A Jig Gig

October 31, 2009

Siobhan (front row, left) and the Flying Squad in costume. Photo courtesy Siobhan Burke

In 2005, after years of studying traditional Irish dance and competing in national and world championships, then-19-year-old Siobhan Burke earned the Irish dance world’s equivalent of the holy grail: a spot in the North American touring company of
Riverdance. Since the Northampton, MA, native is an academic as well as dance superstar, she juggled her Riverdance performances with classes at Barnard College of Columbia University, from which she graduated in 2008 with a degree in American Studies and a minor in dance. Shortly after graduation, Siobhan joined the editorial staff of Dance Magazine, continuing to perform sporadically. This past summer, she was invited to dance on Martha’s Vineyard with the Riverdance Flying Squad, a pickup troupe (comprised mostly of former Riverdance company members) that entertains at special events like conferences, fundraisers and award shows. Siobhan brought along her notebook to document her weekend with the Flying Squad for DS. —Margaret Fuhrer

Friday, June 12

I’m not much of a morning person, but there’s something exciting—and, well, maybe a little bit stressful—about waking up early for a day of travel. At 6:30 am, I’m racing through Penn Station in NYC, convinced I’m going to miss my 6:40 train to Boston. What a relief when I spot a few of the other NYC-based Flying Squad dancers—Eireann McCormack, Tim Kochka and Kyle O’Connor—running just as late as I am. On the train, we meet up with two more dancers, Caitlin Allen and Ryan McCaffrey, and hunker down for the first leg of our day-long trek out to Martha’s Vineyard.

In total, 12 of us are coming together from NYC, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Boston, Toronto and Ireland to perform. The occasion is a benefit dinner and auction for the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, an organization that helps preserve the island’s historic landmarks. The benefit is the group’s major fundraising event of the year, and we’re going to be the evening’s entertainment. I’ll be dancing in two group numbers: the signature “Riverdance” and the rousing finale, “Heartland.” Also on the program: “Distant Thunder,” a crowd-pleaser danced by the men in the troupe.

In Boston, we meet up with three more dancers and our trip coordinator. After two more hours on the bus and another on a ferry, we finally arrive at the Vineyard and are joined by the rest of the troupe.

We’re surprised to find that the gig will be happening outside, under a lavish tent next to the historic Daniel Fisher House, a 19th-century mansion in the village of Edgartown. (Our “backstage,” a tiny wooden cabin nestled away behind the tent, is a landmark in itself, the oldest property on the island.) Ryan, who starred as the male lead in Riverdance for many years, is our designated dance captain. He helps us rework some of the typically large-scale dances for the small outdoor stage, which is tricky. In “Heartland,” for instance, the group usually starts shoulder-to-shoulder on a small platform upstage before marching down a set of stairs and dispersing into three horizontal lines. But here we have no stairs, and not much distance to cover during the 16-count march. It feels a little awkward, but I take it as a chance to hone my “walk in place, but look like you’re going somewhere” skills.

Saturday, June 13

With nowhere to be until 4 pm, a group of us take a stroll around Edgartown, then accept a cab driver’s offer to give us a tour of the island. We end up at the pristine Menemsha Beach, where we soak up some sunshine before heading back to the village for a late-afternoon run-through on stage. Surprisingly, I’m not feeling sore from yesterday’s rehearsal, but whenever I jump back into Irish dancing after a few months off, I worry about getting injured. With a couple of hours to go before showtime, I do a long yoga warm-up, plenty of stretching, and a quick “refresher course” on some of the more intricate steps to make sure I’m feeling stable and strong.

As the evening’s 250 guests take their seats for dinner, they have no idea that after appetizers, Riverdance will be next on the menu; the benefit’s organizers have kept us a secret. When the boys appear onstage for “Distant Thunder,” the crowd goes wild, and the enthusiasm only builds for the next two numbers. It feels amazing to be part of something that can ignite so much energy in a room. It reminds me that I love to perform, something I come close to forgetting amidst the fast pace of life and work in NYC.

Our day’s dancing isn’t quite done. During our late-night dinner at an Italian restaurant, a table of local fishermen—the only other customers in the place—offer us a plate of their “catch of the day,” which the restaurant’s chef has cooked for them. We gobble it up, and they beg us to show them some dancing in exchange. A few of us jump up for a quick rendition of “Reel Around the Sun” (the opening number from Riverdance) in between the tables, which gets us a big round of applause. After dinner, curious about the Vineyard nightlife, we go out for some non-Irish dancing at a local club and continue the dance party back at the guesthouse.

Sunday, June 14

On the long trip home the next day—ferry to bus to train to subway—I remember all those moments over the years, finishing up a Riverdance tour, when I’ve thought, “Well, that’s it! My last performance.” Despite those inklings, another opportunity always seems to be waiting around the corner—like this one. I hope it’s not too long before another Riverdance adventure carries me away.