Roz Laws talks to Irish dance legend Michael Flatley as he prepares to reprise his role after a 12-year hiatus.
When Michael Flatley almost died from a mystery virus which laid him low for two years, the world’s top doctors advised him he should never dance again.
Yet now the Irish dancer is back on stage, embarking on a tour of his iconic creation, Lord of the Dance.
It’s 12 years since he was last in the show, which he invented after Riverdance shot him to fame.
But at 51, he says he’s as fit as ever.
Sitting in the Californian sunshine, by the swimming pool in the grounds of his Los Angeles mansion – one of five homes around the world – he certainly looks the picture of health.
So why put himself through the punishment of his breathtakingly energetic brand of dancing, when, with a fortune estimated at £250 million, he never needs to lift a finger again, let alone tap his feet a record-breaking 35 times a second?
“If I can still make a few people smile, why not?” he says. “We’re in the joy business.
“My philosophy is, stop feeling sorry for yourself and go out and do something. And 50 is the new 30.”
His urge to return to the stage came when he was invited to Cairo to see one of his shows.
“We were sitting in the royal box and it was all very civilised.
“After the opening number I was buzzing. By the end of the first half I was dancing under my chair. By the end I was standing up like an eejit, screaming with the rest of the audience.
“I haven’t accepted any offers for years, but thought ‘I want to be part of this again’.”
He sold out eight shows in Taiwan with his show Feet of Flames and it gave him the taste for something bigger.
The European tour sets off in October and includes a date at Birmingham’s LG Arena.
“I’m just dying to do it,” he says. “And after six months of working out, I’m cut and ripped.
“Sure, I’ve had to make sacrifices – I haven’t had a pint in a month of Sundays – but it depends how much you want something. You can’t look on exercise as a chore.”
But isn’t he too old? And isn’t he worried that the mysterious condition which brought him close to death four years ago might recur? It kept him in hospital for two weeks and he was too weak to leave his house for a year. Doctors suggested his gruelling work had given him chronic fatigue syndrome.
“It’s true that most of my dancers will retire before they turn 25,” he admits. “But we are all different.
“You can’t let pain get in the way. I just say ‘hello my old friend’. If it wasn’t getting sore from head to toe, I wouldn’t be pushing myself hard enough.
“When I got ill, they flew in the greatest specialists from around the world, who decided it was no known virus.
“I hate taking any kind of drugs, but eventually I met a healer in Ireland, Michael O’Doherty, who worked on my energy fields. Job done.
“I kept telling myself ‘I will feel better’ and before I knew it, there I was. Nothing is impossible.
“The doctors thought my time was up but they all advised me that, if I pulled through, I’d better not dance again because it was too strenuous. But now I’m breezing through all my medicals and they’ve said I’m in perfect fitness.
“I’m telling them to add as many dates as they want to the tour, I’m not even thinking about the possibility of getting ill again. I have not one ounce of negativity, I refuse to allow it in.
“There’s no stopping me. I make no concession at all to my age. If people want to say ‘he’s too old’, that’s nonsense!
“I’m so blessed. We still sell out everywhere and constantly give people more than their money’s worth. Every night we give every drop of energy we have and the audience gives it back. They go home feeling great.”
Lord of the Dance has played to more than 50 million people in 60 countries around the world. It’s the biggest-grossing dance show in the history of entertainment, taking more than £70 million.
Michael says: “There’s no way to explain the feeling, when I’m on stage leading that show.
“I have 40 dancers behind me, all dancing as fast as they can, hitting the floor maybe 20 times a second at exactly the same time.
“It gives me goose bumps, it raises the hair on the back of my neck, it’s just an incredible feeling.
“Make no mistake, Lord of the Dance is still the greatest dance show in the world. I think we’re going to bring the house down.”
He speaks in a strong Irish lilt, despite being born and brought up in Chicago, where his mother and grandmother were champion Irish dancers.
As a youngster, he and his four siblings were all dragged to classes whether they liked it or not – but he found he excelled and in 1975 became the first American to win the Irish Dancing Championships.
What will the new tour be like?
“It’s not unlike going to see the Rolling Stones. People like to see the hit numbers, so I will give them the classic Lord of the Dance show, but with a new look and flavour they may not be expecting.”
Michael is looking forward to returning to Birmingham, a city he’s visited many times.
“It’s a fun place and there are a lot of beautiful girls there. About ten years ago I remember coming back from the show with my dancers and we were a little toasted, dancing around in Centenary Square.”
He admits that his partying has slowed down since then, thanks to his new role as a father. He married his second wife, dancer Niamh O’Brien, in 2006 and they have a three-year-old son, Michael St James.
Michael’s passions include boxing – “I’m usually in the first five rows of any great fight in Vegas” – sports cars and wine. At the front of his LA house, next door to Tom Cruise, stands his 1968 red Corvette Stingray, while he’s about to take delivery of a 1961 E-Type Jaguar which a British firm has spent five years building for him from scratch.
The names of his favourite wine trip easily off his tongue.
“I have a lovely collection of Chateau Petrus, Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour and Margaux...” he smiles.
“They are rare bottles I consider worth collecting, but we drink them – I don’t buy them to save them. That’s real important, you have to live life every minute.
“I have cases of 1961 Latour which would cost £5,000 a bottle if you ordered one at Annabel’s nightclub. On the first day of our marriage, Niamh and I drank a 1947 Chateau Latour.
“I once bought a £30,000 bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage to share with friends. I know it’s extravagant, but I work hard and I’ve learned to appreciate everything in life.
“I’m just as happy with a creamy, frothy pint of Guinness.”
* Michael Flatley tours the UK in Lord of the Dance from October and at the LG Arena, Birmingham NEC, on November 4. For tickets visit www.michaelflatley.com or call 0844 875 8758.