My parents were horrified when I wanted to leave Riverdance but I had to go. And I haven't looked back
Ken Sweeney meets Riverdance original leading lady Jean Butler
IT was the dance phenomenon that defined a generation.
Riverdance catapulted Irish dancing onto the world stage and was credited as the spark for the Celtic Tiger when it made its debut during Dublin's 1994 Eurovision show.
The original leading lady had the world at her feet aged just 25. But it was pure gut instinct that prompted Jean Butler to walk away from it all.
Jean said that her parents, Irish emigrants Michael and Josephine, were dismayed by her decision.
"My parents were like, 'what are you doing?'" she said.
"You have to realise that I was very young when I started the show.
"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."
Almost two decades later, Jean is back in Ireland and back on the stage.
The 42-year-old is now an ambassador for Riverdance and has been lined up to take part in a number of Gathering events, including a masterclass for young and aspiring dancers held in the Gaiety Theatre.
A respectful hush fell on the dancers as the New Yorker walked through their ranks backstage last week, looking little changed from the lady of the dance that first captivated the world stage 19 years ago.
Jean has plenty of advice for the young generation of Irish dancers – who are still as passionate about the art form as ever.
She learned from her mistakes – by pushing her body too hard and focusing on 'perfection'.
"(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," she said.
"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," she added.
Jean credits yoga (four or five times a week) and dancing (every day) as the secret to maintaining her flawless figure.
But the redhead has also spent as much time cultivating her mind. She holds a BA in Theatre Studies from Birmingham University, and in 2003 completed a Masters in Contemporary Dance Performance at Limerick University, where she was also Artist in Residence between 2003-2005.
She now lectures in New York University and has developed a jewellery range – her third collection, 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.
Jean said that a whirlwind life – working with everyone from rockers like the Rolling Stones to traditionalist The Chieftains – had slowly eroded her energy levels.
"Deciding to go back and do my Masters was another instinct where I had to trust myself," she 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.
Now it is her younger sister Cara who is dancing in the limelight. Cara danced with The Chieftains, in movie dance sequences with Brad Pitt and Ryan O'Neal, and Jean proudly watched her performing with the traditional Irish group in the National Concert Hall last Saturday.
The two siblings haven't been in Ireland for several years – one is based in New York, the other in Toronto – but they said they are taking part in a Gathering of their own while in Ireland with friends and family.
"Cara is the most incredible Irish dancer out there. She has been working so hard and I remain her biggest fan," she said.
There was another emotional reunion for Jean last weekend when she met up with John McColgan and Moya Doherty – the composers and producers behind Riverdance.
They invited Jean to perform with Michael Flatley as the interval segment in the Eurovision Song Contest from Dublin's Point Theatre.
"It was lovely because I hadn't seen them in such a long time," she said. "We talked about family and friends and about their new show, which sounds so exciting.
"I know a lot of people working on it so I'll definitely be catching it.
Heartbeat Of Home opens this September, but Jean said she had "no idea" if she would ever work on another show like that again.
Having won rave reviews for her recent solo dance show Hurry in New York, she said she is now considering undertaking a "doctorate in some form of dance".
And definitely not penning her memoirs. "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," she added.