A life devoted to dancing


IRISH dancing is an all-consuming pursuit with many involved in it devoting years of their life to it and nobody epitomises this more, perhaps, than five-time World Champion, Lord of the Dance original troupe member, teacher and adjudicator, Caroline Greene-Parfery.

Like many dancers, Caroline’s Proud Irish background played a key role in her being introduced to the sport. That, coupled with a natural athleticism acted as natural catalysts for her involvement, which continues right up to the present day with The Caroline Greene School of Irish Dance, which she runs with her sister Michelle.

“Mum is from Carrickfin in Donegal, she came over from Ireland when she was about 14,” Caroline explained. “My Dad is Scottish, but his family are from Ranafast. I have four sisters and they all did Irish dancing as well. There were strong connections with Ireland when we were growing up. My dad did Irish dancing when he was younger, he used to dance for the Peggy O’Neill School. My dad’s sister, my Auntie Sheila, danced too. Irish dancing was very much an important part of family life. We’d go twice a week and practise the other days or go to competitions, but there weren’t as many back then, only a couple a year.

“I think I started dancing when I was about four or five. Myself and my older sisters went to the McLaughlin School. There was a connection there. My mum and Kathleen McLaughlin’s mum were cousins. We went there and loved it. It was great. You met your friends there; it was a great social life.

“I’d say the catalyst was due in part to my mum’s Irish roots. There were a lot of people she knew who went to Irish dancing and my Nana used to teach it somewhere down in the Gorbals. I don’t think she did it competitively, she just had a wee club.”

Caroline’s passion for Irish dancing began to grow, from the moment she stepped into the school. She would speak of watching some of the older dancers—including her sisters—practising complex steps and winning medals and trophies and dream of emulating their dancing and success. And even though the school was a relatively comfortable environment for her, containing, as it did, her siblings and several of her fellow pupils from St Bride’s Primary School, she was ambitious to rise to the very top of the sport and stand out from the crowd. However, her mum one day spoke to her of the need to continually practise to develop as dancer, even if that meant annoying the neighbours!

“Michelle, my sister would win most of the competitions when she was younger,” she said. “I would be second or third in all the Scottish competitions, but then my older sister Mary started to help me with practising and Fr Hanrahan up at St Helen’s would give us the Church Hall to practise because our neighbours down the stairs would phone the police because of the noise of us dancing (we lived in a tenement) so we came to an agreement with them we could practise between 6.30pm and 7.30pm every night. Our priest then said we could use the hall to practise so my sister would come with me and would help me and I started to get better. Even though I was only 13, I just wanted to perform better at each competition so I would practise more and then you would go from second to first. I liked the competitive side of it.”

Eyes on the prize
However, her eyes were always on the biggest prize of all, the World Championships and a mere three years after putting more and more of the hard yards in, Caroline won the first of her five titles. She explained the joy she felt at that win—and subsequent victories—and also what it takes to become a World Champion.

“To be a World Champion takes a lot of sacrifice,” Caroline said. “When I was at school I didn’t really go out with my friends. I was in practising for hours and hours. Even as I got older, during my lunch hour at work, my boss at the time used to let me practise downstairs in the mailroom. I’d practise there to sustain my fitness and just to get better. I practised that much that I knew where I had to be on the stage at each point in time. I had myself so well practised that I couldn’t go wrong to be honest. So, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication.

“I was 16 when I won my first World Championship in Malahide, in Dublin, and it felt fantastic. It went right down to the last result, so we weren’t sure if I’d won it or not, but when it was announced that I had it was great because all the dancers in the school were round about me and they were all cheering. It was brilliant.

“When I won the last of my World Championships, my dad was there as well, which was great. He didn’t often come to watch me due to the cost and him working, but it was brilliant him being there.”

