Joel Hanna at the Celtic Cafe

Once you see Joel Hanna dance, you don't forget him.

His artistry and athleticism on stage have made him stand out while touring the world with Riverdance, Dancing on Dangerous Ground, and now Fire of Dance. Described by some as a cross between Prince and Joaquin Cortez, this interesting young man was born in Vancouver, Canada to a Filipino mother and an Irish father. His career started with the training he received from mentor Tony Comerford of the well-known and highly-regarded Comerford School of Irish Dance.

In 1996 Joel won in the Australian Irish Dance Championships, and from there went on to win in the North American championships three times in a row, 1997-1999. In 1997 he joined Riverdance, and during that time starred with Kerry Houston in the documentary "Bad Boy and the Hometown Girl," often seen on Canadian television. After three years with Riverdance, Joel joined Colin Dunne in "Dancing on Dangerous Ground," and fans can still enjoy his thrilling performance via the video or DVD.

Since the winter of 2000, Joel has been exciting audiences with his style in the Irish dance portion of Fire of Dance, currently touring Europe. See the tourdates links at the bottom of the page to find out if he's coming to a city near you, and check out the videoclip link to see Joel and some other remarkable talent in this production. You're sure to want to see him LIVE.

The following interview offers a glimpse of the man behind the performer.


The Interview

How long have you been dancing? At what point did you first realize that you might be able to translate your talents to a career in the performing arts?

I've been dancing for about 12 years, I think, since about the age of 11 or 12. I don't really remember.

I don't know if people at any one specific point make a decision to be a performer or to strictly compete (with Irish dance), or just dance for themselves for that matter. I think it's more of a realization that you come to know about yourself over time. And by 'time', I mean every second you spent working, training, competing, or even thinking about what you're gonna do that's led you to where you are now -- and for each person that's different. Especially professionally, because we all took different roads to get where we are, and everyone has their own insights and reasons for what they've done and what they are doing.

How did you get involved with Irish dance in the first place?

How does anyone get involved in Irish dance? You get sucked in as a child, and are never allowed to leave! No, as I said, I don't really remember. My father is of Irish blood, and somehow I got suckered into joining classes after my older sister had been dancing for a while. What I can tell is why I stayed - it's simple. I was a kid, a male dancer, and I got to spend the weekends traveling around, going to places where there were, like, ten times the amount of girls than guys.

Did the Eurovision and the subsequent world interest in Irish dance mark a turning point in attitudes among Irish dancers who were doing it mainly for competition? What was the "buzz" like at dance classes after news of Riverdance and its spectacular success reached you young dancers?

The impact the Eurovision had on the art is obvious, and its branches seem to have twisted and tangled in all different directions. I remember when it first came my way (and I swear it never leaves) and I remember not giving it much thought. I really enjoyed it, and loved the music, but that was how I kept it to myself. Not that I dismissed it in any way, but, when you see something like that, that hits close to home, it inspires, and makes you want to be a part of it. I didn't think that could ever happen, so I just kept on the way I was.

How about that perfect score in Australia? Please share the details!

Did I get a perfect score in Australia? Ha, I don't know, you might know better then me. Yeah, I won a bunch; the places and the days and what happened on the stages then meant a lot to me. Especially the three North Americans, and the Senior Belt. But the lead-up to these was even more valuable. Now they're just names on a paper, but I've got them in my head.

Where do you think Irish dance is headed? Undoubtedly you are aware of the changes compared to when you were in competition. What do you think of them?

I don't know what the future has in store for Irish dancing. Now I tend to stay away from the dogmas of it all. If I contribute to it at all, I like to keep in the studio. I love teaching, and helping in the classes. Then finding out that those kids worked their butts off and got rewarded for it, and for that instant, that medal or trophy or recall made them happy. It makes me proud to think that I might've had even a little bit to do with that.

I do think that competitions are getting to be too big, and too often. As well as classes. I think as long as time is taken to teach, and the opportunity available to grow, the standard of dancing will always stay as good as it can be. But perhaps the filter of qualifying for competition will need to be finer.

I have my opinions and differences with the whole thing, and won't pretend to be a competition guru, so I'll shut up about it now. If I go to competitions at all any more, it's to see old friends, and to support the competitors I know. My little sister dances now, and she competes a bit. I love going to feis' and being the loud big brother at the back of the hall. I think support in these things is so important, whatever the outcome.

What sometimes really worries me is the effect that competing can have on people, because I've seen what it can do. I've seen it really devastate some people, but at the same time really give others a great sense of themselves. Though I love competing, and I have countless memories from the time when I did (and sometimes even get the urge to do it again), I know how valuable a lesson it can be, and how incredible the rewards of it are, but how little the trophies and belts have to matter to really understand that.

The way I am now, and the way I see things kind of leaves me with a conflict about the structure of it all, though. For a long time I started getting so bored with everything, because it was all the same. Everyone saying the same thing 500 different ways, and trying to convince everyone that they were an innovator or something, or trying to claim the right to say "that's mine." And I think I'm probably guilty of it myself, but I changed. I had to. Being in Dancing on Dangerous Ground was something special, and it instigated that.

Please tell us about DoDG - about the experience of being part of something so wonderfully new, and working with Jean and Colin.

I am so proud to have been a part of Dancing on Dangerous Ground. It was a company of amazing people, who worked so incredibly hard out of faith that something great was going to happen. There were moments on stage that were so real, and so intense. It was special. I think about it now, and it is amazing to me how at the beginning we were such a mix of people, and by the end everyone changed so much. Everyone became so strong; the strength and energy of the male company, I think, was something that will always be its own.

