Jean Butler remains an icon in the Irish dance world after helping ‘Riverdance’ bring both Irish dance and Irish culture to the world stage nearly twenty years ago in the 1994 Eurovision contest.
The Herald caught up with Butler who was in Dublin for a recent Guinness World Record event which saw nearly 2,000 Irish dancers from the world over line the River Liffey to set the newest record for most Irish dancers dancing at once.
At only 25 years old in 1994, Irish American Jean Butler became a star as the lead in the phenomenon Irish dance show ‘Riverdance’ alongside Michael Flatley. Despite her quick rise to fame in the 90s, Butler bowed out relatively early from the show.
“You have to realize that I was very young when I started the show,” Butler explained. "This was my first job out of college and it was an incredible job. But, at the same time, I felt I could never dance better than I did.”
"I had other ambitions and needed to fulfil them and felt it was a graceful time to go."
While her parents, Irish emigrants to New York Josephine and Michael, were perplexed originally with Butler ending her ‘Riverdance’ career, the stunning redhead went on to have a fulfilling career in other ways.
In 2003, Butler complemented her BA in Theatre Studies from Birmingham University with a Masters in Contemporary Dance Performance from Limerick University. At Limerick, Butler was the Artist in Residence from 2003 until 2005.
Now, the native New Yorker lectures at New York University as well as develops a jewelry line. Her third collection named ‘Meadows’ is inspired by the heritage of Ireland. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Cuan Hanly, a fashion designer and creative director at New York label Jack Spade.
"Deciding to go back and do my Masters was another instinct where I had to trust myself," Butler said.
"I had done Riverdance, then ‘Dancing On Dangerous Ground’ (her own dance show which ran in London and New York) and recorded with the Rolling Stones, The Chieftains, Peter Gabriel and Donal Lunny, done all this amazing stuff, and I really didn't realise I was so tired. I needed to step back from producing stuff and recharge.”
"When I started the masters it could have been the end or the beginning, but it ended up being the beginning of something else. Now 10 years later I have this whole other life which complements my life as a dancer," she said.
Butler also taught a masterclass for Irish dance at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre while visiting Ireland recently as an event for the tourism initiative The Gathering. Nearly twenty years after ‘Riverdance,’ Butler still draws a respected hush and awe from Irish dancers in attendance at the masterclass.
When asked what advice she would give dancers today, Butler said "(What I would tell them) if they wanted to listen – and I never listened when I was young – is that they need to know that dancing is not just about the body.”
"They (the young dancers) need to know that to have a full life as a dancer, you have to get rid of this idea of perfectionism.”
"You need to cultivate your brain: feed your mind and body. You need to have that connection because when a performer is fulfilled, they have this presence which everybody talks about.”
Now it is Jean’s younger sister Cara is rising to stardom the in the world of Irish dance. "Cara is the most incredible Irish dancer out there. She has been working so hard and I remain her biggest fan," Jean said. Based in New York and Toronto, Jean and Cara have not been in Ireland for years, but decided this year to have a sort of gathering of their own.
While in Ireland, Jean had the chance to reunite with some old familiar ‘Riverdance’ faces, most notably John McColgan and Moya Doherty, the composers and producers behind Riverdance who invited Jean to perform in the now iconic debut of Riverdance in 1994.
"It was lovely because I hadn't seen them in such a long time," Butler said. "We talked about family and friends and about their new show [Heartbeat of Home], which sounds so exciting. I know a lot of people working on it so I'll definitely be catching it.”
Butler shows no signs of slowing down. After receiving rave reviews for her solo dance show ‘Home’ in New York, she is now considering pursuing a doctorate in dance.
However, don’t expect a memoir anytime soon.
"The amount of people I've met while back in Dublin, asking me if I am going to write a book. The answer from me is 'No'.”
"I just want to do what I am doing now, I have no interest in living my life in a public way. It's that simple.”
Watch the now famous 1994 debut of ‘Riverdance’ at the Eurovision Song Contest featuring Jean Butler here: