'Riverdance' veteran's St. Paul Irish dance school thrives


Cormac O'Shea, an original "Riverdance" performer, has taught scores of young students how to put their best feet forward.

By BILL WARD bill.ward@startribune.com



Last update: May 7, 2009 - 8:16 AM

"Hop-2-3-step-hop-step-hop-1-2-3-4," Cormac O'Shea booms out as a gaggle of girls prances about in anything but unison.

"You've gotta grind it out. 1-2-3-step-click-right-2-3.

"I think we have hunchbacks or something here," O'Shea finally says with a smile, stooping over to demonstrate.

Actually, it's difficult for O'Shea, who's a strapping 6 feet 5, to look even remotely like Quasimodo. But the attempt reflects the firm but fun approach he brings to his dance lessons, steeped in two Irish traditions: dance and joie de vivre.

The "Riverdance" phenomenon not only spawned widespread interest in Irish dancing but also brought O'Shea to Minnesota. An original cast member in 1995, he met a local lass named Natalie while on tour at the Orpheum Theater and married her a few years later. They eventually settled here and started the O'Shea Irish School of Dance in 2005. Participation has since increased tenfold, with 110 young hoofers currently keeping the O'Sheas hopping.

Many of those students will attend Sunday's performance of "Riverdance's Farewell Tour," then go to a party at the O'Sheas' new studio in St. Paul's Midway area. While the 10,000-plus "Riverdance" performances over the years have prompted some youngsters to take up this form of step-dancing, O'Shea said the 10 million videos sold have had a more marked effect.

"A lot of my inquiries come from 'Hey, my kid got the video and loved it,'" he said. "I think the parents like it because it's a very wholesome thing, a worthwhile form of dance without their children needing to be explicit, dressed provocatively."

A different physical aspect of this amalgam of music and dance appealed to one local parent.

"When Kelly was 6, she wanted to do soccer or ballet," said her mother, Kerry Reiling of Minneapolis. "I said, let's do Irish dance because it's a mix of being very athletic and very creative."

Four years later, the Reilings are as avid as ever.

"Cormac is really talented at intermingling kids of different ages and abilities," Reiling said. "He's really good about having them master the level they're at before advancing. He doesn't want them to have disappointment.

"He's also really patient, welcoming in a loving, nice way. A lot of girls at that age are giddy and want to chat, but he gets the most out of that hour and a half [lesson]."

Crossover potential

O'Shea, who resembles a tall John Cusack with body by Justin Morneau, comes by his teaching skills naturally. He was born in Dublin in 1977, six years after his parents, Seamus and Aine ui O'Se, started what soon became the city's most renowned dance school, Scoil Rince ui She. By age 4, he was dancing, and at age 16 he and his sister were part of the first "Riverdance" performance, on April 30, 1994, in Dublin.

The ripple effect was almost immediate.

"It inspired a lot of young people to take up Irish dance," said Barry Bergey, director of folk and traditional arts at the National Endowment for the Arts. "It exposed people to a level of dance expertise and a presentation of dance that hadn't been seen before. There's a precision and quality that you don't see elsewhere."

O'Shea stayed with the troupe until 2000, performing before millions in person and even more on TV -- David Letterman, "The Today Show" -- before retiring at the crusty old age of 22.

"I got the best years. I got to see the conception and all the good ideas come and go," he said. "And I met a beautiful Minnesota woman."

So now he and that woman find themselves back in her hometown, teaching kids a centuries-old art form that is foreign even to those with ballet experience.

Irish dance "requires a degree of intelligence," O'Shea added, because of an essential but somewhat counterintuitive step. "The most unique art of Irish dance is the crossed feet and the turned-out feet," he said, demonstrating with his size-12 feet. "Ballet, tap, modern dance have an emphasis on turned-out feet but not crossed. If you get the crossover and the turnout, man, the world is there for you."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643