The Rhythm of the Dance website states you come from Dublin – were you born there?

I was born in Dublin in a place called Whitehall and I have been living there all my life, in the same house.

You started at 3, first major championship: at 6 All England Champion! Was ID something you have enjoyed at all times? Did you do classical ballet as well?

I was an only child until the age of 7 - my mother danced and my dad comes from a family of twelve, where they all played musical instruments and they all danced. My dad is originally from Kerry which is down in the south of Ireland. His family is quite an Irish traditional family, I mean there was always music. Because obviously I was always on my own at home - my mother said that from when I was a child, from when I could walk, the minute I would hear music I just took the centre stage and that was it, I was gone. It’s quite ironic really, because the first teacher that I started to dance with normally wouldn’t take pupils until they were about 4 ½, 5 years of age. My mother told her well, she’s quite advanced for her age, when she’s at home she’s always jumping around. Then the teacher said to my mother I got no space in the class at the moment but you know, I’ll take her name down and should a position become available I’ll let you know. Then she rang my mother about two weeks later and she said: well, I’ll try her and see how we get on. I think I was with her about three weeks and she put me into my first competition and I won my first competition. She was quite happy then for the fact that she taught me.

And you were never afraid of the audience, just went on stage and danced?

I wouldn’t say that I was never afraid of the audience. I would definitely say that confidence really comes through experience and confidence, it’s something that no teacher can really knock into you. I would definitely say you can have the most talented dancers in the world and you can put them on a stage and they’re lost. It’s either something of which I think that’s in you or it’s not. You hear teachers talking about stage presence and that all the time, and stage presence is extremely important. We’re all good dancers up there but at the end of the day it’s how you sell yourselves up there. If you can sell some type of a personality to the audience -I would like to think that somebody who’s been at the show would feel like they know a small bit of me from what I do on the stage, even though I don’t speak. I would definitely think that what we do, the way we express ourselves up there, would definitely show some side to our characters. You probably know from seeing the show the last time that my role isn’t really centred around the girls in the show I feature more with the boys in the show. Which probably is the first time in a dance show - showing a powerful woman rather than a powerful man. If you look at most of the Irish dance shows there is a male lead.

I saw Riverdance in July – you can’t really say there is a lead there.

That is true and there are different people there, but it’s probably the first time that a female is seen featured in that type of way. I would think that that’s really what makes the show different to the rest.

When did you join ROTD?

I was actually one of the original team members that started the show.

Did you join because of your connection with Mary McDonagh, whom you trained with?

I did dance with Mary at one stage, yes.

She was one of the creators of ROTD?

She would have been one of the original show, that had the concept for it there with Kieran. But her background is ballet really, it’s not Irish. I would only have studied with Mary the last year and the year before, not for very long. I wasn’t actually “caught” by Mary.

Did you do any classical ballet at all?

No, but I did go to the Performance School of Arts from about the age of 7. So I studied drama and did a small bit of singing and a small little bit of tap. And I would definitely say that I would throw my arms at anything Irish!

You never danced in a pink tutu?

No, god no! Irish is my speciality but I would try anything. I think once you’re a dancer you’ll slip in and out of so many different things - you really have to be versatile nowadays, because the audiences want bigger and better things and they don’t just want to go and see a line for an hour. They want to see different things and people’s expectations now are a lot greater than they would have been even when Riverdance started 5 years ago. They’ve seen Riverdance and thought this is the greatest thing that ever hit the stage - and it is. I mean without the likes of Riverdance or Lord of the dance I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today. But as peoples’ expectations now are getting bigger and bigger you have to give them more. They are no longer looking just for Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. I would feel Rhythm of the Dance is not just a dance show, we do actually try to take you back to Irish history and take Irish dancing from the 18th century, from in the famine years – when the Irish suffered awfully and there was a big death rate in Ireland because of the famine and people emigrated to America – to where it is today. Without wanting to say that we’re really different, I think probably where Irish people are different to other Europeans it is that whenever there’s a crisis there we have this team spirit where we can work together and overcome any difficulties. For example, my father comes from a very big family, his father was blind and they really did struggle. He had very little education – they had to leave school when they were 12 and go out and work for the family. But they all did extremely well. My dad has his own business now. I would definitely say it was through such a strong bind within the family that they would overcome any crisis. If there was shortage for money they were never short of food they would find it somewhere.

