From Chicago kid to Lord of the Dance, Flatley celebrates career on final tour

Michael Flatley, center, appears at the end of the “Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games” last summer in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Michael Flatley, center, appears at the end of the “Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games” last summer in Johannesburg, South Africa. Zuma Press

Michael Flatley returned recently to the city where his empire began, for a Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games show at the Chicago Theatre that Flatley says will be his last in Chicago as a dancer – a retirement that sounds like it’s coming just in time.

“My spinal column, my legs, my neck particularly, my shoulders,” he said in an interview this week. “Yeah, it’s taken a pretty severe beating, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

He’s a superstar of dance now, set to retire from the stage with a St. Patrick’s Day show in Las Vegas, but Flatley might well have been a magnate in a less-glamorous type of business. When I first talked to him, a quarter-century ago, he was, in addition to working hard at dancing, trying to get a franchised plumbing business going.

He grew up in Chicago, the son of Irish immigrants. His father, Michael Flatley Sr., who died last March at 87, was a plumber who founded Flatley’s Plumbing Express and loved Irish music. Like so many Irish kids in the area, Flatley took stepdancing classes. But while most of them peeled off to sports and jobs and regular life, Flatley, now 57, kept at it.

Smart move. He’s got a personal fortune estimated at $195 million, according to the Sunday Times of London, and the Irish Examiner says he has homes in London, Monaco and Barbados and a lavishly restored country estate in County Cork.

Before our conversation this week, I last talked to Flatley in 1989 at a Palos Park dance studio where he practiced. Thirty-one at the time, he had danced with the traditionalist band The Chieftains on a series of tours. He had just set a Guinness World Record for most taps in one second, 28. And even then, he had a slight Irish lilt to his voice.

But he was five years away from joining Riverdance, the show that would make him a star and allow him to start Lord of the Dance, which would beget other dance tours, talk show appearances, even pop culture parody for his perennially opened shirt.

Q: You struck me in 1989 as a guy who wanted to bring your art to a bigger stage, who wanted to be famous in some ways. Has this result surprised you, or did you see this?

A: I remember dreaming that I could have this. And I’m a big believer in visualizing things and working toward it and having focus and a goal. I always did. In my mind I saw it clearly. You can never be really sure it’s going to happen. You can never be convinced. But you just have to believe, and you have to work hard. And the harder I worked the luckier I got. Life is that way. We worked for every inch of what we got all along the way.

Q: You’re at a point now where you are ready to retire from active dancing. Is that bittersweet?

A: In many ways it is. Coming off the stage at the end of the show last night in Philadelphia we had a big sold-out arena, thousands of people standing up, encore after encore. It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s a fabulous feeling to be in that position in life. I’m so happy I had that opportunity. But now, my body has taken a severe beating. I dance the last two numbers in the show, and I feel like I’m dancing those two numbers better than I ever have. So it’s a really good time for me to step down before that changes. It’ll also be great for me to be able to step down and spend more time with my beautiful wife and son and not to have to live out of a suitcase so much.

Q: It’s been pretty remarkable. I wondered if the decision to stop dancing now has anything to do with losing your father in the past year?

A: That’s a big part of it. My father was my hero, and he still is. And I believe he’s watching over me.