James Devine at the Celtic Cafe

James Devine: Dancer, Percussionist and Designer... and holder of the Guinness World Record for Fastest Tap Dancing Speed.

Just who is this man who first came to our attention in those rave reviews we saw for Lord of the Dance and Gaelforce Dance, and who is known as the fastest Irish dancer listed in the Guinness Book of World Records?

From his official biography:

At the age of 14, James Devine achieved the highest honour bestowed on an Irish Dancer by winning "THE GRAND SLAM" - World, American, British, All-Ireland & Munster Titles. By the time he was sixteen and decided to retire from the competitive scene, he consecutively won Three World, Five American, Three British, Seven Munster, and the prestigious All-Ireland Titles.

In 1996 James was approached by Michael Flatley to star in his new show, Lord of the Dance. He toured the USA, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, performing to over one million people while receiving numerous awards along the way.

In 1997 James left Ireland for New York where he began teaching Celtic Tap to tap dancers in New York City's famed Broadway Dance Centre. While he was there he broadened his knowledge of contemporary dance styles from Tap to Street, Jazz to Funk and Flamenco to Ballet.

In January 1998, James was commissioned to go to Australia to choreograph and perform the lead role for the World Tour of the hit dance show GaelForce. With the overwhelming popularity of the show, James performed in many renowned theatres and venues worldwide to exceptional audience reactions and standing ovations of up to 20 minutes in length. With the success of Devine's choreography, Gaelforce was hailed by a jubilant press as "The Ferrari of the Irish dance World" due to speed, precision and the first Irish dance show to have live tapping.

On 25th May 1998, when James was just 21, he became the Fastest Tap Dancer in the World when he executed an astonishing 38 taps per second, in a tap display in Sydney, Australia. This tap dancing record is officially endorsed by Guinness Book of World Records and is published in the current edition.

As a soloist he has performed over 500 live shows around the Globe, in prestigious venues such as, Radio City Music Hall, New York, The Grand Opera House, Warsaw, The Royal Albert Hall, London.

He has featured solo on numerous high-profile TV shows in the USA, Canada, Germany, Poland, England, Australia and New Zealand. Appearances include special guest on the Wayne Gretzky Sports Night Live Show (Canada), The National Song Contest, ZDF TV (Germany), HOLMES, ICE TV, BACKCH@T and The Good Morning Show (New Zealand), and Ireland AM (Dublin, Ireland). Other major TV events include, The 69th Annual Academy Awards (Oscars) held at the Shrine Auditorium - Hollywood, Los Angeles (seen by over 2.5 billion people worldwide), The Royal Gala Performance Show for HRH Prince Charles, London, England, The Des O'Connor Show, London, England, The Jay Leno Show, Los Angeles, America. The Rosie O' Donnell Show, NBC Studios, N.Y.C, America.

Following his passion for rhythm he enjoys music and plays a variety of traditional instruments including the bodhran (Irish drum) and the bongos. He also has a fascination for digital design and photography. He is a qualified web designer and when he is not dancing he is building websites or releasing a shutter.

James now continues his dancing independently pursuing personal projects around the world, whilst running a photography & web design company with his partner in Southern Ireland aptly named DevignFX.

This Devine Dancer was kind enough to talk with the Celtic Cafe about his life and Irish dance.

Tell us a bit about growing up in Ardnacrusha... and your family?

My parents are Irish – my dad is from Donegal and my mother is from Clare in the south of Ireland, where they eventually settled. I began my life in dance at the age of five taking street dance classes in the local town of Ardnacrusha, in County Clare. But, I was into all different types of sports and activities from a very young age - percussion, tennis, and of course music. County Clare is renowned for its Irish music (ceol agus craic) and Irish music shops. I bought my first bodhran (Irish drum) from Custy's music shop in Ennis, Co. Clare. Custy’s is famous all over the world for dealing in musical/percussive instruments especially some of the finest crafted Bodhráns. I love percussion and anything pertaining to creating rhythmic sounds. So Irish dance/Tap, to me, is the perfect blend of dance and music and being a musician – turning your body into an instrument.

