Life on the road for a Riverdance pro is hectic but ‘happy’

By Sally Ehrmann and Michaela Schirra
Medill Reports

Riverdance has dazzled fans onstage with sparkling costumes, rhythmic beats and lightning-fast footwork for 25 years. The dancers behind the showcase blend artistry and athleticism that is nothing short of spectacular.

Patrick O’Mahony, 33, began Irish dancing at the age of two in his hometown of Rusheen, Ballylongford, Co Kerry. Following passion and talent, O’Mahony won titles and danced all over the world. Today, he is a Male Lead Dancer with Riverdance, where he will go on tour for six months at a time showcasing the Celtic choreography to the world. He performs in Chicago through Sunday at the Cadillac Palace Theater in downtown Chicago as part of the Riverdance 25th anniversary season.

O’Mahony has some roots — and plans — laid down in Chicago. You’ll get that scoop on that at the close of this Q&A.

When did you know you wanted to be a professional dancer?

When I saw Riverdance. Before Riverdance, there were no tours going out of Irish dance shows or anything. Riverdance kind of put it on the map for Irish dancers and gave us a reason to continue dancing. We could turn our hobby into our careers.

Tell us about your journey to becoming a Riverdance dancer.

I began dancing when I was two years old. I was going to dance class with my aunt. They saw that I was bumping my head to the music, and then they knew that I had timing. So, they decided to let me go down onto the floor. I don’t really remember not dancing. I continued dancing, but I didn’t really know where I was going with it. It was something I did at school and then after school I would go to another teacher. Then it was 1994. That kind of changed everything. I was eight years old. I was just blown away by what I saw on TV and the Eurovision. And then of course, they brought out the Riverdance tour. And, it kept me going. That’s why I continued and stayed dancing because I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So, I auditioned in late 2010, early 2011. I was in the show in 2012. In my first tour, we went to Australia and New Zealand. I’ve been with them since.

Did you have any special training in your childhood?

So, in Ireland, it’s kind of different. You go to regular school, and then Irish dance is a class you take in school. The teacher comes in and he teaches you the basics. It’s only probably 45 minutes out of your day in that class. But then, obviously, if you have a passion for it and the dance teacher sees that you’re actually good at it, they’ll advise the parents and just say, you know, ‘I think you should bring him to a private tutor.’ So, then you go to a private tutor, and you could be doing anything up to five nights a week on top of your five days in school. That’s what happened to me. They saw that I had a talent and they advised my parents and my grandma to send me to a private tutor. I went to the private tutor for years and I’m still friends with him. It’s this little studio in Co Kerry called Rinceoiri Na Riochta. It’s a great studio.

Looking at your tour schedule, it seems kind of hectic. What does your daily life look like?

We have every Monday off. That can consist of staying in the same city that we’re in. For instance, we’re in Chicago now. We traveled on Monday which would have been our day off. But we’re actually staying in Chicago this coming Monday and then we’re traveling to our next city on a Tuesday. So we get a full day off, which is really, really good. And you could do anything from one city a week to four cities a week. You travel straight into a show.

Get into your hotel, you get ready, go to work, run stage. We’re on stage at 10 after six. It’s called rotations. We do that so that everybody knows exactly where they are and we’ll tidy up whatever we need to do. Make sure that people are doing what they’re supposed to do. And then the show will start depending on what time the theater has us down for. Then we’ll finish around 9:40 and then some of us will just go for food, come home, get into bed, and then we get up in the morning. Same thing. A lot of us will go to the gym and will train and stuff and catch up with family. A lot of us have online businesses and stuff going on. I’m a personal trainer so I’ve got online times. It’s pretty full, but everybody loves it. We wouldn’t be on the road if we didn’t love it.

From the show, it seems that the dancers have a pretty good relationship as well. What’s the dynamic between the performers?

We’re just all one big family. You have to be. We’re on tour for the next six months and it’s not just about how good of a dancer you are. It’s also how you interact with the people. We all get along so well. We’re here for each other. If somebody gets sick, we’ll step up and do extra numbers for that person.

What is the most challenging part about being a professional dancer?

For me – it probably wouldn’t be for everybody – but it’s leaving your family for so long. You miss out on a lot of things like birthdays and special occasions like that. That would be the hardest thing. But, obviously we have FaceTime and we Skype so that makes things easier. It’s the path that I chose, and I’m happy with it.

What would you do if you weren’t a professional dancer?

I’m pretty good at woodworking, like carpentry and stuff. So, I probably would have gone into that field. Interior design, something along the lines of that. But, that all changed when I became a dancer. I wanted to learn about the body. I went back to college and got my personal training degree. It was interesting to learn how the body actually works. I want to be a masseur now, and I’d like to go on and do sports psychology. So, I’ve taken a completely different path all together.

What is your special connection to Chicago?

My aunt and her husband and my uncle and his wife, they live in Jefferson Park. And they have two kids each so there’s four cousins here all together. And then I have a grand uncle who lives here, and his family is here too. I spend a lot of time in Chicago so it’s kind of like a little home for me. I might actually want to call Chicago home in the near future. Chicago has an Irish feel to it. I’m blessed to have family here as well. Everyone is drawn to Chicago. This is where I want to settle down eventually.

What makes Riverdance unique?

It’s a timeless piece. It’ll never go out of fashion. The music is amazing. The music has been remastered for this tour so you hear some different tweaks in the music from the original. The costumes, our lines when we all come out. It’s like the Irish version of the Rockettes. I can’t put it into words. The feeling that it gives you when you can see all the dancers up there dancing the exact same thing at the exact same time. Then the music on top of that and the costumes, and the lights and the visuals. There’s been life pumped back into it. It’s amazing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Photo at top: Patrick O’Mahony followed a talent and passion for dance to become a Riverdance Irish dancer. He joined the cast in 2012 and will be performing in Chicago through Sunday.
(Courtesy of Riverdance)
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By Michaela Schirra and Sally Ehrmann