Lady of the Dance
Her worldwide success would draw the attention of global Irish dance star, Michael Flatley, who, fresh from his success with Riverdance, was in the process of setting up his own show, Lord of the Dance. In 1996, that show became a reality and Caroline was selected to be part of the first ever troupe, in what was to be a life-changing experience for her. Following a conversation with her good friend Daire Nolan—who played the role of Don Dorcha in the show—and a successful audition, Caroline got the call asking her to join the show. After being encouraged by her then fiancé—now husband—Grant to become part of the troupe and obtaining a leave of absence from her work, she began her Lord of the Dance journey, something she still refers to as one of the ‘best times of her life.’

Her mum’s emphasis on the importance of practice would stand her in good stead as a member of the show as rehearsals for those early shows would often result in a 12-hour day before heading back to her digs in Dublin, which she shared with some of the other dancers. Once the rehearsals were done, it was showtime and they began a tour that took in Britain, Australia and the US. That was the part she found most difficult, especially being so far from loved ones.

“It was hard, for example when touring Australia, I’d be trying to phone Grant and it would be 6am for him and late at night for us, it was very difficult,” she said. “Not seeing your family for a long time when you were on tour wasn’t easy. It was a shock to begin with, but I ended up loving it.”

Crediting Grant with encouraging her to ride out the tough start to touring life, Caroline adapted so well that she even managed to get married while on tour, meeting up again with the troupe while on honeymoon in New York. There were many more highlights from that time in her life, including performing at Radio City in New York on St Patrick’s weekend, meeting family members in Sydney, Australia after the show and performing in front of Glasgow audiences, which she hails as ‘the best!’ However, perhaps the icing on the cake was performing at the 69th Academy Awards in Los Angeles, where she got to see some of the stars of the silver screen up close.

“The Oscars were a real highlight,” she recalled. “Seeing all the stars outside that was brilliant. I remember coming off the bus for rehearsals and Madonna was just in front of me. She was tiny, so petite and all her bouncers were round about her. You could have touched her she was that close. Onstage you had the cardboard cut-outs of where all the stars were going to sit, so I knew where all the stars in front of me were so on the night you could see them. That was brilliant. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman introduced us. We met Billy Crystal and Mel Gibson and saw Julie Andrews arriving too. There were so many stars.”

While Lord of the Dance afforded opportunities such as this and a host of glitzy aftershow parties, at the core of it all, as always, was hard work and practice, something that was drummed into the troupe by Michael Flatley himself and his dance teacher, Marie Duffy, Caroline explained.

“Michael was tough as a dancer, he wanted perfection,” she said. “Marie Duffy was his dance teacher and she’d be drilling us constantly and then he would come in to see what we were doing and we’d be a bag of nerves, scared in case we did something wrong. He wanted perfection because it was his show and he wanted it to be really good, so he worked us very hard, but he treated us very well too. We were always in lovely hotels. We were paid well and well looked after. They made sure we had a three-course meal every night.”

In fact, Michael’s treatment of the original troupe is to continue as he prepares to welcome them to his Castlehyde home in Cork for a reunion that was rescheduled, having been put on the backburner because of the Covid-19 pandemic. That will allow the troupe—and their partners—the chance to meet up face to face as opposed to simply connection via WhatsApp or Zoom.

Passing on lessons learned
Returning to Caroline’s Lord of the Dance history though, she decided to US tour to call it quits and come back home to enjoy married life. However, she still felt the need to scratch that Irish dancing itch and decided to open her own dancing school that she runs with her sister Michelle and which will celebrate its own 25th anniversary in August 2022.

“When I came back I thought, I’ll open up a dancing school,” she said. “I think it was just what was expected and it’s what I wanted to do, so I put an advert in the paper and I got a good response and next August it will be 25 years I’ll have been teaching. Michelle and my sisters helped me out at the start. It was a family affair. All of us were involved. My mum would come down with her friend and friend Bridie Gallagher to help too.

“Michelle and I get on well, even though we have a different insight into the dancing. We like different things but I think we complement each other. She keeps me on my toes too. She gets things done and is very organised!”

Having learned under so many wonderful teachers themselves, it’s no surprise that both Caroline and Michelle have trained some fantastic dancers down throughout the years, including a few World Champions of their own and dancers who have gone on to star in Lord of the Dance themselves along with some of the other Irish dancing shows. Caroline spoke of the benefits of Irish dancing, the different skillset needed to be a teacher as opposed to a dancer, the joy she derives from teaching and the role dancing can play in a person’s development.

