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Ambition Is Not A Bad Word
Interview with Dr. John, Part 4

An Interview by
Annie from Dublin


The Trinity Dancers from Chicago are widely acknowledged as another innovative force in the onstage Irish Dance world. Tell me what you know of them and your opinion of their contribution.

Well, I know them very well, and Mark Howard who is the founder of that school is a very good friend of mine, and I was one of the examiners when he qualified as a teacher. Mark learned from Dennis Dennehy, the same teacher that Michael Flatley learned from, so whatever Dennis Dennehy is doing, he’s doing right!

And Dennis, and Marge, husband and wife, they’re very good friends of mine, the most beautiful, unassuming people in the whole world, lovely people. But Mark Howard in all fairness has made a very great contribution. I mean, he did shows, I think it was the Johnny Carson Show in America.

And Mark would phone me up and spend hours on the phone to discuss something with me about the background, the origin, the history, ‘do you think I’m doing this right? What would you think of that?’ And he would do this because before he appeared on a television show or anything like that he really did want to know, really read around it so that he could discuss or answer anything that was thrown at him, and Mark did definitely have very innovative ideas, and his shows are very good, excellent really.

I think, again, Flatley and those, the Eurovision Song Contest probably exploded them more suddenly and so on, but Mark Howard had really put on some wonderful shows. I saw some of the television shows, maybe 10, 12 years ago, and I really cried for joy when I saw what he had been doing. He had been pushing out the boat at that stage, and what he was doing was so tremendously innovative, you know, it was incredible.

Do you think that that was something that was coming from the Dennehy background, from the Chicago area? Were they encouraged to do that?

I would honestly say that I don’t think so, to be totally truthful. I think it was probably - and I’m not taking from Marge and Dennis, I think they were fabulous teachers - but I think that these were probably coincidental that you had two great minds, that they came from the one school.

Maybe, but I don’t know of any factor that was there, because the Dennehy school wasn’t really one of the ones around the world that was at the cutting edge of choreography. They produced wonderful solo dancers. There are schools in Glasgow now at the moment, James McLaughlin and James McCutcheon that are at the real cutting edge of choreography - you almost go to the Worlds to see what they’re coming up with this year.

It may be purely coincidental that Mark Howard and Flatley both came out of that same stable. But they did come from it and it’s great for any teacher to have trained both of those. Mark had a huge business head, and from a very early stage and he went into it and approached it from a business point of view, and he has built up a business empire, so they are different in their own ways.

Michael Flatley is very much the artist, the performer. He needs the adrenaline, the flow. Mark Howard was very much more a business head who spearheadeded an empire. He built up an empire, not only just the show business but in the teaching business. While he’s at the head of it he has a whole number of teachers and assistant teachers and, you know, ballpark figure, a thousand pupils, in the Trinity academy.

It's very much the teaching of Irish Dancing, very much as the ballet schools likewise teach as a training ground for to go on to be professionals. He has a business that is a training ground to recruit the best dancers to go into the shows. Flatley has a different approach, where he takes them already trained and he takes them and puts them into his shows and they are brought to other dizzy heights of perfection, and so they complement each other to a great extent.

Flatley is very much the performer, the artist, but obviously he also has an enormous head for business and all of that and my God, he is a wonderful genius! A little aside, when they had that Late Late Show with Gay Byrne [on Irish television in March 1998] I beamed from ear to ear that night.

I was invited as the Irish Dance Historian, guest of RTE that night, to pay my tribute to Michael and I just sat in the television studio that night and I was really emotional - not for any reason that I was going talking on it or whatever, but that this was a Late Late Show paying tribute to Irish Dancing. I kept pinching myself, and I talked to my Mother now and again and kept saying ‘Mam, we’ve arrived! We’re here!’ The nation is going to give us respect, we’re going to be acknowledged.

Oh, by the way, it wasn’t a shock to people in this department here in Cork University because I had reporters outside my window! They got wind that there was something happening on the Late Late Show. The Late Late Show meanwhile swore me to secrecy, they were very secretive.

