You might say Anna Mai Fitzpatrick’s role as a lead dancer in the U.S. touring company of Riverdance was preordained.
When Anna Mai was 3, her mother Sharon saw Riverdance on television in one of the show’s earlier incarnations and signed her up for Irish dance lessons in her local primary school.
Not everyone who begins Irish dance carries it much beyond adolescence, but for Fitzpatrick all those jigs and reels evolved into a passion that carries on today into her 20s.
Along the way, she won a third place in the under-19 category at the World Irish Dancing Championships—no mean feat—and came out on top in the Great Britain Championships and the British Nationals, among other honors.
Those honors never come easily—it’s incredibly hard work—but perhaps they come more easily when you simply love what you do, and you know it from the start. “It’s a great feeling when you dance and there are no limitations,” says Fitzpatrick. “You can bring your own to it. I just love how it feels when I dance, to be honest. I think that’s the attraction. And when I saw it when I was very young, I could see that. I could see in people’s faces how it made them feel. That’s what attracted me to it. I knew I wanted to do this.”
Fitzpatrick is also inspired by someone exceptionally close to her—her older brother Fergus, who began Irish dance at age 8, himself a trophy winner at the Worlds.
Fergus joined the cast of Riverdance for a tour of China. Anna Mai, at age 19, joined him shortly thereafter. Both danced in a summer production of Riverdance at the Gaiety in Dublin, where the show first took off 25 years ago.
Performing at the Gaiety was a particular pleasure.
“It’s because I’m from there and my family come to watch, and the audience is very close, so you get to see people’s faces when you’re on stage,” Fitzpatrick says. “And sometimes you see them moving their heads while you dance, moving along with you. They’re in a trance and it’s just so rewarding. It just pushes you to want to do better every time you’re on stage, every night. So you always have to be on form. It’s brilliant. I love it.”
Riverdance offers her an opportunity to display her prodigious talents in the two forms of Irish dance—soft shoe and hard shoe.
“I personally love the contrast between the two,” says Fitzpatrick. “In soft shoe you get to float across the stage, and you feel somewhat balletic or you just have this feeling of softness and you’re full of air and you get to move. But then there’s the contrast with the hard shoe. With hard shoe, you’re strong and fierce and you get to be bold.”
After 25 years, Riverdance is still going strong, and Fitzpatrick, for one, is not surprised that the show still finds an enthusiastic audience. The music, she says, is timeless, and the dancing is stellar.
“I don’t think it ever gets old,” she says. “I think people love that feeling they get when they watch our craft.”
What’s exciting about the 25th anniversary presentation of the show, she adds, is that there are some changes in the staging, backgrounds and costumes. “I think people will come for that reason as well because they want to see where it goes from there, for something that has been around for so long and that’s been popular all these years. They want to see what else can be done with it, too.”
Fitzpatrick herself recalls seeing Riverdance on television and going to see the show in person. She recalls watching Jean Butler and Michael Flatley flying across the stage, and being inspired. Like many young dancers, she dreamed of appearing in the show one day. But not every dancer who aspires to dance in this juggernaut of a show actually gets there.
“I’m speechless about it,” she says. “It’s a dream come true, literally. I’m very grateful even just to be part of the show. To be given the opportunity to be a lead dancer is everything I’ve ever worked for since I was a little girl. It’s really inspiring and brilliant. I don’t know how else to say it.”
Rehearsals for the new U.S. tour of Riverdance are currently taking place in Montreal. The tour officially begins Friday January 17 in Lancaster and moves on to Philadelphia January 21-26 at the Merriam Theater. It won’t be Fitzpatrick’s first time in the city. She competed here at the Kimmel Center when the Worlds were held in Philly in 2009.
One of the best ways to get tickets is to buy them through the Commodore John Barry Arts and Cultural Center—otherwise known simply as the Irish Center—which gets a cut of the sales. Here’s how to buy your tickets.