“Teaching requires a completely different skillset,” she said. “You need to have patience and also to realise that every child is different. They learn differently. You need to know the children inside out and how they progress. Not every child can go at the same pace. I love it when the beginners can do eight jump-two-threes round in a circle for example. I’ll video it and send it to their parents. I’m buzzing that they can do the jumps. Every aspect of their progress is a highlight, getting a beginner up to their first medal, first championship, first major title, then first World Championships. I get great joy out of seeing the children being happy and doing what they love.

“Irish dancing is unique. It gives the children the chance to make great friends, increase their confidence, have an enjoyable time, belong to a community and have some physical exercise too. It’s good for their structure for development.

“I always try to get the children to have the same mentality as what I had, knowing where they have to be on the stage for instance. When they are dancing onstage, I’m a bag of nerves. I just want them to dance their very best. I think there’s more pressure being a teacher than there is being a competitor without a doubt, and you try not to put that pressure onto the children. You try to make them feel really confident.”

“If a kid really progresses and becomes a well-known dancer and a good dancer, it’s easier to get into the shows,” Caroline added. “The World Champions that we’ve had would be well-known and the opportunities are endless. I’ve been back a few times to Lord of the Dance because three of our girls, Sinead Malone, Rohan Bole and Erin-Kate Mcilravey were in it, so I went to see all of them, and it was fantastic.

“Sinead is a teacher now. Rohan is doing something related to health and fitness at university. Her tutor actually came into the class because she had to pass some module that involved her taking charge of the class while I was in it. She had to show them exercises, different ways of doing things and she was assessed on it. Dancing gives them great confidence in different aspect of their lives because they’ve been onstage and performed in front of people. It can really open up lots of opportunities for the children.”

As someone who has been around Irish dancing competitions for most of her life, Caroline also spoke of another of her new roles as an adjudicator as well as Glasgow being the host city for many a World Championships bringing prestige to Irish dancing in Scotland.

“For me in my role as an adjudicator, timing is the most important thing,” she said. “My preference is for graceful dancers. I love seeing long legs and using the floor well. I love elegant dancers. Each adjudicator has their preference but that’s mine. You like to see the children enjoying themselves and smiling too.

“The World Championships being held in Glasgow brings prestige to Irish dancing in Scotland and then it’s highlighted on the news and it’s great. It’s a lot cheaper for the parents too as they don’t need to travel anywhere, they can stay at home which is good. Mind you, I think the kids prefer to go away! When it’s at home they need to go to school. If we’re away, we’d be away for a week and some of the children would be away for three or four days.”

Going viral
Even though Caroline’s competitive dancing days are behind her, it hasn’t stopped her hitting the headlines! A dance routine performed at her 50th birthday party, to the tune of Gerry Cinnamon’s She’s a Belter, went viral and attracted mainstream media attention, proving that her dancing can still make audiences sit up and take notice of her talents.

“I wanted the older girls and Martin one of our senior dancers to dance at my 50th birthday party with me and I was in the car one day going up to my dad’s and I remember hearing the song on the radio,” she said. “I was listening to the words and I thought they were fantastic. So, I got all the children in the class and said we’ll make up a routine and I put the song on and they couldn’t stop laughing. They were saying we know this song, we love it. So, then we made up the routine and I danced it at my 50th birthday party.

“I think one of the girls, Nicole, then tweeted it or sent it out via Instagram and it was retweeted and shared so that was great. I had quite a few of the newspapers phoning me about it. Even on the night of my party, a lot of the original Lord of the Dance cast were there so we got up and done one of the numbers, which was really good.”
It seems you just can’t stop Caroline dancing wherever she may be. Long may it continue.

Caroline spoke to us as part of our Irish Voices podcast, which you can listen to at: www.anchor.fm/theirishvoice or find and subscribe to it at: Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Spotify or Overcast