How did you learn to dance?

Basically the best way to learn to Irish dance is of course to watch, but also to listen to what you are being taught because even the most intricate rhythms can be broken down to the simplest form. I started off dancing from listening to my mother type on her typewriter. As she would randomly type I would be tapping my feet on the ground. I didn’t know what it was I was doing with my feet, except that I was trying to keep in time to her rhythms.

My mother was a champion dancer in her day having won numerous medals and titles at local and national level. However in the late 1970s she was struck with an illness (tumour in the brain) and lost the power in her legs. That didn’t limit her though. When my mother noticed my rhythmic ability she started to teach me some of the basic rhythms of Irish dance. She used to tap out the rhythms on the back of my hands and I would repeat the patterns. It became like a two-way communication.

When I was eight I began taking formal dance lessons with some of the finest Irish dance schools in Ireland, notably the Nolan school of dancing and later on with Patsy Fitzgerald-McCoy. At the age of 14, I won "THE GRAND SLAM" OF
Irish Dance - World, American, British, All-Ireland & Munster Titles. By the time I was sixteen and decided to retire from the competitive scene, I consecutively won Three World, Five American, Three British, Seven Munster, and
the prestigious All-Ireland Titles.

Tell us about your time with Lord of the Dance.

When the Riverdance phenomenon exploded onto the stage in Dublin and then the world, I was invited to be part of the dance team. But the timing was bad: I was in my final years of schooling and my parents suggested I might like to finish my exams first. After my exams I went to University of Limerick to study Electronic Engineering with French degree.

But then I got a phone call from Michael Flatley's agent in November 1995. He was looking for dancers to perform in a segment from his new show, Lord of the Dance on the Des O'Connor show, in London. Auditions had been weeks previous – a cast of dancers from London had been picked but they were short a few dancers and rehearsals had already started. I was studying in University at the time, but as it was a one-off gig, I thought why not and I accepted. Arrangements had been made to fly me over the next day for rehearsals. My first TV appearance and I didn’t even need to audition. Great! A couple of TV appearances later and three months of rehearsal in Digges Lane Dance studios, we arrived at the opening night of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance at the Point Depot in Dublin.

The experience of being in a worldwide phenomenon such as Lord of the Dance was invaluable. It catalysed the hunger that was deep inside me from when I was a kid to explore other avenues and ideas about dance. It was also a time for me to develop personally and professionally at a young age while doing somebody else’s creative interest. It was great choreography done by the show's choreographers – Michael Flatley and Marie Duffy.

But looking back now I see Lord of the Dance more about being a spectacle that revolved around one character – Michael Flatley - rather than about the “dance.”

Dance is supposed to be about freedom of expression. When something is choreographed, it’s a grind, and when you are just working on different technical skills and mentally going through the same motions, that don’t really mean anything in particular just to blend in, then it becomes an even harder grind.

I lean more towards improvisation rather than choreography. Improvisation is the ultimate in freedom of expression. I remember I used to do a 5 minute tap solo in Gaelforce Dance. 100% improvised. The audience loved it. Improvisation is a whole different world because it’s not only a surprise for the audience but it’s also a surprise to you. There is a strong edge to it that is in the moment. It’s raw. Even a mistake can be something that’s not wrong because you have the control to take it into a new direction, but with choreography everything is cemented in concrete and you work towards a common goal – to blend in. It’s to perfect that one thing so that when you are in a line of, say 34 dancers, it looks uniform and disciplined.

In the latter stages of performing with Lord of the Dance I got bored with doing the same choreography night after night. It started me thinking. The hunger had got to me!

How did the Guinness Book of World Records feat come about?

While intensively working on the choreography of Gaelforce in Sydney, Australia, I found myself reaching new levels of fitness, motivation and focus on my dancing. I was determined to harness this energy, and therefore was inspired to officially attempt to break the Guinness World Record for Fastest Tap Dancing Speed which was previously held by Michael Flatley at 35 taps per second.

