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Michael Flatley: Never stepping flatly

I couldn't resist teasing Michael Flatley when we spoke in 2006. I had just seen Paul McCartney on "60 Minutes" and noticed that when he came off stage, he was instantly swaddled in a thick terrycloth robe. I asked Flatley if he demanded that cozy terrycloth slippers be waiting for him off-stage right at every performance. "Ahh, you're taking the piss, Pete," he said. (Meaning, I was taking liberties at his expense. He laughed for a solid minute before we got down to talking. Great ice-breaker.)

Michael Flatley, "Lord of the Dance," is:

a) The son of Irish parents;

b)From Chicago;

c) Dancing again;

d) All of the above.

The answer is D.


"There was a lot of people born in Chicago, believe it or not," Flatley says, in a brogue that owes more to County Cork than to County Cook. "But like Oscar Wilde said, ‘Just because I was born in a barn doesn't mean I'm a horse.'"

What he is, at 47, may be the hardest working retiree in show business. He hung up his dancing shoes about five years ago, after his "Feet of Flame" tour, because, he says, he had a new show in mind.

That show became "Celtic Tiger," which kicks off its North American tour at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. (It'll have a warmup performance in Worcester, Mass., tonight.) "Celtic Tiger" tracks the will and triumph of the Irish race, Flatley says, a people who've overcome adversity time and again.

"Before the potato famine, there were eight and a half million people in Ireland. ... By 1916, there were 3.5 million. That's a story that has to be told," he says.

Flatley will tell the story, he says, with the help of longtime collaborator Ronan Hardiman whose score still propels three touring companies of "Lord of the Dance."

The "Celtic Tiger" score runs the gamut of emotions. During the famine scene, it's mostly voices with some drums. But there is also triumphant, pounding, pyrotechnic music, Flatley says, something audiences have come to expect from the man who took Irish step dancing and liberated it from its stiff upbringing.

Fans will see a lot of Flatley on the stage at the Garden.

"I'm on stage more than I was in `Lord of the Dance,'" he says. "It's a very challenging show."

It's still about dancing, even with all the lights and projections and flames and music.

"I have 60 of the greatest dancers in the world," he says. "They are endlessly talented. It's all I can do just to keep up with them."

Flatley, whose legs are insured for $40 million, set a Guinness Book world record in 1998 doing 35 taps per second. He realizes time may have slowed him a bit.

"With this new cane, I can get a lot more taps in," he says with a laugh.

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