As the spirited step dancer and international star of Riverdance, Michael Flatley shattered records, silenced doubters, revolutionized an ancient dance form, and brought joy to millions of people worldwide. After finding his calling at the age of eleven, when he was "dragged by the ears" to dance school, Michael went on to become the first American to win the World Irish Dancing Championship.
In this no-holds-barred autobiography, Michael explains what really happened backstage at Riverdance -- and why and how he launched one of the greatest show business success stories of all time, Lord of the Dance. He also discusses his life as a dancer -- the hours of rigorous training and the drama behind his controversial rise to stardom. Filled with commentary from family, friends, colleagues, and celebrities and brimming with Michael's Irish charm and good humor, this book is the very personal story of a man who has lived life to the fullest according to his own credo: Nothing is impossible.
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Michael Flatley has performed his electrifying brand of Irish step dancing all over the world to an audience of millions. His most recent show, Celtic Tiger, is currently touring the world.
Douglas Thompson is the author of more than twenty books. A biographer, broadcaster, and international journalist, he is a regular contributor to major newspapers and magazines worldwide.
Chapter One: Playing It by Ear
I love the flute because it's the one instrument in the world where you can feel your own breath. When I play, I can feel my breath with my fingers. It's as if I'm speaking from my soul.
Today, most people know me as a dancer and choreographer, the star and creator of the world-famous Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Not everyone remembers that I'm also a musician, winner of two All-Ireland Flute Championships, and creator of two flute albums that include some of my own original melodies.
My road to becoming a professional flautist had some rocky patches, however. The story begins, like so many other good things in my life, with my father.
My father is a big, broad-shouldered man with a heart as huge as a lion's. He's from County Sligo in western Ireland, a miraculous area with an absolute wealth of musical tradition. He was always whistling the old Irish tunes -- he seemed to know every single one. He never had a formal lesson in his life but he had an ear for the music. At home, he'd play one old LP after another, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, Sligo music, flutes and fiddlers, Seamus Tansey, Kevin Henry, Matt Molloy -- the musicians who are still my heroes, even after all these years.
I listened and learned and fell in love with the music. It was the flute that took my fancy. I loved the sound of it. Maybe, too, I wanted to make my dad proud. I knew how much he loved the music. And he knew how enthusiastic I was about learning to play -- but we didn't have the money to buy me an instrument.
Somehow, though, my father got hold of an old wooden flute, the kind they must have used in the old country where everybody was too poor to buy proper instruments. To have a wooden flute to play! It was absolutely everything to me. I can't ever explain how happy my father's gift made me.
My father didn't see the difference between that wooden flute and the shiny silver ones they used on the record albums -- and neither did I. But my father did know that the only way to learn to play properly was to be able to read music. "That's how you get to be good," he told me. And I wanted to make him proud.
Since we didn't have money for lessons, I started working at it on my own. Every chance I got, I'd blow on that little wooden flute, sometimes for hours at a time. My poor mother, God bless her, trying to raise five kids on very little money, didn't share my enthusiasm for what must have been a dreadful noise. "Mickey," she'd snap at me, "will you stop blowing your brains out through that flute!"
Maybe, I thought, I would sound better with some lessons. I knew there was a music shop called Q and F on Seventy-ninth Street in our southwest Chicago neighborhood where you could find teachers. I started saving all the nickels, dimes, and quarters I got for doing chores. It seemed to take the longest time but finally I'd saved up what seemed to me a huge amount of money -- almost nine dollars. Surely that would be enough.
One Sunday afternoon I decided to go over there and find out what my nine dollars could buy. I took hold of my precious wooden flute and set off. We didn't exactly live in the best neighborhood back then, and my journey took me through some even worse ones. Past Damon Avenue. Over to Western. It was a blazing hot day, and I was getting really thirsty. How long had I been walking now -- an hour? Two hours? Every few minutes I had to cross another big busy street, and while I'd've died rather than admit it, I was scared.
I remember one kind lady who stopped me to ask if I was all right. I must have been quite a sight -- a little eight-year-old kid clutching his wooden flute for dear life.
"Are you lost?" she asked me. No, I told her, I knew exactly where I was headed -- the Q and F music store. In fact, I assured her, I was almost there.
"Oh, no, it's much further on," she told me, and pointed out the way. There was nothing for it but to keep going.
Finally, I found the shop. By now my face was all runny with sweat and I would've killed for a cold drink. But it would all be worth it, I thought, when I got my proper lessons. I'd be able to read music. And my father would be so proud.