How far ahead was that planned?

It was planned for a few weeks. What they weren’t sure of up to the last minute was whether Jean Butler was going to dance on it or not. And yet, what Jean Butler danced that night was her greatest performance. And by the way I heard that Colin Dunne was the one who helped her put that together.

The popular view is that the New Age of Irish Dance began with the 7-minute Eurovision Riverdance of 1994. However, from what I have been told by people who attended the Mayo 5000 show at the National Concert Hall in Dublin in 1993, and from clips of that show and accounts of it I have always suspected the real birth-night of Riverdance was in fact that show. According to accounts told to me not only were all the key players involved (Bill Whelan’s music, Anuna, Jean Butler, producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan) but the impact of Michael Flatley’s performance was just as stunning to the crowd present that night as it was to the vast TV audience the following year. After that, it was only a matter of time and the right occasion for the ‘revolution’ to take place. Were you present at the Mayo 5000, and what are your thoughts on this?

No, I wasn’t there. But without a doubt the whole concept for the interval act at Eurovision came from that night, I don’t think anybody would deny that, and this is in keeping with what I’m saying - and it’s certainly not in any way to detract from that interval act - but the whole scene was being set over a long period of time, even through what was being danced in our dancing competitions.

What happened was the general public were watching the television that night and they didn’t really know what was going on behind closed doors, and the Mayo 5000 sort of opened it up a bit more to the public but still, numerically, such an extremely limited number, and that night [Eurovision] it went out live on television and gave that huge explosion.

There have been many not very favorable comments made on the new style of Irish Dance that the commercial shows, specifically Michael Flatley’s, present. Possibly the most extreme I have heard is one by musicologist B.P. Fallon on the documentary Emerald Shoes (UTV, 1999). He said: "Irish dance and music as exemplified by Riverdance and Michael Flatley are no more authentically Irish than shillelagh sticks covered in Formica on sale at the airport. Riverdance and Michael Flatley, bless their hearts, are really our version of green Guinness, continuing the leprechaunisation of Ireland." As one of the most qualified people in the world to answer this, please would you do so?

I’m far too polite to answer it, but B.P. Fallon should stick to commenting on music, about which his comments always irritated me anyhow, in his whole attitude. But he is typical of a whole load of people jumping on the bandwagon one way or the other with no Irish Dancing qualifications whatsoever.

Overall, Emerald Shoes was a very good documentary, but I looked at some of the people on it and wondered what were they doing on it? Where did they come into dancing? And I read another article someone sent me from South Africa, and it just sickened me. It’s like we’re a nation of knockers, as we say. The whole world can stand up and give a standing ovation, and yet...

But I can remember Michael [Flatley] saying, and I was talking to him above in the Point Theatre one night, he was kind enough - I went backstage during the interval to get a photograph from him - and there’s very few artists would have you back during the interval when he really has to hype himself up, and the reason he did (he sent somebody out into the audience to bring me back) because he was leaving immediately afterwards for a television show, a Pat Kenny Show, and he had said to me he would see me immediately after the show but then due to that he met me at the interval.

And I remember him saying to me, very nicely, ‘ John, who needs critics, when I’ve got an audience out there standing up?’ And that is my kind of feeling too in life. Who are critics? They are people who couldn’t make it as artists themselves.

But I have to say that Michael Flatley did not get a very good break. That television show was important to him as it was the first time he was actually being interviewed on [Irish] television. He had to go off and become a worldwide success before Irish television would recognize him. But there was a lot of politics there.

One thing I do know is I do know enough about Irish Dancing to know who could have choreographed and who could not have choreographed the Irish Dancing in those shows, and I could point without doubt to those who did and did not choreograph that work. But you will always have people like B.P. Fallon, and if Michael was to let people like that get to him, you know, and I think they do hurt him, they do hurt him.

