The world-famous dancer, choreographer and flutist Michael Ryan Flatley is the second of five children. He has three sisters, Anne-Marie, Eliza and Thomasina, as well as a brother, Patrick. His parents, Michael and Eilish, were both Irish-born but had migrated to the United States several years before Michael’s birth.
His father soon set about building up a successful construction business in Chicago having moved to the city from Detroit just two months after Michael was born. According to Michael, his father possessed a strong work ethic and extraordinary drive - both qualities that he feels he’s inherited in abundance.
Although Michael’s parents chose to leave Ireland and settle in America, they returned home frequently to visit family and friends, and Michael was raised with a strong sense of his cultural heritage. Both his mother and his grandmother, Hannah Ryan, were champion Irish dancers, so dance was definitely in his blood. Michael’s Grandmother Hannah taught him his very first dance steps and always encouraged him to “follow his dreams”. To this day, Michael always keeps an empty chair for his grandmother in the front row of all his concerts, as a sign of remembrance and tribute. Speaking of his grandmother in an interview, Michael said: “She once visited me in Chicago in an ice cold winter. At that time, I was completely broke, working occasional jobs for a couple of bucks an hour, dreaming of becoming the greatest dancer in the world. It was she who encouraged me to make my life special and to dance. Two weeks later, she died. The empty seat is a sign of respect to her, for I believe she is still watching me.”
Michael claims he was first “dragged by the ears” to Irish dance classes when he was just eleven-years-old, and was promptly sent home after being told that he was “too old”! But Michael decided he’d like to carry on attending classes, because he was determined to succeed and prove the teacher wrong - and also because there were so many pretty girls in the class. Michael soon mastered the basics of Irish dance and went on to become the first American to win the Irish Dance World Championships when he was just seventeen. Sensing that he had a gift for music as well as dance, Michael began studying the traditional Irish flute, and became All-Ireland Flute Champion on several occasions.
Soon after he graduated from High School in Chicago, Michael opened an Irish dance school, since he’d felt that his vocation might lie in sharing his passion for dance with his students. Although the school was a huge success, with over three hundred pupils enrolling for lessons, Michael began to feel that perhaps he’d be more successful as a performer, rather than a teacher. So he closed the school down and began pursuing his newfound ambition of becoming a world-class Irish dancer.
Having grown up with a father in the construction business, Michael was able to support himself by doing a variety of labouring jobs, whilst he pursued his dancing by night. It was a tough period in his life, but eventually Michael got his “big break”, when he was invited to dance on stage with the world-famous traditional Irish band The Chieftains. His dance numbers went down so well with the audience that the band invited Michael to join them on tour, and become a regular fixture of their show during the 1980s. Michael retained the basic structure and spirit of Irish dance but also incorporated new and exciting ideas that helped make the dances become less rigid, adding flowing arm movements and exciting rhythms to the traditional steps that had been danced down the centuries.
Michael’s fame and popularity spread, and he soon began to give solo dance concerts too, eventually being invited to perform at prestigious venues including New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. In 1993, he received an invitation to dance at the Spirit of Mayo in Dublin, a renowned festival of Irish music and dance. Michael had the honour of dancing in front of the Irish President, Mary Robinson; his performance at the festival was so well received that he was then asked to create a dance act for the intermission as part of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, which was being held in Ireland that year. Michael’s choreography was a massive hit and inspired him to create Riverdance, the Irish dance show which has made him famous across the globe.
Riverdance opened at Dublin’s Point Theatre and was watched by millions on television worldwide, before transferring to London, where it was equally well received. To begin with, Michael was the star of the show before he left the production quite unexpectedly. He soon began work on yet another production, which eventually opened - again at the Point Theatre in Dublin - as Lord of The Dance. Michael described this as “an Irish show that had to come out of Ireland.” The show was a fabulous showcase for Michael’s dancing, and was hugely acclaimed by the critics, with all performances sold out for weeks on end. Despite suffering the pain and discomfort of a torn calf muscle, Michael insisted on opening the show in London, at the Coliseum.
When Lord of The Dance transferred to London, the show sold out for four consecutive weeks running and set a new record at Wembley Arena, where no less than 21 spectacular shows took place. That same year, Michael was invited to dance with his troupe at the Academy Awards Ceremony, which was watched on television by an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide. Lord of The Dance went on to become the highest-earning live show of 1997 in both the United States and Australia.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Michael is constantly looking to top each success he enjoys. He danced in the last performance of Lord of The Dance in Dublin in June 1998, and opened a new show, entitled Feet of Flames, just the following month. The premiere performance took place in front of an audience of 25,000 people in London’s Hyde Park. The set for this spectacular show was constructed around a specially engineered four-tiered backdrop, providing a stunning setting for over 100 dancers. Michael broke another record with Feet of Flames, as it was the largest seated show ever to be performed in England!
The Hyde Park extravaganza was a fitting climax to the last few years of ceaseless activity. Like its predecessors, the show was a huge success. In the summer seasons of 1999 and 2000, he took Feet of Flames to Disneyland, before beginning dance tours in Western Europe and America, as well as his ancestral homeland - Ireland. The highlight of the tour was a sell-out show at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Following the success of Feet of Flames, Michael announced his retirement from touring in 2001, and fans from all over the world gathered at what was reportedly going to be his final performance in Dallas, Texas, on 29th July 2001. But contrary to the announcements, Michael and his troupe continue to dance and tour, much to the delight of audiences worldwide. In July 2005, Michael launched his latest show, Celtic Tiger, which has been critically acclaimed as his most innovative production yet. The show incorporates the spirit and history of Ireland into a spectacle of music and dance. Celtic Tiger premiered in the United States at Madison Square Garden in September 2005.
Michael Flatley has received many awards in recognition of his outstanding abilities as a dancer. In 1991, Michael was declared a “national treasure” by the U.S. President, Ronald Reagan. He is featured in the Guinness Book of Records, as he twice broke the world record for tapping speed. He first broke the record in 1991, when he tapped at a speed of 28 taps per second, and then again in 1998, when he tapped at an amazing rate of 35 taps per second!
Michael was presented with the Performance of The Year Award by the Irish National Entertainment Awards in 1997, and has had the honour of dancing before the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. He also received one of the Outstanding Irish-Americans of The Century awards in New York City in December 1999, and was honoured by yet another U.S. President, when Bill Clinton presented him with the Irish American Lifetime Achievement Award in March 2001. More recently, his accomplishments were recognised by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organisations (NECO), who honour ethnic Americans who have succeeded in preserving the innate values of their ancestral culture, and who have made significant professional and patriotic contributions to American life. The Organisation’s highest award is the Ellis Island Medal. This was presented to Michael on 15th May, 2004.
Michael has been married twice; his first wife was a Polish-born hairdresser called Beata Dziaba, whom he married in 1986. The couple divorced in 1997. Michael was then briefly engaged to top model Lisa Murphy in 2002. He married Niamh O’Brien, who also has an Irish background, on 14th October, 2006 in a Catholic ceremony in Ireland. A year later Niamh gave birth to a son, Michael St. James Flatley.