That is basically that easy going attitude of the Irish people. That’s the way they are. You’ve only got to visit Dublin. Dublin is an extremely fast city and it has become extremely cosmopolitan in the last 5 years. But again, if you go and visit any type of residence there the attitude is just (relaxed) - it is, and that’s just the way they are. If you go further down south in Ireland you’ll see it’s even more relaxed. Everybody there just lives every day as it comes. And there’s a lot of trust there, visitors come in and that’s it - once you walk a step across the doorstep you’re part of the family home.

I guess that’s one of the special things from Ireland

Definitely, I would definitely say so. But I’ll have to say though - we’ve travelled now, we’ve been to Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Austria, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Holland, Germany - I would definitely say out of those countries probably the people from Denmark, Germany and Holland to me would, reaction-wise, probably be very like our own people. Like the reception that we’ve had in Holland is just amazing. We get standing ovations every night and it’s fantastic for the performers on stage. It makes life so much easier for them. It is a show where the performers like the public to participate. They like it when the people in the audience don’t just to sit there for the two hours. As performers up there we want to feel the spirit of Ireland. We would like to think that you would take something home from the show and that you would feel that Ireland touched you in some small way. If you didn’t know anything about Ireland to have experienced that spirit.

We have a fantastic cast of 26 dancers. They’re just full of energy and spirit and basically they’ve all danced, probably, from the age of 3 or 4. They danced all their lives and just broke into a passion I would say within the last 2 years.

How did you get to be the lead dancer, because the pictures in the original program show you as one of the group. The program also seems to be more ballet like.

We never had any decent photographs then, that’s what happened there! Actually that program was made about two years ago. I started off in February, three years ago, so the show was three years old in February this year. I’ve just basically worked my way through the ranks really, I started off in the chorus line. I was very fortunate that the producer, Kieran Cavanagh, just took me on board at the time. He took me under his wing and it’s clean history then, since then I moved from the chorus line to where I am now.

Kieran Cavanagh is the producer?

Yes, he is. Kieran Cavanagh is the producer and Carl Hessian is the musical director. He composes and arranges the music. Mike Smith is the tour manager. I’m the lead female and choreographer.

What happened to your male counterpart Steffen Jorgenson? Did he leave the show?

He did, actually. He left to set up his own dancing school. At the time we saw the opportunity to change the show, it didn’t really affect it. That’s the greatest asset that the show has, there’s no star there. It’s a group of people who love to dance. People come and go within the troupe all the time. The cast changes at least every three to four months, it’s a really young cast. They join the show and they enjoy the experience of this show and they move on to the next show, that’s just the way it is. I mean we were sad to lose Steffen at the time but unfortunately the show goes on and we have to make the best of it.

Do you sometimes have the feeling that you would like to have a male counterpart to sort of have a balance with two people in the lead?

I do actually dance with a boy now. I have a partner in the end of the show, but I definitely have to say I don’t think it makes me feel any different. It doesn’t affect my performance. I have a relationship in the show with all the boys, we feature them all. We feature and I feature with the bodhran player. So I kind of weave my way through. We have a small story line within the show. It would be taking Irish dancing from the 19th century, from the famine days, right to the present age. We show, within that space of time, how Irish dancing has evolved, how it unfolds. Act 1 in the show would be where we would see Irish dancing now, in the year 2000. And we’ve got some very nineties version of dancing there, we’ve got bits of African dancing, bits of Salsa dancing. So basically what we’ve done is, we’ve taken other cultures and we’ve incorporated Irish rhythms to show how flexible Irish dancing can be. It can be danced to any type of music and it can be interpreted in different ways. It shows Irish dancing in it’s present form, it’s fast and it’s energetic with lots of arm movements, which would only recently have evolved, within the last 5 or 6 years.

Has the show changed since the last time you were here?

