If you’ve ever stood on the side of Delaware Avenue watching the parade, you’ve seen Irish dancers, curls bouncing as they perform impeccably on a moving float. To the average bystander, it may seem like an easy task to move your feet and jig. But it’s a nuanced art of movement, one that’s become a jet-setting career for local dancers.
“Of the 13 girls in the show, three are RNT,” says Mary Kay Heneghan, owner of Rince na Tiarna (RNT) school in South Buffalo. “I’m pinching myself!”
Erin Lynch and sister-duo Fiona and Kevinah Dargan have been dancing together since they were 4 years-old, making their names known with an endless list of wins under their belt, from North American to World Championships. All three wanted to become professional dancers from the very beginning.
VHS tapes of “Riverdance” were played on loop after school at the Dargans, who also have family in Ireland. Lynch was hooked after seeing dancers perform at Mount St. Mary’s high school and joined Rince na Tiarna shortly after.
“I used to watch and practice the steps from the ‘Jean Butler Workout Video’ at sleepovers with my dance friends,” Lynch said. “I knew all the steps, loved practicing all the rhythms and dreamed of someday being in a professional show.”
South Buffalo is home to a large, proud Irish American community that fuels a robust Irish dance scene in Western New York. Rince na Tiarna, headquartered at South Buffalo’s Irish Center, is just one of several dance schools in the area specializing in it. But Heneghan believes dancing would not have taken off without the popularity of “Riverdance.”
“I call it my accidental career,” she says. “I went to school to be a social worker and was teaching as a hobby when ‘Riverdance’ hit. Then it became my career.”
“Riverdance” is a touring show that began as a seven-minute dance featuring champions Michael Flatley and Jean Butler during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. It was seen by over 300 million viewers worldwide and became a touring show the following year. Flatley left “Riverdance” shortly after its debut, creating his own touring show, “Lord of the Dance,” in 1996. Since then, both continue to tour worldwide—and are now a common end goal for Irish dancers around the world.
Scoring a highly competitive audition with “Riverdance” is no easy process. Dancers can send a tape in for review, but most are recruited through the production’s summer schools or are invited to audition. Lynch secured her first slot in their 20th anniversary show in 2016 after attending the summer school in Dublin. Kevinah was asked to audition after a World Championship and was one of two dancers selected out of 500 that auditioned for the same tour.
Both Kevinah and Lynch toured all over the world performing with different shows, including “Lord of the Dance” and “Titanic Dance.” From Dublin to Beijing, they’re still in awe that they get to dance with each other on the world stage.
“Growing up, I watched the ‘Riverdance’ DVD that was filmed on that same stage in Beijing,” Lynch said. “I distinctly remember watching a beautiful dancer spinning slowly on her toes and thinking to myself ‘I want to be like her when I grow up.’ During our show in Beijing, I was turning on my toes on that very same spot of that stage! It was a watershed moment for me!”
Heneghan went to see Kevinah perform at London’s West End Theatre with “Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games” and couldn’t believe the dancer she taught her entire life was front and center, performing the lead in the dance “Saoirse.”
“I literally bawled my eyes out when she came out as the lead,” Heneghan said. “It was so exciting and surreal at the same time.”
Fiona had been asked three times to audition for “Riverdance,” turning it down each time to finish college. Last August, she joined her sister with the show for a one-time gig performing for Pope Francis at Croke Park in Dublin. She says that performance was a big moment for her—a glimpse into what was to come.
“The Pope gig was an insane thing,” Fiona says. “I’m not very much of an emotional person, but I went on stage crying. When I stood at the end in front of 90,000 people and the Pope is right there, you realize this is as big as it gets.”
Fiona was asked to join her sister for the promotional shoot at Radio City Music Hall for this 25th anniversary tour. A couple days later, she was invited to dance on the tour. The timing couldn’t be better: Finished with school and presented with the chance to dance alongside her sister, she finally said yes.
“This is something I have always dreamed of doing and why not do it with my sister,” Fiona said. “If I don’t do it now, when am I going to do it?”
The “RIVERDANCE 25th Anniversary Show” tour means a lot more than just an opportunity to be a part of the legendary dancing troupe to the girls. It will also be the first time they have the chance to perform as professional dancers for their hometown crowd.
“I’ve danced on Broadway, on the West End, literally everywhere in the world, but the one thing I haven’t done is dance in Buffalo for my friends and family,” Kevinah said. “It’s the one last thing I really want to tick off my list, so I’m glad it’s finally happening.”
When not touring, all three teach with Heneghan and cannot wait for the younger dancers to come watch them perform. Lynch says the trio are so proud to represent Buffalo wherever they go and are elated that everything has come full circle to where their dancing journeys began.
“I know I will be quite emotional stepping onto that stage,” Lynch says. “The thought of it gives me goosebumps!”
“RIVERDANCE 25th Anniversary Show” takes the stage at Shea’s Performing Arts Center March 27-29. For ticket information, visit their website.
The art of Irish dance
Before you go jigging down Delaware, there’s some things you need to know about competitive Irish dance:
There are various types of dances—reel, slip and treble jigs plus hornpipes—that call for either soft or hard shoes.
Both reel and slip jigs are soft shoe dances where women wear gillies, lace-up leather shoes like ballet slippers that form to the foot with wear. Male dancers wear reel shoes that closely resemble jazz shoes—they do not perform the slip jig, as it’s considered a feminine dance.
Treble jigs and hornpipes are performed with hard shoes, also made of leather, which command attention with their fiberglass tips and heels, much like tap shoes.
All shoes are paired with perfectly bleached white socks, coined bubble socks, which are glued onto female dancers’ calves so they don’t fall down.
Men typically wear a button-down shirt, vest, tie and dress pants. Women’s dresses feature long sleeves, necklines higher than the collarbone and end just above the knee.
Each dance school has their own dress design that typically features a pattern copied from the medieval Book of Kells, a manuscript of the first four Gospels of the New Testament renowned for its gilded illustrations.
Once dancers advance, they can wear solo dresses, which are unique to each dancer. While school dresses are typically more traditional, solo costumes are meant for dancers to stand out and grab the judge’s attention. Usually expensive and custom-made, rhinestones and bold colors are common.
Beginner dancers curl their hair manually with an iron or overnight with rollers until they advance and can wear a wig. Worn with a headband or tiara to cover the hairline, the wig is attached onto a bun donut at the top of the head to give it height and secured at the base of the neck.
Dancers compete at a feis, Irish for “festival with competitions in music and crafts.” Buffalo has quite a few that happen every year, from the Buffalo Feis at The Fairgrounds in June to Feis at the Falls at The Conference Center at Niagara Falls in August. Everything leads up to the The Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas, a regional competition typically held during Thanksgiving weekend. Place in your age division there, or at the North American Irish Dance Championships (NAIDC) in July, and you’re headed to the World Championships (Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne).
Story topics: Community