Life

Why Riverdance lead Jason O'Neill's been performing around the streets of Belfast

With Riverdance on hold like everything else in the pandemic, lead dancer Jason O'Neill has taken to strutting his stuff around the streets of Belfast

North Belfast man Jason O’Neill is lead dancer with Riverdance. Picture by Hugh Russell
Maureen Coleman

JASON O'Neill has found a novel way of staying focused and fit since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year forced the postponement of the 25th anniversary Riverdance tour.

The north Belfast man and principal male dancer in the globally acclaimed show was gearing up for an eight-show run at the Radio City Music Hall in New York when lock-down was announced and the troupe dispersed to their homes.

Jason (34), packed his bags and flew back to Dublin, where he quarantined with his operatic singer partner for six weeks. He then headed north to Belfast to look after his mum who had succumbed to coronavirus and was quite ill.

But having spent 10 years on the road with Riverdance, in peak physique from the regular exercise and high-energy Irish dance routines, Jason suddenly found himself with too much spare time on his hands. He missed dancing. He missed the rhythm, the music and the adrenaline buzz from such strenuous physical activity. His moods suffered too. Being out of work and at a loss, there were times he felt a bit low. So he decided to shoot a series of short films doing what he does best, dancing – with the streets of Belfast city centre as his backdrop and stage.

“This is the longest period I've been at home since I joined Riverdance,” says Jason. “I do like being at home. I enjoy my home comforts. But I'm so used to being on the road and dancing all the time.

“We were really looking forward to the run at Radio City Music Hall. It's such an iconic theatre in New York and it was leading up to St Patrick's Day too.

“Things were changing rapidly every day. No-one really knew how serious the virus was at this stage but then suddenly, it had gone global and we were in a pandemic. Next thing, I was packing a suitcase and heading home.

“It's the longest I haven't danced either. I did play a bit of football and went running, but the thing with Irish dancing is that it's not just an art, it's a sport as well. It certainly helps me stay fit.

“So I decided to do something that allowed me to be active and focused but also creative; to do something to spread a bit of positivity and that might inspire others to get out there and do something creative too.”

While exploring the cobbled streets and alleyways of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, Jason decided he'd found his new stage. He also wanted to feature the brightly coloured street art of the area in his dance videos, which he felt helped capture the spirit of the city.

Using his mobile phone to shoot the videos and with his partner on cameraman duties, Jason choreographed a number of dance routines featuring his captivating Irish dance steps. One film showed him dancing to Run DMC while another had a Halloween theme.

But when it emerged that the release date of the latest James Bond flick No Time To Die was being put back, Jason decided to shoot his own Irish dance homage to 007.

“I posted a few of the videos online and they were very well received but with the Bond one, I wanted it to have a cinematic feel,” says Jason.

“I dressed up in a tux and danced around the cobbled streets and beautiful alleyways in the Cathedral Quarter, choreographing the dance steps to the James Bond tune. I incorporated an old Mercedes and phone box in the video, to give it a spy feel.

“It was great fun to do and such a creative way to express myself and keep at my dancing. Not being able to dance was really difficult for me.”

It's the rhythm of Irish dance that made Jason fall in love with it as a young boy. Growing up in Greenisland before moving to the Bellevue area of Belfast, Jason took up Irish dancing because all six of his sisters danced too.

The girls all gave it up one by one but Jason stayed on. Under the tuition of Royal Tara Irish dancing school, Reid's and then the Armstrong school, the former St Malachy's pupil was a natural dancer. As he got older, he tried other disciplines like tap and flamenco, but Irish dancing was his main passion.

On leaving school, Jason went to the Art College in Belfast to study graphic design. During a gap year he decided to apply for Riverdance, sending off a video of himself dancing. He was invited to audition at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin and a few weeks later was offered a place on a tour of Europe, as one of the troupe dancers.

He returned to the college to finish his degree and then went back on the road with Riverdance. A few shows in, he got offered the lead role, making his debut at the Gaiety Theatre. He's been the lead male since then.

To Jason, Irish dancing is something which he considers vital to his physical and mental health. And while he was able to practise at home, it wasn't quite the same as performing on a huge stage.

“It's tough when you're used to being validated. Lockdown hurt everything I've trained for; all the blood, sweat and tears that went in to making me a good dancer and a better athlete,” he says.

“There were so many highs and lows when I came home. I had no job. I had to rethink everything and that's why I was inspired to get out to the streets and start dancing.

“It's a great way of staying fit and also, I got to be a tourist in my home city for the first time. It also lifted me when I was feeling a bit low.”

Jason says he has seen at first hand the effects of coronavirus after caring for his mum as she battled the post-illness fatigue.

“It really took its toll on mum,” he says. “She had to stay in bed for a while afterwards. I've seen just how powerful it can be, but thankfully, she's in much better form now.”

He has no idea when he will be back on a stage in a theatre again but is determined this spell off the road won't get him down. As long as he's back home in Belfast, he intends to keep dancing.

“This has been such a difficult time for so many people and the pandemic has left many people out of work,” says Jason.

“But I really hope my videos inspire others to get out there and do something creative. This can be an opportunity to try something new.

“The first few times I did it, I felt embarrassed if there was someone there watching me but the more I do it, the easier it gets. Once I get into my groove, I can't stop dancing.

“Irish dance is a way for me to feel fit, athletic, artistic and free. It's a way for me to escape. That mix of the noise, the rhythm, the hard shoes on the floor, captivates me. Being able to dance has definitely helped me cope with lock-down, but I can't wait to get back on the road again, hopefully some time next year.”

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