Before attempting the record at the MCM TV Recording Studios, Sydney, Australia, a series of rules and regulations set out by Guinness World Records had to be adhered to and acknowledged by a Justice of the Peace. Highly sensitive microphones were placed at my feet and the rest is dance history!

Using several different methods by researchers at the Guinness Book of World Records the challenge was authenticated and officially entered in to the Millennium Edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. Having officially achieved 38 taps per second, I am currently the fastest tap dancer in the world and have held this record since 1998.

The Clare Museum in Ireland currently exhibits my Guinness World Record. Items on loan at the museum include my Guinness Book of Records Certificate, the taps I broke the record with and my very first pair of Irish dance shoes. The items are displayed in the museum's "Energy" display alongside artifacts of Michael Mc Tigue, who won the World Heavy-weight Championship on 17 March 1923. This section explores the energy of the people of Clare, as expressed by their musical and sporting achievements.

How about your time with Gaelforce Dance? Can you share a bit about that?

With the Riverdance frenzy at fever pitch, Gaelforce, an Australian-developed spin-off of the Irish dance phenomenon, arrived on the scene. Gaelforce started out as a cabaret show performing in league clubs and regional community centres across the east coast of Australia, but it wasn’t long before its impact would spread into larger cities and towns all over the world.

I joined Gaelforce after a long stint in New York. I had just returned to Ireland when I got a phone call from the shows Executive Producers. They’d tracked me down and said that they were looking at redeveloping the show and would I be interested in working with them. Not long after arriving in Sydney the show was taken off the road for a period of time and redesigned and produced for the theatre. I was commissioned to co-choreograph the show.

The show's storyline was based around three brothers who decided to take separate paths and journey toward their own place in the world, after a storm destroys their village. Although the timing to create the show was restricting, and the storyline a little complex, the show went ahead and did a sell-out tour of New Zealand and made its first appearances in major cities across Australia before heading off to North America for a tour of major cities.

Despite the show not being at its prime we received some healthy reviews about the choreography and live tapping:

“Pumped with Energy” - The Good Life, Canada

“Put wings on James Devine’s feet and he might well get airborne." - New Zealand

“One of the Highlights of the show was the encore – the troupe responded to standing ovations with a stripped down ensemble effort of pure dance, unfettered by the smoke and mirrors of a production.”- The Globe, Canada

GaelForce was to set a precedent for Irish dance shows by performing live every night. Most dance shows previous to Gaelforce used a background soundtrack of taps that the dancers danced in sync to. It became a great selling point for the show and one that gave us a strong edge and gained us a lot of respect especially from the critics.

Our last performance of the four-month tour of North America was in New York. As we had been getting mixed reviews about the storyline and direction of the show it had been decided during the tour that a new storyline would have to be written if we were to be successful in Europe. So after the tour I was asked to stay on in New York City and co-write the new storyline with the producers (ATA Allstar Artists) of the show.

“The new storyline was to be a passionate yet tragic love story of beautiful young Aisling who leaves Cuan, her husband, for his brother Lorcan, who comes through town during the celebrations of their wedding. As a result, Aisling is forced to live with the burden of her guilt from the townspeople, forever haunted by Death. This dangerous love triangle leads to a duel between her husband and her lover that ends with tragic consequences”.

With the new storyline scripted and plotted it was decided to fly the composer (Colum O’Foghlu) and myself over to Australia three weeks ahead of the cast to create the new music and choreography for the new storyline. Working closely with Colum we brought the whole production to a new level of intensity. By the time the cast arrived everything had been set in place – the soundtrack and step choreography was ready to be tested out on the cast. Another introduction to the team when the cast arrived was Richard Griffin, who runs the Griffin-O’Loughlin school, London, England. He is renowned in the Irish dance world for his school's team dancing.

