Feet in Green

Riverdance kicks off several weeks of Irish dance events in Tucson

Nowadays, Arizona boasts its very own Riverdancer.

Michael Pat Gallagher, a lead dancer for years with the glitzy Irish song-and-dance show, has settled in Scottsdale, where he's running the McElligott-Gallagher School of Irish Dance. And he occasionally drops down to Baja Arizona to coach dancers in Tucson at the

Tir Conaill Academy of Irish Dance . Caitlin Meaney, a 17-year-old Salpointe student ranked as a finalist in the Irish world championships, travels to his Scottsdale studio three times a week for lessons. (See more on Meaney below.)

But Gallagher hasn't given up his own dancing shoes, either the hard or the soft variety required by traditional Irish dance.

The touring company of Riverdance alights in Tucson for a week of concerts at the TCC Music Hall, Feb. 28 through March 5, and Gallagher will dance the Saturday afternoon show. He's hardly rusty. In the past two years, the Donegal native danced with other companies, but last fall hooked up with another Riverdance touring company in Japan and Taiwan. In December, he finished up the 11-week Asian tour.

"It will be great to have Michael Pat again," says Melissa Convery, the female lead of the company headed for Tucson. "I've known him for years, both in competition and in Riverdance."

Both Convery and Gallagher are former world champions of Irish dance, the title perched at the pinnacle of the intense competition circuit in Ireland. Most of the Riverdancers work their way up through the competitions. Convery, who hails from County Down in the North of Ireland, says she began dancing "when I turned 4. My mother had danced as a child and took me to dance class. I thank her to this day."

Speaking by phone from Hollywood, where the company has just begun what promises to be a grueling four-month tour, Convery says that Riverdance is now in its 11th year. The show started in Dublin in 1995 and continues to sell out. Convery says many audience members come to see it year after year, because "they see something different every time." Besides offering up a slick version of Irish music, performed live, and dance, it also showcases parallel dance forms, including Russian, Spanish flamenco and American tap.

Riverdancers perform an adapted version of Irish step and soft-shoe dancing, which traditionally call for intricate foot movements and wild leg leaps but rigidly held arms.

"The basic steps are the same. But in Riverdance, we're a littler freer with the arms. We use the upper body a little. And because we dance in large groups, we simplify the footwork."

Such showbiz improvisations are forbidden in the dance competitions in Ireland, Convery acknowledges. But she points out another irony. The Riverdance phenomenon has triggered a renewed interest in traditional dance. "Since Riverdance, competition dancing has gone through the roof."

Convery, who has danced with the company for nine years, says she may follow Gallagher into the classroom. Now living in Dublin, she says, "I have my teacher's exams (to take), and I'll open a school."

Caitlin Meaney will step out in her hometown with a little step-dancing at the Danú Irish music concert, Saturday evening, March 4. The seven-piece band, from Waterford, Ireland, sold out their concerts on previous visits to Tucson. Their tune-making on the fiddle, accordion, flute and pipes won them the Irish Music Awards designation of best traditional Irish band in 1999. New to the band this year is Muireen NicAmhlaoibh, an Irish-speaking singer and tin-whistle player from County Kerry.

Meaney, joined by Nicholas Shore, also a student at the McElligott-Gallagher School of Irish Dance, will dance for selected numbers.

She started dancing at age 5 and worked her way through Tucson's Irish dance schools, first the McTeggart, then the Bracken, before making the commitment to study in Scottsdale with Gallagher. Along the way, she's accumulated more than a few competition prizes. Since she was a tyke of 10, she's placed in the top 10 in her age group every year in the Western U.S. regionals.

And in 2002, "I won the regionals," she says. In March 2004, "I was 'recalled' at the world championships in Ireland." At the world's, she was one of 150 girls who performed two dances individually, and one of 35 finalists "recalled" to dance a third. She'll head to Belfast Easter weekend to compete again in the world championships.

"The best thing about it is the friends I make and the traveling," she says. "I don't want to make it a career, though. I want to be a doctor. Both of my parents are doctors."

She keeps up with her studies at Salpointe, she says, on her way to dance lessons. Her mom, Rosemary Browne, a dance teacher and former performer, drives her the two hours each way to Scottsdale. "I do my homework in the car."

Michael Pat Gallagher makes a return Tucson appearance on Saturday, March 11, at the Emerald Ball. Held every year around St. Patrick's Day, the festive charity gala is sponsored by the Emerald Isle Society, this year at the Westward Look Resort, 245 E. Ina Road.

Gallagher will perform with some of his top students; also on the program is music by traditional Irish band Aongus Og. For the more earthbound, accordionist Christopher McGrory leads ceili dancing, Irish social dances that are easier on the feet. Cocktails and a silent auction begin at 6 p.m., dinner and dancing at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $100. For reservations, call 722-1018.

The Emerald Isle Society also hosts a St. Patrick's Day Mass and tea on the big day itself,

Friday, March 17. This year's venue is an actual church, Our Mother of Sorrows, 1800 S. Kolb Road. For info, call 747-1321 or 747-0059. The annual

Tucson St. Patrick's Day Parade and Festival is the day after the feast day, on Saturday, March 18. The all-day festival starts at 10 a.m. at Church Avenue and Alameda Street, outside the Main Library. The parade sets off at 11 a.m. from Franklin Street and Stone Avenue, then winds around Stone, Pennington Street, Church, Granada Avenue and Franklin, before landing back at the festival plaza. For more info on the parade and other Irish events in the next month, check www.tucsonirishcommunity.com.

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