I wouldn’t say the show has changed. I would definitely say it has got stronger since then. The new program will tell the story of the show, which makes it much easier to follow.

You are mentioned to be the dance captain – does that mean you have to teach the others besides training for and dancing your own part?

I do all the teaching and all the choreography. I make up all the dances.

So you’re a dancer as well as a teacher?

Yes, I’m a fully qualified teacher. I did my teachers’ exam in 1996. So basically my daily schedule is that we would get to the venue and we would have rehearsals with the troupe from about 5 to 6 pm. Then from 6 to 6.30 pm do a sound check. The show is nearly a hundred percent live - our singers sing live, I dance live, the musicians play live, so quite unique really to the likes of Lord of the Dance and Riverdance. They’re not actually live, they’re playback shows. We’re not afraid to show the talent that we have out there. We like to feel that the audience gets what they pay for. They come to see a live show and that’s what they get.

What’s your influence on choreography and costumes?

Well it was the story line that I taught at first. Then I weaved around that. Like when we had different pieces of music, we had salsa music and African music, it was just basically how we could link those on a journey - ROTD is dancing on a journey through time, so it’s how we evolved through the ages. Act 2 starts off with the famine, an extremely hard time for the people living in Ireland, there was so much death and emigration. After the famine scene we have the ceilidh, and we actually show on stage how through spirit and through energy the Irish overcome such hard times. I would definitely say, being Irish, we’re very fortunate to have such a culture handed down to us and we’ve protected it through the years. Even though Irish dancing now has progressed, even within our show we still show where it originally came from and how it has evolved from there. But it’s nice to know that we’ve never lost our roots. Sometimes you have to be careful with shows, it’s like that with choreography that you don’t loose the whole plot, you don’t lose the whole concept there. Which is why you really have to show, you can’t loose those roots. It’s great being modern and progressing it to where we are today but you have to be careful that you don’t lose the insight of where it actually came from. And back in Dublin, back in Ireland, that’s how it’s still taught. It’s still danced in the Celtic dresses. It’s quite big now all over the world, it’s danced in America, Canada, even as far as Russia and China.

I was in contact recently with a well know adjudicator in Ireland, he said the changes are welcomed. Even though they are still dancing in the traditional way there are many new influences.

Well there’s new ways, I would definitely say so. I’ve only found my rhythm within the last two years. It’s not until you actually leave your home country and experience other cultures that you seem to learn how to combine things. I would think that my biggest fascination is rhythm, not just an Irish rhythm but any rhythm. I have a strange concept, like to feel rhythm in your feet… I always feel it in my head first and I sing a rhythm first. That’s the way I teach. I have a strange way of teaching, I’ll sing to them: tatadala tatata tatata, because if you haven’t got it in your head and in your heart the message doesn’t get to the feet. But I have to say – the fascination with rhythm is about what you can combine, Irish rhythm into any kind of music, you can put it to a salsa beat, you can put it to an African beat, you can put it to a samba, you can put it to anything, that’s how flexible it is. But it was always so protected, it wasn’t – that’s really what makes Rhythm of the Dance different. It’s that we’ve experimented with other forms of music.

Well, Riverdance does that.

They do, but they don’t actually dance Irish dancing to it. For example, you’ll see the Spanish dancer dancing to Spanish music. We have a Spanish piece now in our show, well the music is quite Spanish, it’s a duet with myself and a guy. It is actually a very Spanish flavoured piece but it’s Irish dancing that’s danced to it.

But definitely Riverdance and Michael Flatley have done wonders for Irish dancing. I mean they’ve opened the door. I would definitely say that Michael Flatley is my biggest idol and he’s probably my biggest influence.

Have you ever met him?

I have actually, I met him about 5 years ago on his opening night in the Point Depot. I actually had the chance to dance in Lord of the Dance when it originally opened but I was still going through college at the time and my dad said no, you have to finish your exams first.

Are you actually on the video? (Lord of the dance/the making of)

No, I never actually went to dance there with them at that particular time, I decided to stay in college and finish the exams first.

Do you regret it?