Colin and Jean are both fantastic dancers, performers, and people. I respect them both so much and am proud to call them friends. I went through a bit of an ordeal while we were in London, and had to leave for a bit, and Colin helped me and was a better friend than a lot of people that I'd known for my whole life. I will always be grateful for that.

The rehearsals and preparations for the premiere were possibly the most difficult thing I have ever done, but also the most rewarding. There were times when we were in the studio for up to 15 hours, because that's just what it took to get things done, and everyone understood that. And from the first time the curtain went up to the last time it came down at Radio City Music Hall, the show evolved so much. I really wish that more people had gotten to see what we did in New York, because it was so different to what we did in London, and what's on the video. It was a totally different show.

When we all left, we scattered, and I felt like I was walking around with a secret. Something that no one knew unless you were behind those doors, and did what we did, and felt what we felt. The aftermath was a very hard time for me, and I stopped everything for awhile, because I began to question everything. And I had to make a lot of mistakes in order to learn what I was supposed to.

Then in a split second, it came back, I got inspired. I was taking classes in different forms of dance and expression, picking up things all over the place. I went back to the places I used to go, to hang out with tap dancers and Flamenco dancers, modern and interpretive dancers, my friends.

And I started jamming again. Learning how to improvise is really something special. I have a background in percussion and play a lot of percussion. I got back into music, playing percussion whenever I could, got back into the martial arts. I wanted to learn everything; and even now I feel like I've just got a taste of it.

But it's all about the expression, being able to do exactly what you want to do, how you mean to do it. I think to do that you absolutely need the physical range of motion, and strength -- but more importantly the mental awareness. I think you need to try everything to get that -- keep creating and experimenting, keeping what is useful and throwing away what's not. Bruce Lee once said, "Man, the creature, the creative individual ... is always more important than any established style or system." I believe that applies here, to us.

This is where the conflict I spoke of comes in. I believe that every dance form is a language, and everyone has their own voice. This is mine. "My truth is not your truth, and your truth is not my truth." Now assuming that is true, if the dance is your expression, then how can anyone tell you that what you did was wrong? I don't think they can, they can only say what they prefer to watch. You cannot say that one visual artist is better than another, only which one you like more.

I don't always believe that doing steps to music is dancing, just doing steps to music you know. I think dance is supposed to be some kind of an expression of yourself. I got really annoyed with dancers being "spectacle dancers". Just a dancer doing things to music, doing steps to music. I can't say that it's wrong, I won't say that it's wrong, I just say that it's not my way. The last couple of years I started experimenting, got bored and started thinking, "There's gotta be more than this," trying to find the perfect way of expression.

You have mentioned how much you enjoy just "letting go" and doing your own thing when you get on stage. How much do you contribute to the choreography of the dancing you do with Fire of Dance? How does your current experience in Fire of Dance compare to when you were in Riverdance or DoDG?

The feeling of "letting go" is very special to me. It's like breaking down the wall between the stage and the audience. When you really do what you do, to level of honesty that everyone watching really believes you, and you're feeling what you do. Not just doing steps to music. Or in the studio, on your own, with any music or no music at all. It's real, and honest -- I think that's where the magic comes from. You know when you see it. You can't teach it, you have to figure it out on your own, but everyone who can teach you anything has something to do with getting you there.

The wonderful thing about where I am now is that in this show I get to dance live every night, which allows me the freedom to change constantly. I get to dance my way with the freedom to choreograph my own stuff, and no one really tells me what to do. They trust me, and that doesn't happen in a lot of companies.

I heard someone once say that they were disgusted to hear that there were dancers in the show that weren't even real Irish dancers, and condemning the commercial aspect of the performing arts. That really bothered me. This company is a mix of musical performers, classical, jazz and tap dancers, and the ensemble had to learn the Irish stuff in only four months of rehearsals, then spend a tour making themselves better. I am lucky to get to share a stage with such a talented group of people.

One of the soloists was a soloist in Evita: he choreographed La Cage aux Folles and Victor/Victoria and I think is probably the most talented dancer, choreographer and martial artist I've ever met. One of the tap soloists was in the American Tap Dance Orchestra, the Manhattan tap company; he has his own show called Camut Band, he's a former World Champion of tap, and Gregory Hines calls him "Mr. Technique".

Most of the company comes from Eastern Europe, and they come here, work their asses off, and they get paid pretty well, but they go home and they take care of their families. Because one season of putting themselves through what can sometimes be hell supports their homes for three times as long. Now you tell me what's not to respect about that?

Being a dancer is incredible, we get to do things that most people in the world will never do. If it was easy everyone would do it; that's what makes it great. But it is also a job, it's work. And even to be able to do that is rare. Think of how many dancers there are in the world, and how few get to turn professional.

The experience of being in Riverdance and Dangerous Ground was invaluable. It gave me something that pushed on an idea that I've believed in for a long time, and I thank God for getting back.

My dancing teacher, Tony Comerford, and many other people used to ask me why I did things. Like why I wanted to start teaching, or compete for things, or perform. It's because I wanted to see if I could. I wanted to see if I could do it, to see what I was capable of. So of course I have the experiences of those companies to thank for that.

To Part II of the Interview

To the Review of Fire of Dance

Interview: Bernadette Price
Editing: Louise Owen
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas

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