The night of the Late Late Show tribute, the very first [commercial] break that came, Michael was sitting about 6 or 8 feet away from me across the audience there, he left his chair and he came over to me, and he just threw his arms round me, and he called me ‘Dr. John’ kind of from the dancing days, you know.

It’s kind of amusing that way, in America the kids and dancers tend to call me Dr. John, here sometimes the children come up and say ‘ go up and ask Mr. Cullinane...’

You know you still get the different ways of children addressing you, and he still came up and threw his arms round me and he says ‘Dr. John, it was only late, when you started talking I recognized you and saw you there. It’s so wonderful, I can’t thank you enough for all the lovely things you said about me, and everything you ever wrote about me, you’ve been so good.’

And I thought, you know, this guy is a megastar and he still, you know that gesture, to me was just magnificent, because he didn’t even have to say thank you to me, he didn’t have to come over, but it was wonderful, it was absolutely wonderful. So, people say to me ‘oh he’s got such an ego and he’s got this and he’s such a thing, and I say ‘Thanks be to -Hell he’s got an ego! You show me an artist or anybody in the world that has gone as far as he has gone who hasn’t got an ego! It’s like, we went through this a thousand years ago with ‘Caesar was ambitious’, so they killed him - he wouldn’t be -Caesar if he didn’t have ambition, you know! If he didn’t have ambition he’d be drawing the dole or sweeping the streets.

You have to have an ego. What's wrong with it? We always say here ‘thanks be to -Hell for Michael Flatley and his ego because Irish Dancing classes worldwide are bulging at the seams, more so in America.

In Ireland you’ve more or less got the same inflow, but the public’s awareness of dance has changed. But the dancing classes in America are bulging at the seams and I say ‘thanks for Michael Flatley’s ego!’ But ego is not a bad thing - when they use it like that it’s almost as if it’s an evil, it’s like ‘ambition’.

Ambition is not evil, we’ve all got to have ambition. If we didn’t, that’s when you’re sent to a psychiatrist or a remedial teaching school, if you don’t have ambition. Don’t make it a bad word.

While some commentators have complained that the new style of Irish Dance is ‘less traditional’ others have said to me that they see it as almost a 'restoration', putting back the joy and life they remember in it from their youth, even reviving steps they had not seen for many years, which the constraints of competition rules had suffocated. What is your feeling about this?

That is very true - we in the Gaelic League and the Irish Dancing Commission have let competition take over to the point of obsession, and while competition is good it also removes the spontaneity, the social enjoyment and interaction.



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Cover Image Title and Description

Irish Dancing Costumes, Their Origins and Evolution

Fascinating study of the evolution of costume in Irish Dancing, including unique period photographic record from as early as 1892.

123 pages. softcover. b/w photographs. First published 1996.

Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing in North America

Study og the history of Irish Dancing in Norht America from research begun when Dr. Cullinane was first invited to give workshops in San Francisco in 1972. Includes photographs and sections on different regions of North America, also details of costume evolution and feiseanna in North America.

99 pages. softcover. b/w phtographs. First published 1997.

Aspects of the History of Ceili Dancing 1897-1997

Produced to celebrate the centenary of the foundation of Ceili Dancing, includes valuable photographic records plus sections on the origins, the contribution of the Gaelic League, classification of Ceili Dances and an account of the First Ceili in London, 1897.

80 pages. softcover. b/w phtographs. First published 1998.

Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing in Ireland, England, New Zealand, North America and Australia

First look at world history of Irish Dancing. Includes excellent gallery of photographs, plus sections on the history of the Ceili dancing, the dancing masters, costumes, the Cork contribution, feiseanna, competition, dancing around the world.

185 pages. softcover. b/w photographs. First published 1987.


Further Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing (Ireland, Scotland, Canada, America, N. Zealand and Australia)

This is a real reference book, listing accounts of feseanna and competitions of various years in the different places, and is clearly meant to be read in conjunction with the first book of the title.

150 pages. softcover. b/w photographs. First published 1990.


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