No, I don’t regret it now, because I like what I’m doing. I mean Lord of the dance would be one of my favourite shows, even more so than Riverdance. But I do feel that in the last year or so he’s actually taken it to a level where to me there’s nothing Irish about the show any more.

You mean Feet of Flames?

Yes, it’s very vague. But it’s great, people love to be entertained, they love bright lights, they’ll love that show. But I just feel that you could go in there and sit there for two hours - it’s a fantastic show and he’s a masterpiece, you see he’s a master of his own arts, he’s class to watch - but I just feel that I could sit there and there’s nothing Irish about that show at all. Nothing, even the music is not really Irish any more.

The original show is much more Irish.

It’s much more Irish, yes. But you have to be careful about what you’re doing. Even with this show, we never get complacent with what we have. We’ve changed the choreography and we put new pieces in every time we come back.

You keep developing?

We do! We never stop developing. Because what happens is, we put in a piece and other shows come to see it and then your whole concept is taken freely. In this market you have to be one step ahead all the time. But what we would like to achieve when we put in a new piece is to try and accommodate what we would think the public would like, so that’s what I always think. If I was sitting out there in the audience what would I like to hear or see. And sometimes you come up with good ones and sometimes you come up with bad ones, that’s just the luck of the game. Then different things work in different countries. What might work in Denmark might not work in Germany or Holland and that’s the flexibility we have. We have a stack of music, we have a library, and we change our songs every so often. And things like that, we change pieces of the show.

Do you still have singers Brendan Feenley and Darran Holden as mentioned in the original program?

No, they’ve long departed as well. We now have Dave Flynn and Bridget Nolan.

Here’s a question the dancers amongst us might like to read about - Do you prefer hard shoe dance or soft shoe dance? What kind of shoes do you use?

I much prefer hard shoe, which is very unique for a female, because in Irish dancing the female would tend to dance more in the soft shoe. In the past it’s always been suggested that the female is obviously a lot more graceful than the gents. So it used to be the gents that used to wear the hard shoes. But my first love is the sound and I think Irish dancing is definitely all about sound. I mean the light dancing, it’s nice and it’s graceful to look at. But hundreds who come to see a show, they want to hear that sound. To see it, it’s like a magical kind of a thing, you see a line of dancers make the same movement at the same time and making sound to the music (thrilling) Yes!

Do you get your shoes specially made for you?

I do. I get them made in a place called Fays in Dublin and it takes about 2 ½ to 3 weeks to have them made. He specially hand-makes them for me.

How long do they last?

I don’t get very long out of mine, I’m terrible. I got a new pair about three weeks ago and I got one week out of them.

Have you got enough time to get new ones?

No. And they’re so hard to break in because they’re pure leather. You can have them personally made in different ways. Like Michael Flatley, he wears a tap shoe which is not really an Irish dancing shoe, he wears pure tap shoes. What I wear is a leather shoe and the tap on the top of it is a fibreglass tip. So it has a fibreglass tipped heel and a fibreglass top. (But you click the sides as well?) Yes. (Is there fibreglass in there as well?) It is, it’s fibreglass on the heel and fibreglass on the toes. It’s the magic of Irish dancing, because you can work from the toes to the heels, you can work any way with them. (And do the sides of the shoes have fibreglass?) That has fibreglass on it, yes. So when we dance the sound guy hooks mini microphones to my shoes and he cellotapes them on the side, you’ll see them, and they come with a backpack. It means that every tap that’s made can be heard out front. So you have to be on your toes!

I saw Tap Dogs some time ago and they had big microphones tied to their legs and they were tapping so fiercely that the microphones went flying through the air.

Oh that happens to us as well, yes! Some mishaps sometimes!

All right, well, those were my questions to you, thank you very much, and then you can still have some time before the show!

Great, thank you!

Hear Aisling say hello to the fans at the Celtic Cafe! Click here.

"Irish is my speciality but I would try anything. I think once you’re a dancer you’ll slip in and out of so many different things - you really have to be versatile nowadays, because the audiences want bigger and better things and they don’t just want to go and see a line for an hour. They want to see different things and people’s expectations now are a lot greater than they would have been even when Riverdance started 5 years ago."

 

Interview with Aisling Holly