‘You need passion to get to the top’ - Jean Butler on life after Riverdance
Life & Style

‘You need passion to get to the top’ - Jean Butler on life after Riverdance

JEAN Butler isn’t sure about the next generation of young Irish dancers competing at the World Championships. 

Speaking down the line from her home in New York, the well-recognised dancer, who burst onto the world stage in 1994 with Riverdance, isn’t a fan of the one-size fits all approach adopted by some Irish dance schools.

"It makes me feel conflicted,” she says. “Appearances and costumes were always an important part of Irish dancing, but I guess my conflict is with the homogenous look that does not encourage personal style. The fact that they all look alike gets to me more.

"Globalisation has almost wiped clean the idea of the Irish diaspora," adds Butler, who now lectures at New York University.

"In my day you could tell different dancers from different schools, never mind different countries, because there was personal style. That was highly valued. As the dancing becomes more impressively athletic there comes a narrowing of style. And you can't stop that. Tradition is an interesting thing. It lives in the people's hands."

It's hard to believe that 20 years have passed since that incredible night in 1994 when Riverdance exploded onto the world stage at Eurovision. Within a year and a half of that performance, however, Butler had left the show. She recently told an interviewer that she made the decision because she felt she "could never dance better than I did".

"I do remember saying that,” she says. “I felt that I had worked very hard in creating that female role and at that age and time it was time to move on.

"There was nothing left for me to offer and I wanted to do other things. It was an incredible opportunity to train while dancing. I was a professional dancer dancing with The Chieftains before that, that was different dancing and a different agenda.

"I met with some friends last night from the original production and we were saying 'it's 20 years since Eurovision', as opposed to the start of the show. It's extraordinary. A lot has happened for everyone since then and in particular for Irish dancing. It's certainly bigger and the net is cast much wider. Certainly everybody knows what it is now."

Riverdance catapulted Irish dancing onto the world stage and inspired thousands of young people to look at a form of dance that perhaps they wouldn't otherwise have tried, but for Butler its success was particularly satisfying, for one reason alone.

She continued: "Riverdance was a really incredible moment for me. I feel like it represented a generation of Irish dancers who spent their lives in this art form, but never really had public recognition.

"I think Riverdance realised a lot for my generation of dancers because the stereotype of Irish dancing before that moment was not a positive one. For that reason alone it was just extraordinary. It was delightful that it happened. When we were dancing the image was not incredibly positive for people who didn't know this world. Riverdance turned that on its head."

She describes her then co-star Michael Flatley as "the ultimate professional, the ultimate stage man". The pair stunned audiences around the globe with their ability and their dedication to what was a truly ground-breaking production. I ask her what is more important for a young dancer, ambition or talent. Her response is . . . neither.

"Passion overrides both of those things. You really have to love what you do. You have to have your future rooted in what you do. Talent has to be there. The one thing that keeps it all together is the passion.

"You have to love the art of dancing and being on the stage. As a culture nowadays the younger generation just want to get to the top so quickly, they forget there's an apprenticeship. You need to know your art form and the artists around you. You need passion."

And the one piece of advice she would give to any young girl dreaming of becoming the next Jean Butler?

"There's so much . . . be patient. That includes being patient with yourself. Work hard and expect results to come at a pace you direct. You can't expect results overnight. As you grow your dancing is going to change. Patience is really important. Don't forget the passion, your love of Irish dancing."

NYU is Butler's lecturing base these days and you can tell she adores what she is doing there.

"It's very interesting, I'm realising just how different our reference points are, the students and me. They're not dancers so they bring a whole new set of questions to the table. I'm so related to the subject in so many ways. It's really, really rewarding. I think dance scholarships are benefiting from looking at Irish dancing as a cultural form."

And living in New York, with everything it has to offer, must be a fantastic buzz too?

"It's busy, it's hectic, it's loud and it's dirty! It energises me and it's completely fulfilling. It's also very close to Ireland, which is handy!"

Jean's younger sister Cara is a huge talent too and it's plain that she has huge admiration for her sibling's dancing ability (though you can imagine that constantly being referred to as 'Jean Butler's sister' perhaps gets annoying for Cara!)

She added: "I'm her biggest fan. She has been with The Chieftains for 22 years and continues to dance in a traditional style, she has pretty much made it her own. For a mature dance she can get up there with the best and the youngest of them. She has really evolved, there's no one better."

So what now for the girl who had the world in awe as she made Riverdance into a global phenomenon?

"I want to keep dancing and pushing the boundaries of what Irish dancing can do, at a level that's not commercial. It's an artistic journey about understanding my body and how all this training has impacted itself on my body."