The woman who helped Michael Flatley conquer the world with Lord of the Dance tells Fiona O’Brien about her highs and lows as she publishes her memoir
“I had no idea that Irish dancing would open doors that would lead me to an international career of sorts,” says Marie Duffy. The Irish dancing expert has, true to her word, travelled the world with her schools, but it is her two-decade long relationship with Michael Flatley which has gone on to define her career.
In her memoir Lady of the Dance, written with Irish showbiz writer Eddie Rowley, Flatley gives the foreword. It starts simply: “Marie Duffy is a legend. I have known Marie as close as a ‘sister’ for more than twenty years and known of her reputation for even longer.
“It was that reputation as a driven and motivated teacher, choreographer and promotor of Irish dance that made Marie Duffy the only person I could choose to help realize my vision for Lord of the Dance.”
Acknowledging the fact that the pair would rarely speak in such open and gushing compliments in day to day life, Marie simply says that Michael ‘did a great job’ with his work on the book.
“We speak at least weekly. I was on TV3 with Eddie recently to promote the book and he made sure he checked in with how well it went.
“The book initially was all Eddie’s idea. I joke that it is all his fault! He interviewed me when I first retired from Lord of the Dance, and it was then that he asked if I had ever contemplating putting it all down on paper. I am so proud of it now though that it is published.
“Especially with the reaction it has been getting. People are saying that they are staying up all night to read it, and that they are laughing one minute, and in tears the next.”
The reviews sum up the book, and Marie’s life. One of the biggest professional events in her life happened alongside her biggest personal low, and the death of her husband. But it starts with Marie’s own upbringing in Crumlin, Dublin. With her first ever Irish dancing lesson, with the support of her mother and Aunt Em, before she went on to become and instructor herself.
“Over the years Marie trained countless world champions and her attention to detail and perfectionism is something we connected on right from the start,” says Michael. “Marie has never been afraid to push the boundaries, and when we first met and I told her my ideas she never faltered or said that it can’t be done, but immediately jumped on board.”
This endorsement is key for some of Marie’s rather ‘out-there’ approaches to teaching. While in Elizabeth City in New Jersey, she wasn’t afraid to raise eyebrows and upset parents for the sake of her dancers and students.
“The first rule I introduced was to exclude parents from the class. When you have parents there the dancers are distracted. Sometimes when you give an instruction, their eyes go to the parents. So the parents had to go, which didn’t go down too well with them.”
It was when travelling America at Feiseanna that Marie’s path first crossed with Michael, a then 14-year-old protégé who was due to perform, and all the pre-show talk was about the boy from Chicago.
“I was intrigued by this young guy’s reputation and was looking forward to the day I would see him dance,” she says.
“It was his smiley face that first caught my attention when Michael was pointed out to me at a competition, as I finally got to watch him in action when he was about fourteen years old. He had gorgeous hair, laughing eyes and buckets of charm. Even before he took a step, I could see that this little guy had something special about him. In show business today, they call it the X factor. Whatever that is, it’s a magic ingredient.
“When Michael got up on stage that day, he charmed the judges. But he didn’t have to use his words, because his feet did the talking.
“I was just mesmerized watching him dance. He was way ahead of his time. Where everybody else was doing the solid rhythm and beat, Michael was performing syncopated stuff that had everybody asking, ‘Where are those sounds coming from? He only has one pair of feet, but it sounded like there were dozens of pairs hitting the floor. The sounds were coming from his toes, his heels, the middle of his shoes. All at the same time. He was amazing. I had never seen the like of it.”
The pair would bump into each other a few times more on the feis circuit, and as Marie notes, because of her own reputation, Michael would have known just as much about her as she did him.
“I remember meeting Michael later when I was over at another feis in America, with his younger brother Pat. They were two lovely, mannerly young guys.
“They were both familiar with Inis Ealga because by then our school was a huge name in the competitive world of Irish dancing, as we had won every title going in every age group.
“Our success would not have escaped Michael’s attention. He would have seen the performances of our solo dancers and the huge number of titles that they won. He would also have seen our choreography and figure dancing, so I guess that’s where Michael first noticed my work.
“Later, he had many of my dancers in his first lineup with Riverdance at the Eurovision, and I know that he appreciated their training and he knew that I was the teacher that trained them.”
