Who Is Michael Flatley? ‘Riverdance’ Star Diagnoses With Cancer – Hollywood Life

Michael Flatley: 5 Things About The ‘Riverdance’ Creator, 64, Diagnosed With An ‘Aggressive Form Of Cancer’

Michael Flatley, the dancer who rose to fame with his 'Riverdance' shows, announced he'd undergone surgery to battle cancer. Here's what we know.

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  • Michael Flatley is an Irish-American dancer.
  • He rose to international fame in the mid-1990s with his Riverdance performances.
  • In 2023, at age 64, he announced he was fighting “an aggressive form of cancer.”

Michael Flatley, the Lord of the Dancer creator who set the stage afire with his fast footwork in shows like Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, and Feet of Flames, announced on Wednesday (Jan. 11) that he was battling cancer. “Dear friends, we have something personal to share,” read the statement on his Instagram. “Michael Flatley has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He has undergone surgery and is in the care of an excellent team of doctors. No further comments will be made at this time. We ask only for your prayers and well wishes. Thank you.”

The news comes nearly two years after he told the Sunday Independent that he battled skin cancer two decades prior. “I was diagnosed with skin cancer myself, and it was a very scary time. I sympathize with anybody who is lying on that bed and facing the uncertainty of the future. It can be a frightening place,” he stated. “It was a malignant melanoma that I was diagnosed with. It was around 2003 and it was purely by chance that it was noticed.”

Michael Flatley popularized a form of dance called Irish stepdance. It’s characterized by a stiff upper body and fast, precise steps. The roots of the dance are likely tied to Pre-Cristian Ireland, and the origin of the stiff arms remains in question.

“My education on the matter is that dancing was for­bidden in Ireland for a period of time, and so dancers would keep their arms down while dancing so that the local priest couldn’t see what they were doing through the windows as he made his round,” Luanne Schlosser, a certified Irish dance instructor and owner of the Blakey Irish Dance School, told The Sheaf in 2020.

Another belief is that a series of Irish dancers were forced to perform for the Queen of England at the time. The dancers ” kept their arms down as a sign of sub­version to her authority and the English people,” per The Sheaf, since Irish culture was outlawed in the 14th century by the Statute of Kilkenny.

“Irish dance has become increasingly athletic and commercialized in the last two decades. Many see the emergence of shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance as the driving force behind the popularity of what once was more of an art form practiced amongst those of Irish origin,” Schlosser told The Sheaf.

While Flatley didn’t create the dance, he is synonymous with it due to Riverdance and Lord of the Dance – the latter of which Flatley created in 1996 after leaving Riverdance in 1995. Flatley’s last performance was at the start of 2016. He retired soon after.

As Michael continues his battle, here’s what you need to know about this legendary dancer.

Michael Flatley Is A Dancer

Michael Flatley was born to Irish-American parents on July 16, 1958, in Chicago, Illinois. His father was a plumber who founded the Frankfort-based Flatley’s Plumbing Express, according to the Chicago Tribune. Michael’s father also loved Irish music and sent his son to step-dancing classes. While most Irish children growing up in Chicago’s Southwest Side ditched the dance classes for other hobbies, Michael kept at it.

“A lady said to me on TV one time: ‘You’re not Irish, you were born in Chicago. You’re American!'” Michael recounted to The Guardian. “I was reminded of that wonderful quote by Oscar Wilde: ‘I might have been born in a barn, but that doesn’t make me a horse.'”

He Reportedly Set A World Record In 1989

In 1998, Michael set a Guinness World Record of 28 taps per second, according to his website. His bio claims that he beat his own record nine years later in 1998 by tapping 35 taps in a second (though this claim would be disputed by James Devine in 2006, per The Scotsman).

“In general, it seems that people go after Guinness records for the same reason they buy carphones: So they can tell their friends, over and over, that they have one,” wrote the Chicago Tribune in 1989 after Michael set his first record. “Flatley, however, was chasing something grander than local-tavern glory. He is a serious dancer, the first non-European to win the World Irish step-dancing championship (in Dublin in 1975), and the tap record certainly won’t hurt his ambition to be a sort of Gregory Hines for the ’90s.”

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Michael does have another Guinness World Record: “Highest Paid Dancer.” He earned $1.6 million a week in 2000 as the star of Lord of the Dance.

His Breakout Came At Eurovision

The 1994 Eurovision Song Contest was held in Dublin, Ireland after Niamh Kavanagh won the prior year with her song “In Your Eyes.” The show’s producers included a seven-minute showcase of Irish dance led by Michael Flatley. The piece “began with the haunting vocals of the choral group Anúna,” writes Irish Central, “followed by the arrival onstage of Jean Butler, emerging from a traditional Irish cloak to herald the beginning of a whole new style of Irish dance. Michael Flatley…burst on stage, unlike any Irish dancer ever before. Their style and the onstage battle between the dancers and drummers brought something new to the Irish dance floor.”

The spectacle seemingly eclipsed the rest of the night’s performances, resulting in the creation of a full-length show based around Irish step-dancing. The resulting show was Riverdance, whose international success helped launch Michael Flatley into the pop culture pantheon.

Michael Flatley Retired In 2016

(Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock)

A dispute with the Riverdance producers resulted in Michael going his own way. He created Lord of the Dance, a show that topped Riverdance in spectacle and box office success. He would also oversee the creation of Feet of Flames, Celtic Tiger, and Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games. He ultimately retired in 2016, citing ongoing injuries from a life of dancing. He decided to step away from dancing, but he’d continue producing and directing. In 2017, Flatley’s dance troupe performed at the inauguration of Donald Trump.

“We are going on 20 years, and I’m honored to present this brilliant group of dancers,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2016. “I’ve always said every night will be our best night ever. People pay hard-earned money, so let’s work as hard as we can to give them something special. That’s why we are still here.”

An MTV Viewer Spotted His Skin Cancer

Michael Flatley’s 2023 cancer diagnosis came nearly two decades after he fought melanoma. He told the Irish Independent in 2021 that he learned about this cancer from an eagle-eyed MTV viewer. “We were at the fifth anniversary of Lord of the Dance in Las Vegas, and I did an interview with MTV,” he said. “Somebody watched the interview and brought it to the attention of my personal assistant and said: ‘Did you ever notice the brown spot on the side of Michael’s face?’ I had never even noticed it.”

Michael went to a doctor, who took a sample. Flatley was on his way to Barbados the next day when he got a call from the doctor urging him to see him immediately. “He said if I had let it go a few more weeks, there was probably nothing he could have done for me,” he said. The cancer was treated quickly and left no side effects.