I had suggested to the producers that I would like them to approach Richard to do the formation choreography for the show. I was very keen on achieving the same effect Marie Duffy had achieved with the formation choreography she had done on Lord of the Dance. Before commencing the European leg of the world tour we premiered the show in Laughlin, Nevada, in Vegas. The show was a resounding success receiving standing ovations every night. The formula had worked!

Gaelforce went on to perform to sell out shows and rapturous standing ovations in Europe for the next three months with the choreography and performances receiving numerous headlines along the way:

"Gaelforce Dance, the unmissable two hour spectacular, has brought over 1 million to their feet worldwide as audiences and the media hail Gaelforce Dance as the Ferrari of the Irish dance world."

"Stretching the versatility of Irish Dance to its limits "

“James Devine, the star of Gaelforce Dance, is breathtakingly talented, and a Guinness record-breaker: He can dance with the frequency of 38 taps per second!”

What were you working on in New York?

I have been studying Hip-Hop, Ballet, Tap and Flamenco on/off over the past few years in New York so as to have a foundation for dance technique in general. I have learned a lot from the other dance forms. Ballet taught me balance, control, discipline. Hip-Hop taught me new ways to use the body to express myself. Plus Hip-Hop is very rhythmic. The footwork and floor moves are influenced by percussive beats and melodies. It helped me with my Irish dance technique because it made me stronger and more focused. It also has changed my perspective on dance choreography and direction and has given me a lot to work with because Irish dance is a mix of a lot of different styles and cultures including African rhythms, Russian Ballet, Flamenco, American Tap -- all inter-related in some respect.

What is Celtic Tap?

Aside from teaching workshops to students of Irish dance, I often like to teach a dance workshop that fuses my creative ideas from all the disciplines - Irish, Tap, Hip-hop, and Flamenco. Celtic Tap is the label I have put on this. So I use it as a trade name when I decide to teach more generic workshops. I have done a few Celtic Tap workshops now and they have gone down extremely well. It leaves it open to students from the other disciplines that have no Irish dance technique (and vice versa) to join in and learn various rhythm techniques without feeling out of place on the dance floor.

Where do you see Irish dancing heading?

It is hard to tell. However I think if it is to sustain and have a history just like ballet and tap it will have to be nurtured very carefully and a support system put in place to keep it developing. I think we are all obligated as professional Irish dancers to contribute back to the art form at some stage in our career, whether it’s as a teacher, choreographer, performer.

That is why tap has survived over the past 100 years. Tap has such a rich cultural history that people want to go back and find out where it comes from and who did it. People always talk about the legends of tap - Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown, the Nicholas Brothers, to name a few - and the various influences each tap legend has brought to the culture. When tap dancers teach classes they always refer to this tap legacy that has been passed down to them from the “masters”. I believe Irish dance needs that to survive and leave a mark.

We are at an important stage now in the history of Irish dance where we have made a giant leap from dancing at the crossroads or in competition to dancing on the world stage. It has developed into a very deep art form and it has a lot of meaning behind it. So it is important that young artists say in 50 years time when they put on their Irish dance shoes know where it comes from and why they are doing it.

What advice would you give to Irish dancers who want to pursue a professional career in Irish dance?

First and foremost learn the basics and master them like it’s your bible. Secondly I would strongly advise any dancer to explore other art forms to give them flexibility in terms of style, movement and expression. Finally, don’t be afraid to be different. The sky is the limit!

• • •

James Devine is available to teach workshops/master classes, but after looking at his official site at DevineDance.com, we wish he would also offer classes in Web Design! Truly impressive... "It will be the official place to find information regarding my dancing, life and career including live appearances, videos, sound bytes, photos, thoughts, and anything else that is worth mentioning."

Check it out, and sign up for his newsletter as we did... definitely want to keep up with what this talented guy is up to!

Feature: Bernadette Price
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas

James Devine

After six weeks of learning Irish dance

First World Championship Title
Guinness World Record
NZ Magazine Cover
© 2003 by CelticCafe.com