As Flatley's explosive performance proved, he's anything but shy about barreling into the big time. The Irish-American dynamo is the creator, choreographer and star of Lord of the Dance, the hugely successful 40-member Irish dance show now on a 20-city American tour. A lean 5'9" and 147 lbs., Flatley, 38, has transformed the traditionally rigid Irish jig into a free-form, mass-market phenomenon through his cocky swagger and adrenalized hoofing. His star power has helped Lord gross some $60 million on its current tour, with video and CD sales adding another $100 million. "What we do transcends dance," says Flatley. "It's all about energy. We're making people feel things."
But Flatley's brashness leaves some people feeling miffed. Flatley dreamed up Lord after parting ways with River-dance, an 85-member Gaelic dance show that he helped create and that featured him as lead dancer for six months in 1995. He says he left after producers refused to grant him artistic control of his dances, then sued them in 1996 for 2 percent of the show's revenues, or about $5 million (the suit has yet to go to trial).
Flatley has also endured swipes about his flashy style in the British and Dublin press, as well as public jabs from a publicist he fired. Deke Arlon, a talent manager hired by Flatley to help settle the Riverdance dispute, wound up suing him for wages he felt he was owed (they settled out of court). "He has a drive and a focus I've never seen in any star," says Arlon. "He will knock steamrollers out of the way."
Flatley says his critics confuse "self-confidence with ego." So what if his exposed chest strikes some as tacky? "That's me being out there on the edge," says Flatley, a big believer in taking chances. "If you can dream it, you can have it," he declares. "That's what I thought even as a boy."
Growing up on Chicago's gritty South Side, the second of five children born to Irish immigrants Michael and Eilish, Flatley developed his work ethic by emulating his father, who put in long hours at the family-owned construction firm. He took up step dancing at 11 and by 17 became the first American All-World Irish Dancing champion. After graduating from Brother Rice High School in 1977, Flatley joined several companies before signing with the popular Irish band the Chieftains in the early 1980s. "From the start what Michael was doing was brilliant," says Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney. "I could see he was not going to settle down with us."
It was during a tour with the band that Flatley met Beata Dziaba, a make-up artist then working as a hotel receptionist in London. They married in 1986 but separated seven years later. "I was on the road constantly," he says now. "It wasn't fair to her or me."
A year after splitting from his wife, Flatley traveled to Ireland to create a dance for a televised song contest. His seven-minute Riverdance electrified the public and critics, and spawned the show that would earn him $75,000 a week. The lucrative Lord, more of a star vehicle than Riverdance, reportedly makes Flatley the world's highest-paid dancer.
That distinction comes with a price, much of it extracted on his feet. "They're always sore," he says. "I soak them in ice every night." Flatley performs eight solo numbers and loses 8 to 10 pounds per show (he averages seven performances a week); afterward he eats "everything in sight to keep my weight up."
Away from Lord, Flatley stays low-key. He prefers to spend off-hours in flotation tanks, where, he says, "nobody can fax me." Much pursued by female fans, Flatley "enjoys dating" but has no special flame; living out of hotels in different cities for the past three years hasn't helped. "I have no home," he sighs. "I would love to have an answering machine to call."
Ideally his tape would fill up with film offers: Flatley plans on a career in movies once his dancing days are over (no time soon, he swears). As usual, Flatley is betting on himself. "I flew to Ireland in 1993 with a standby ticket on Aer Lingus and I came back on the Concorde," he says. "Not bad for a kid from Chicago who does the jig."
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN and CHAMP CLARK in Los Angeles, NINA BIDDLE in London