For Marty Dowds, Irish stepdancing isn't just a dance, it's his life.
As a young lad growing up in the northwest Irish town of Donegal, Dowds joined a stepdancing class after his grandma thought the exercise would help with his asthma. He and his family realized soon after how naturally talented Dowds was at the art form and by the time he was 16, he had won the All Ireland, British National, and World Championship Irish dance competitions.
In 1997, just after he turned 17, Dowds joined the Irish stepdancing phenomenon "Riverdance" and for 13 years he danced on stages across the world.
Dowds and the rest of the "Riverdance" crew traveled all over America throughout Europe and in parts of Asia.
"It's pretty amazing all the places you end up traveling to," said Dowds, now 31. "My favorite was forming the 'Riverdance' line on the Great Wall of China for a documentary."
After 17 years, the internationally acclaimed celebration of Irish music, song and dance is performing its final North American shows this year, with a two-show run Saturday at the Orpheum Theater.
Dowds retired from "Riverdance" three years ago to open his own Irish dance studio here in Omaha, but sometimes still misses performing with his old friends in front of an audience.
Dowds said he's excited to catch up with friends and watch one of the final North American performances.
"I still have a lot of old friends in the show and I'll meet the new guys, but they'll be tired so hopefully they'll be up for a visit," Dowds said. "It will be tough hearing stories about how they were in Hawaii for Christmas, that's when I miss it."
Now, Dowds is trying to inspire others with Irish stepdancing at his dance studio, Dowds Irish Dance Academy at 3015 N. 90th St. Dowds said he settled in Omaha after meeting someone from here and favored Omaha's economic climate to Florida or California.
Dowds Irish Dance Academy opened last September and Dowds said it's going pretty well and is getting more people interested "slowly but surely." He said Irish dance has become a huge business thanks to traveling shows like "Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance."
"I think it's the style of dance that draws people in, as well as the shoes," Dowds said. "People love the noise and think the formations (of 'Riverdance') are amazing. Everything is so put together and fits so well. It's amazing to see live. You get goosebumps."
Dowds said "Riverdance" and Irish stepdancing is much more than just the fast flapping legs that everyone thinks it is. He said it requires a lot of dedication and a passion for celebrating a time-honored Irish tradition.
"I would tell anyone thinking about getting into stepdancing to just try it out," Dowds said. "You meet lots of people, you get to experience and enjoy something new and more than likely, you'll fall in love with it."
What is "Riverdance"?
Chances are you've seen some sort of take on the Irish phenomenon “Riverdance.”
The flailing legs that move so fast they're a blur, the super stiff arms, the sparkly green costumes are all common images, but there's more to Irish stepdancing, and the 17-year-old show that celebrates it, than the eye can (or can't) see.
Irish stepdancing has two forms, the hard and the soft shoe. Dancers start out with the soft shoe, which resembles a ballet slipper, and learn basic steps for about two years.
After two years of dancing with the soft shoe, dancers progress to a hard shoe, which sounds similar to a tap shoe. The hard shoe has fiberglass tips, unlike a tap shoe which has metal. The fiberglass makes the shoe lighter and increases the sound of the footwork. Dancers have stiff upper bodies to contrast with the rapid footwork.
There are two different styles of dancing, solo and team competitive dance. Teams can be as small as four and as large as 16 people.
“Riverdance” incorporates both styles of Irish stepdancing into its shows, and much more.
The show includes both Irish stepdancing, traditional tap dancing, flamenco dancing as well as choirs and bands performing Irish music.
“Riverdance” is more than just dance. It's a celebration of Irish culture, tradition and history that has propelled Irish dancing and music into the present day.