I walked into the shop and looked around shyly. I hadn't expected such a crowd, and what was left of my courage seemed to evaporate. What was I doing in such a fancy store? Up at the counter, a young girl with braces and frizzy hair was standing there like she owned the place, while her mother arranged to get her lessons on the guitar.
Then I noticed the huge glass case to one side. It was full of beautiful silver flutes. I stared at it in awe. One day, I thought, I'd have a flute like that.
Somehow I found my way into the line of customers and waited patiently until it was my turn. "Yes? Can I help you?" asked the large woman behind the counter. I was too nervous to answer her. "Can I help you?" she repeated.
"Yes," I finally answered. "I want to take flute lessons."
"Where's your mom and dad?" she asked.
I didn't have an answer for that question. "I want to take flute lessons," I repeated.
"Well, first," she said in a quick, impatient way, "normally, you're supposed to start with piano lessons. You have to learn the whole scale and understand music and octaves, and then we go on to the flute."
"I just want to learn to play the flute," I answered. "I don't want to learn the piano because we couldn't fit one in our house."
Everyone stared at me. In the back, a customer laughed.
"Well," said the counterwoman. "How many lessons? When do you want to start? How many times a week?" She rattled off the questions really fast, as though she was angry with me. But I was ecstatic. Finally, I thought, we were getting somewhere.
"At least once a week to begin with," I said proudly. "Then we can go for more."
My answer seemed to make her angrier than ever. "Who's going to pay for this, son?"
Her anger disappeared in a flash as she started to laugh. It seemed as though everyone in the store was laughing, too.
"Well," I made myself ask, "how much are they?"
"Oh, son," she said. "They're eight dollars an hour. Five dollars for half an hour."
All of a sudden I couldn't breathe. Everyone was still looking at me.
"Do you even have a flute?" she asked me. I swallowed nervously. "Sonny boy, please make up your mind," she said. "There's people behind you."
Did I already guess what was coming? I took out my flute, the gift from my dad, and showed it to her. The whole shop roared with laughter.
"That's not a flute," she told me, pointing to the glass case. "These are flutes!"
I'm nearly crying writing about it. I was such a little kid. I thought it was going to be the best day in my life and it turned out to be my worst nightmare.
I felt my face getting red. My whole body got hot. She looked at me for the longest minute in my life. Then she said, "Next in line, please."
I couldn't get out of that store fast enough. I ran all the way home, hotter, thirstier, and more out of breath than ever. When I burst in through the front door, there was my dad, sitting on the couch.
"Mick. Mick. Where the hell did you go to? Why don't you play a tune for me? I've just got home from work. Come on. Make Daddy happy, play a tune for me on your flute."
I looked at him and ran straight up the stairs. "What's the matter with Mick?" I could hear him saying.
I ran into my room and I flung the flute under the bed. I didn't play it for six months. I couldn't even look under the bed. If anyone asked me, I said the flute music was stupid and I didn't want to play it again.
Months later my dad put on an LP of Irish tunes.
I don't know what was different about that day. My heart was crying but for some reason, my determination kicked in. "I can play that," I thought. "I can." And I went to get my flute from under the bed. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done, but I knew I had to do it. I held the wooden object in my hand, staring at it for a moment. Then I put it to my lips and blew my first note. Even to my own ears, it sounded dreadful -- sour and flat -- but I carried on. That day and the next and the one after that. By the end of the week, I had done it. I taught myself how to play an Irish tune -- by ear.
To this day, I can't read a note of music. But I can bloody well play the flute.
Dancer Kevin McCormac, talking in Dublin in February 2004, recalled an evening a decade earlier: "One night we all went to The Ferryman pub where they play traditional music, and Michael brought his flute along, and some others brought their instruments, and a regular Saturday session was on. By the end of the night, Michael was leading the session. He played the tunes and everyone else was following. It was the first time we heard Michael play music, and he is an amazing musician."
When I won the All-Ireland Concert Flute Championships in 1975, at the age of seventeen, I used a silver flute. That victory was sweet -- but something was missing. So the next year, I entered the contest using an old wooden flute, just like the one I'd first learned to play. It brought me my second All-Ireland championship.
Today, I own a vast selection of flutes, including a rare nineteenth-century Rudall and Rose. I can have my pick of any type of flute I want. But when I recorded my second album in 2003 -- playing my own music -- I decided again to use my old wooden flute.
I love the flute -- and apparently, I'm not the only one. In March 2004, I put my flute composition "Barbados Blues" on my Web site, www.MichaelFlatley.com. Within a month, the melody had gotten more than two million hits. I like to think that maybe some of them were the same people who laughed at that scared little kid in the Q and F music shop, all those years ago. Copyright ©2006 by Michael Flatley
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