When Jason O'Neill was seven he watched the Eurovision Song Contest when a number called "Riverdance" came on. "The world hadn’t seen Irish dancing in this context before," recalls the dancer. "It was cool and interesting and exhilarating and I remember wanting to become apart of it as a child."
O'Neill says it was "a dream come true" when he eventually joined thehigh-energy theatrical experience— now celebrating its 20th Anniversary World Tour — six years ago.
We chatted with the now 29-year-old about the show's history, new elements to expect and if he ever gets sore from all that fancy footwork.
Wow. Twenty years of "Riverdance," how does it feel to be apart of the show this year?
It feels like a celebration. It’s all a bit surreal. We only have a few weeks left and we’re excited to come to Philadelphia.
When did you first start dancing?
I have six sisters. Big Irish family and they all danced. I was always reluctant to get involved but one day I went with them to dance class and I stayed and I’ve stayed for over 20 years now! [laughs] All my sisters quit and I developed this passion for the music and the rhythm. It was on a whim as a child and blossomed into what I do full-time now.
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Was there ever a stigma back when you were a kid about being a male dancer?
Absolutely. When I was growing up, I used to be really embarrassed and I was really secretive about it. For me now, there’s no stigma. I’m so proud of it. It’s very athletic and we get to travel the world. We get to perform in all the best cities and best theaters. It’s really cool to be an Irish dancer.
Who are some dancers you looked up to?
Wow. I’ve never been asked that question before. I love Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. They’re slick and suave and there’s this energy and class about them.
Riverdance is so high energy. How do you keep from getting sore performing all those back-to-back shows?
It’s something we live and breathe. We do eight shows a week and if we aren’t performing eight shows a week, we’re training. I train like an athlete. I watch other sports and follow what they do in terms of what they eat and how they condition their bodies. Some cast members work with personal trainers, some swim and run, but everyone has their niche with what works for them.
Do you have a favorite part of the show?
I love the number “Trading Taps.” The Irish step dancers face off against the American tap dancers. I get such a buzz from it.
Is there anything special we can look forward to about the 20th anniversary edition of Riverdance?
It’s got all the magic from the original and then we have some newer elements bringing it into the modern era. There’s a new female acapella number in the second half.
What are three things you can’t leave home without?
I can’t live without my phone and my laptop. We don’t get to see our friends and family so my phone is how I connect to the outside world. I also do graphic design on the side, so need my laptop for that. And then I have my guitar. I like to make up songs and decompress after the show.
Riverdance will be running at The Kimmel Center from Tuesday, June 14 to Sunday, June 19. For more information, visit: kimmelcenter.org
Follow Jennifer Logue on Twitter @jenniferlogue