But it wasn’t until many years later that the two would work together. Marie would watch with intrigue as Michael conquered the world with Riverdance. But just a week or so after she and her husband Ian went to see the show for themselves, the whole dynamic of their previous acquaintance- like relationship changed.
“It was a Saturday night February 1996. I got home to a voicemail message,” she recalls.
“As I listened to the message, the voice was unmistakable. ‘Hello, is this the Marie Duffy I’m looking for? This is Michael Flately here. If it is, can you call me back.’
“I never imagined how that call would change the course of the rest of my life.”
At the time she and Ian lived in Prudhoe in Northumberland and Marie called Michael back straight away.
“At this stage Michael had left Riverdance in controversial circumstances, conflict between him and Moya Doherty his role in the show.
“He was an unstoppable force of nature. Everybody who knew Michael believed that he’d be back. He had too much talent, genius, passion and drive to fade away, despite being dropped by the sensational new dance extravaganza.”
Michael said he was organising a new show, and auditioning in Dublin and would she like to come along and be involved. The pair did not look back since.
“As he walked in he looked like a guy who had just won the lottery. He was all fired up with excitement.”
The auditions garnered so much interest that the queues went around the block, and Marie fondly remembers how she enjoyed the first show at Dublin’s old Point theatre.
“That night is a piece of magic that will never leave my mind. That’s the show I’ll always remember, seeing it for the first time with the applause of the Irish audience ringing in my ears.
“As the night went on, and I relaxed as I saw how smoothly the performance was running, a wave of emotion swept over me. I wish my mother could have seen it.”
The show went on to even bigger international success, and took a life of its own on, when Michael managed to book it on the Oscars show.
“The big prize for Michael would be success in America with Lord of the Dance. Most hugely ambitious and driven people in show business dream of cracking America, and Michael was no different. The difference with Michael is that he doesn’t just dream, he makes it happen.
“One of the most exciting aspects of working with Michael Flatley was feeding off his positivity. He is a super-positive person. So when Michael said, ‘We’re going to take this show to the Oscars’, I believed him.
“If we got the opportunity to perform at the Oscars in Los Angeles, it would put Lord of the Dance on the map in America and around the globe.
“It’s the biggest night of the year in show business, so pitching to get his show on to the stage at the 1997 Academy Awards was an inspired move. It has a worldwide audience of more than a billion people.
“‘We got it Marie. We got the Oscars.’ Michael told me one day. By the look on his face, you’d think he had hit the jackpot and cleaned out all the casinos in Las Vegas.
“‘Marie, what did I tell you? We’re going to put Irish dancing on the biggest stage in the world,’ he said, and gave me a huge hug.”
Marie notes that it was more than Michael’s talent, but his dogged determination and cheek that ensured his road for success.
“Is there anyone out there who had doubted him? Well, maybe a few. But they hadn’t factored in Michael’s power of positive thinking, enormous charm, charisma, stage wizardry and fearlessness.
“But ultimately it was his simple decision to just ask for Lord of the Dance to be considered as a performance act for the Oscars. If you don’t ask you don’t receive, as they say. All they can say is no. So Michael asked.”
But just days later Marie’s husband would be hospitalised, and she lost him just a year later. She threw herself into work, and it was from there that her relationship with Michael went from more than just professional. With hindsight, Marie says that work was an outlet for her in her time of grief.
“I fell to pieces after Ian’s death. Even before he died I wasn’t in a good place. It’s only now that I think back with horror to what I put people through at the time.
“My brother Seamus believed that throwing myself back in to work would help me through the dark days. And that’s what we did, I started arranging a huge tour.”
Marie is now based in Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire, where she still travels the 18 minutes by train to west London to teach at the Céim óir School of Irish dance in west London. And among many of the celebrity shoulder-rubbing anecdotes in her book, the most peculiar must be the time she travelled on Putin’s private jet with Pavarotti. The book also goes through Marie’s own battle with illness, and how she found love again.
As Michael finishes off: As he recalls: “She was there when my dreams had just been torn apart.
“We made history in the world of Irish dance in such a positive way. We have been on an incredible journey.
“We laughed and cried together and worked endless hours together in the pursuit of perfection.
“She has been a best friend and will always remain so. She has been unquestionable loyal to me and Lord of the Dance throughout all of my shows. And although she has retired I know she is always just a phone call away.”
• Lady Of The Dance by Marie Duffy and Eddie Rowley is available from O’Brien’s Press priced €19.99.