Two-time Irish Dance World Champion Michael Patrick Gallagher discovered Arizona while on tour as principal soloist with Riverdance. He’s now a teacher and artistic director at Tir Conaill Academy of Irish Dance in Phoenix, where he shares his talents with some very lucky kids.
Irish dancing was introduced to America through Riverdance performances. But hasn’t the genre been around a long time?
Irish dance has been practiced in Ireland for hundreds of years. Almost everyone at some stage of their life in Ireland learns Irish dance.
So now American kids want to be Riverdancers?
Ask any dance teacher across the United States. Back in the mid-’90s, when Riverdance first started, they were getting calls every day. There’s been a huge increase in the number of children taking Irish dance not only here in the States but also across the world. My sister has a dance school in Budapest, Hungry, of all places.
How did this genre develop? And why don’t the dancers move their arms?
Irish dance developed in such small, cramped conditions — in small thatch cottages and pubs — and there wasn’t really room for dancers to be flailing their arms about. Another reason people give is that the Catholic Church had a strong influence on the development of Irish dance. They frowned upon men and women touching each other so they enforced the arms by the sides.
Talk about how you got started.
I grew up in a small, rural community. There weren’t many other activities for us kids to do, so that’s why I was sent along to an Irish dance school when one opened up in the area. I’m the oldest of four kids, and it became a family affair. We never, ever expected to make a living from it.
And then Riverdance found you.
The show came to Belfast, where I was at Queens University, studying law. I went along and auditioned, still not thinking that I was ever going to join, but they offered me a place there. It really wasn’t something I could turn down.
What led you to Arizona?
I had just finished touring with Riverdance on a full-time basis back in 2003. I heard about this opportunity out in Phoenix for someone to take over the school. I was just amazed by the talent and the families. They were just so warm, and took me in. One month led to another, and here I am, three years later.
Do many of your students claim Irish ancestry?
We have [some] dancers who have Irish heritage, but I would say that about 50 percent don’t.
What do your students like best about Irish dancing?
I think that they get drawn into the music. It’s very energetic.
How do you teach them not to move their arms?
It’s difficult to get them used to keeping their arms by their sides, keeping heir hands close, walking with one foot turned out in front of the other all the time. That’s an achievement in itself.
Who knows? I was able to go back and dance with Riverdance [last] summer in Ireland for 10 weeks. I do a lot of workshops around the country. It’s created a nice balance.
This interview was published July 1, 2008 by multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint.