was trying to remain cool, but this was the fruition of a lot of pain and suffering to get to this point! I was brought straight down to the studio, met the cast, and – then – met Michael Flatley himself. The man who’d inspired me and changed my life. And then that was it: we were into rehearsals!”
At this juncture in the story, we can now reveal how David got his nickname – Bunny – amongst the troupe.
“I don’t know if Marie says this to everyone at the start of rehearsals as a way of motivating them, but she said to me, ‘Now Dave, we don’t know if we have a place for you, but we’re going to see how you get on.’
“I danced my [expletive] off for those rehearsals. I never stopped. Didn’t take breaks. So the lads nicknamed my Bunny, like the Energizer Bunny. And I made it. I was there for the world tour of Feet of Flames. I saw the creative process firsthand.”
This brings us to the one variation on Lord of the Dance that’s never been commercially released on video: the Feet of Flames world tour. You can see pieces of it on the Gold video, and on Dancelord TV we've streamed a bootleg version cobbled together from fan footage, but the only way to see the whole thing properly was to have seen it live during that brief window when it was touring. We asked David for his memories of that time and that show.
“When Michael Flatley is choreographing a number it’s like watching a master artist at work,” David says. “He has an excellent intuitive understanding of what the audience wants to see and then giving them exactly that. You know Firedance? The jump-and-heel step? That’s a brilliant evolution from Cry of the Celts, just modified and evolved enough to be new while still calling back to what’s familiar. And the backline steps for Firedance were originally a lot more complicated – really tough steps with double-clicks, lots of cuts, that sort of thing – but it got changed into a far better rhythm pattern before the debut.
“The problem with a lot of today’s dancing is that it’s so complicated that you have to be a hardcore Irish dancer to truly appreciate it. The genius of Lord of the Dance’s rhythm patterns is that even if you don’t know anything about dancing, you can *follow* it. It’s like listening to a piece of music. It’s why Michael’s choreography is constantly copied in other shows. There are just very, very few Irish dance choreographers who can come up with something completely original that flows and sounds right.”
Since Lord of the Dance has been around for 24 years, we now have a chance to ask alumni from the classic days about their thoughts on the evolution of Irish dancing, as well as how the show has affected their lives.
“If you look at Irish dancing today versus Irish dancing back when we were doing it, the dancers today generally take much better care of themselves. I know some will disagree with me for saying that, but it’s like premiership football or F1 in the 80’s versus today. Back then, football and F1 was a lot of drinking and partying. I’m sure it still goes on, but these kids are like full-blown athletes: they take much better care of themselves, do their training, work out hard, have nutrition plans, that sort of thing. It’s how you can have a guy like Zoltan Papp in his forties doing double-spin leaps off the stage. Back then, we were a few kids who felt like rock stars, thrown into the deep end. I toured with Feet of Flames and vividly remember 100,000 people in a stadium screaming at us for more. It’s like those kids from One Direction who won The X Factor and suddenly got thrown into a massive global tour; that’s what it was like for Lord of the Dance. We went with it, partied hard, and worked hard. It’s one of the reasons the old version of the show has such long-lasting appeal; there’s an authenticity to it that’s magical.
“As for how the show has affected me personally…it changed my life. Where would I be without Lord of the Dance? Well, I signed on for 22 years in the Army, and a lot has happened in the world during the last 22 years, so I dread to think. Instead, the friendships are the biggest thing I got from these shows. I got married six years ago, and my best man was my old Team Lord roommate. The godfather to my boy Leo is Paul O’Brien, who used to sit behind me on the bus, singing, ‘Go on home, British soldier, go on home.’ These guys can be rather abusive, because that’s how we are, but they’re the best friends you could ever have. I love them all. My son Leo has Angelman syndrome, and when we’ve gone through tough times, those guys have been there for us. It’s not a bother to them. We stay in each other’s lives after leaving the show; you meet up, even if years have gone by, and it’s like no time has passed at all. I even got to go out to the pub with Michael a few times and become pals, as much as you can with someone who’s a global superstar with all the responsibilities that comes with.
“Michael has this amazing unique way of making you feel special. The last time I saw him was a few years ago, when he was performing on Broadway. My wife and I were living in Boston at the time. We got to go backstage and meet up with Michael and Niamh, and it made me very proud. Michael was an absolute gentleman to my wife.
“Michael gave me a hug and said, 'I’m really proud of everything you’ve done.'”
David pauses. His eyes are elsewhere, replaying the last quarter-century of his life. “That’s a special memory, and for my wife to experience it backstage with the show…that was it. That was the perfect closure to my Irish dancing story. It was perfect. That’s my last memory of Lord of the Dance. My wife and I walked away, floating on air.”