Stepdancing goes modern

With one foot in the traditional world of Irish stepdancing and the other in Michael Flatley's stylish world, 'Lord of the Dance' requires discipline from its dancers.
ICHAEL FLATLEY'S "LORD OF THEDance" is coming to Youngstown purely for our entertainment, but it's nothing to take lightly.
Flatley, the show's fast-footed artistic director, took the 2,000-year-old dance style known as Irish stepdancing and modernized it, popularizing it as well.
It takes appreciation of tradition, discipline and, most importantly, stamina to perform in something like "Lord of the Dance."
"It's a nice workout. I'd almost put it up there as a sport because of the endurance it takes," says Erin Tisdale of Kent, who teaches stepdancing at Ballet Western Reserve in Youngstown.
It's a very physical style of dancing that requires a strict stretching regime before and after each performance, says Louise Connolly of Dundalk, Ireland, who is lead dancer in the Youngstown-bound "Lord of the Dance" troupe.
Connolly knows something about stamina. Now 22, she will celebrate her fifth anniversary with "Lord of the Dance" in September. Only a few dancers have more tenure than she; the average stay is 12 to 18 months, she said. Dancers range in age from 17 to 25.
What came first: Before there were shows such as "Lord of the Dance" and "Riverdance" -- both of which became popular less than a decade ago -- there was the feis, or traditional Irish stepdancing competition. In preparing for those contests, Tisdale and Connolly learned important lessons in discipline.
Tisdale, 22, was introduced to stepdancing at age 5. "When your older sister is in it, you're around it," the Columbus native said.
The hard part is getting the footwork down, but that's also the beauty of stepdancing. "It's the first thing people are drawn to anyway," said Tisdale, who's a senior dance performance and dance education major at Kent State University.
"Tap is similar, but Irish dancing looks more exciting." The focus of tap is on the rhythm, so it appeals to one's sense of sound. Irish dancing goes further by placing importance on the visual aspect of the footwork, she said.
Stepdancing became Connolly's hobby at age 8. She took to it quickly and won her first world championship at age 10. It took "a lot of hard, hard work ... constant practice and determination," she said. "Practice is the keyword."
Career change: Stepdancing gave Connolly a sense of accomplishment, but it wasn't her first career choice. She had auditioned for "Lord of the Dance" in March 1997, when she was 17. It wasn't until that September -- when she was about to enter college -- that she was called to join the show.
It was "a major thing, a dream come true," she recalled. She decided that she "might as well take the chance while it was there."
Connolly was going to study science in college, she said. Today, if she were to enroll, she might pursue sports therapy, which would fulfill her interest in science and could also keep her in the Irish dance realm.
For now, she'll continue performing "as long as my bones last," she said.
Stepdancing is hard on bones and muscles. Tisdale, who also teaches master classes at KSU, said even experienced dancers realize how hard stepdancing is on one's legs.
"You're on your feet the entire time ... your shins, all of your leg is getting a workout," she said. "You build an endurance to it."
What's needed: They'll need that endurance to perform in "Lord of the Dance." In stepdancing competitions, contestants perform in three- to four-minute segments, then get a break, Tisdale said. In the show, numbers are twice as long. Some dancers remain on the stage for scene after scene.
Traditional stepdancing calls for upper-body stiffness. Flatley's self-styled show breaks with tradition by incorporating elements of modern dance, ballet, jazz and tap. He also has choreographed plenty of arm movement. That requires even more discipline of dancers who trained in traditional fashion.
"Sure it takes a lot of practice to coordinate your arms and legs," Tisdale said. "It was a challenge for me, too, when I came to college."
"Lord of the Dance" isn't a static production. Even those who have seen it previously will notice something new this time around.
"If it were the same show, it would have ended five years ago," Connolly said.
Dancers incorporate various hand movements. Lead dancers have some freedom to interpret their roles on individual levels. The set and lighting are always morphing into something else, she said.
Relating to audience: Flatley has tied the show's 21 scenes together with dual stories about good-ol' romance and a triumph over evil. The various musical styles are "invigorating," Tisdale said, and the performers relate well to the audience.
The performer-audience connection is part of the success of "Lord of the Dance," Connolly said. Besides the physical demands of their performance, dancers learn to look at the audience, focus on an individual and make that person feel special.
"It wouldn't be the same if you didn't interact with the audience," Connolly said.

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