Follow Your Dream, Day #321: Master At Arms

Michael Flatley is regarded as the man who set Irish dancing free. His art form atop Irish dancing -- using arms, facial expressions, lateral leg movements from all the way up at the hip, accelerated rhythm patterns with drop-heels, and more -- is what is used to this day in the most commercially successful Irish dance shows.

So let's talk about the arms. Traditional Irish dancing is done with the arms at the sides. Other forms of percussive dance, such as American tap dance, are far more loose; Michael's art form uses arms with purpose.

As Michael explained to Lord Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show in 1997, the magic is in the combination of the line of dancers and a lead soloist; it's the combination of a great army and a great general. With the backline performing moves -- including the arms -- with precision uniformity, and the lead showing even more intricate solo rhythms and more arm movements, you have a powerful combination. Irish dancing is done precisely on the beat; regardless of what time signature is being used -- a slip jig and a hornpipe have two different time signatures, for instance -- the movements are *on* the beat, which makes it easier for the audience to mentally syncopate when watching. This is equally true of the arm movements.

The other key element is, for lack of a better phrase, dancing from one's heart. Arm movements that are overly dramatic -- thrusting one's arm out like a phalanx spear, without any genuine emotion underneath it -- actually detract. The key, as several of the current leads from Lord of the Dance have explained, is in making the arm movements look and feel natural, instead of exaggerated.

This is why Lord of the Dance is the most important Irish dance show in the world, in addition to being so unbelievably commercially successful: because it's the pure expression of Michael's art form, without re-interpretation by third parties, that turned an obscure cultural dance into something that could sell out stadiums.

For a quarter of a century, the argument has raged: in professional Irish dancing -- a billion-dollar entertainment genre which Michael invented -- is the show the star, or is the performer the star?

The answer is that it's the art form -- *Michael's* art form, specifically, atop Irish dance -- that's the star.

Hence why Michael's shows that he choreographed and conceptualized continue to tour successfully, years after he retired. Hence also why, as David "Bunny" Johnston pointed out in his recent interview, elements of Michael's art form have a tendency to crop up in other shows that he didn't choreograph and create, in the same way that virtually every rock guitarist on the planet has at some point used Pete Townshend's arm windmills.

The truth of the matter is that Michael is the de facto Stan Lee of the Irish dance world -- and his art form will be here for a long, long time. This is why his message is always the same: to follow your dream. If you can visualize it and see it clearly, and you're willing to put in the work, nothing is impossible, no matter how outrageous it may seem. If an "uneducated" day laborer from Chicago can reinterpret the jig and sell out Wembley for 21 consecutive nights, what can you do if you set your mind to it?


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