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Love walked away from me as I was dancing all over the world; EXCLUSIVE RIVERDANCE STAR TELLS OF SHOW THAT CHANGED HER LIFE.

Byline: FIONA WYNNE

RIVERDANCE star Joanne Doyle had the world at her feet when she toured the globe with the smash-hit show.

Twelve millions fans saw her lead the extraordinary dance routines that changed for ever the world's perception of Irish culture.

But while she charmed audiences with her magical footwork, her love life was out of step losing her first boyfriend to the show as she found fame.

Now that her dancing days are over after 10 thrilling years she can talk about her old flame, her new love and how she survived the bitterness when Michael Flatley quit.

Joanne, from Lucan, Co Dublin, said: "Within a few months of Riverdance taking off all the boyfriends were dropped.

"I had a boyfriend when I joined and I was completely mad about him but it was too much for us not to see each other.

"I know now it was for the best and the guy in question is married with children now, but it was a hard decision to make.

"All the young couples broke up around the same time, the pressure just got too much and everyone cracked.

"I really did put my love life on hold while I was with Riverdance.

"I spent up to 50 weeks of the year travelling so it was just impossible to have a relationship."

For Joanne the day the music dies is just around the corner. And now her love life has blossomed again.

She explained: "I have been with my current boyfriend Pierre Sansoneth since last summer and it's all very new and exciting.

He is so proud of what I've done and he tells me all the time I've had a wonderful life so far.

"He is French and in France they have this thing about finding yourself before you are 30. He thinks I have done a lot and seen a lot and now I am in a good position within myself.

"He has been very supportive of me while I have been touring and we make huge efforts to see each other as often as possible.

"It will be a while until I get married, my father is mad to get a grandchild, but I am not ready for wedding bells yet.

"But when I do settle down I have no doubt in my mind that it will be with Pierre."

Joanne joined the show soon after it went global and has led one of its travelling troupes ever since.

Her routine of trebles, rocks, cuts and clicks, has sent more than 2,500 theatres wild.

Unlike most of her colleagues she didn't have to audition for the role, instead she was plucked from obscurity by Lord of the Dance himself Michael Flatley.

Within a year of joining, Joanne was appointed lead understudy and in January 1996 she put her best foot forward and danced the lead role for the first time.

"I was so scared when I took to the stage that night, I couldn't eat or sleep," recalls Joanne. "Terror just filled me, I went out on the stage shaking but I managed to hold it together.

"I knew the steps and everything, I had no doubt about that, but it was just so scary to step out and have all eyes on you.

"There wasn't any real turning point for me with regards becoming the lead, I started doing alternate nights with Jean and then it just ended up that I was doing most of the London shows.

"When I found out I would be the permanent lead I played it down because I didn't want to be a diva but I knew I had the best job in the world. I was studying in Slovenia during the Eurovision song contest, that is the only reason I didn't audition for the show.

"But I pleaded with a local landlady to let me watch it, I actually danced for the entire pub just to win them over.

"Eventually they changed the channel and I was glued to the screen, the interval spot just blew me away.

"I just remember thinking it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

"I have been dancing since I was four and I love it with a passion.

"But after Eurovision all I could think about was going home and getting back into the swing of things."

Joanne went on to become the longest-serving lead in Riverdance history. During her dancing days she travelled to 21 countries, including Malaysia, China, Japan and Australia.

But the slim beauty said the last 10 years were not all about standing ovations, adoring crowds and bunches of flowers.

Lots of injuries, hard work and enormous mental pressures were also part and parcel of the Riverdance phenomenon.

"Every day was extremely hard work," she said. We would spend all day in work and then we would spend the night going over the steps in our heads and practising together.

"It was all about managing injuries, eating properly and working your body. And when one of us got sick everyone did because we lived in each other's pockets. At one stage 22 of us had colds and seven of the troop were injured.

"We were doing pilates and exercises to work our muscles because we used our calf muscles so much more than other parts of our bodies. We also did cardiovascular exercise for 45 minutes every day.

"One time I strained my ankle and it was very painful to overcome.

"We also worked on the performance elements of it such as looking confident and smiling.

"When we went on stage it was like a massive cover up operation because most of the time we were all scared beyond belief.

"There is a lot of pressure involved because you don't want to make a fool of yourself in front of 6,000 people." Behind the perfect curled hair, the glittering costumes and the painted smile the dancers also had to deal with sinister fan mail.

Joanne said: "People mostly leave you alone, we had some psychos though.

"I had a guy who sent me letters with big photos of himself and his five dogs and he would make a signature for all the dogs.

"I also got some bizarre pictures of people in dancing costumes and little else.

"My dance partner Brendan de Gallai used to get teddies and underwear, one time he got a bear who was all dressed up in S&M gear. It was very freaky and while we would have a laugh about it sometimes I did make us quite uncomfortable.

"It was sometimes difficult to go to the pub after a show and laugh and joke with people who only want to talk about Riverdance when you just want to crawl into bed."

Michael Flatley and his then dance partner Jean Butler captured the world in seven minutes during the interval of Eurovision 1994.

Never before had such a unique blend of Irish and modern dancing been attempted.

But the sweet taste of triumph didn't last long in the Riverdance camp and a series of bust-ups lead to Flatley leaving the show.

Joanne said: "I am thankful now for the way things turned out but that's not to say it wasn't a difficult time.

"I always got on well with Michael but I don't think he would even recognise me now, it has been nearly 10 years.

No one kept in touch with him when he left, I think he was very hurt by the whole thing and everyone felt like he had abandoned them.

"He couldn't go back so I don't think he even thought about it. Anytime Michael Flatley was there we would be terrified.

"He scared the life out of me at first. He always used to tell us not to make a show of him.

"But he motivated and pushed you like no one else, he made you want to do your best.

"But if he hadn't left there may not have been another company because I am not sure he could share the limelight."

Joanne turned 30 last year and felt the time for her to leave Riverdance had come - but nothing could prepare her for her last night on stage.

"My last night was completely horrible. It hit me on my second last show that I was leaving and I felt like I was watching myself dance and I had no control over what was going on. It was like going to a funeral where you don't know the person who died but you can feel the terrible sadness.

"I just cried all the time, everyone thought I was injured but I was just so sad.

"On my last night I somehow managed to hold it together during the show and actually allowed myself to enjoy it.

"When we danced at the Special Olympics last year it was very upsetting because I knew it was the last time my parents and my friends would see me onstage.

"The only thing that helped was the thought that I had to go out with a bang and give it my all.

"I was happy with a huge underlying sadness. The month before I left was a nightmare."

Joanne spent almost a third of her life dancing and she has some very happy memories.

But the Irish cailin said her decision to leave was made easy by the knowledge that she couldn't spend all her life away from people she loved.

She added: "Dancing all the time was very fulfilling and I was happy 99 per cent of the time. I was living the dream, I was young, free and single and seeing the world in a wonderful way. The only bad thing was getting homesick.

"I remember being on tour for 27 weeks at one stage and just feeling so homesick.We were in Australia and I just felt like home was so far away. We only got home for two weeks a year at Christmas.

"I remember one year I was away for 50 weeks and I got home on Christmas Eve and had to leave again on St Stephen's Day.

"I am still part of the Riverdance flying squad who do occasional shows. I get the best of both worlds now, I get to be with the people I love and still dance."

CAPTION(S):

FLIGHT OF FANCY: Joanne is to step out of limelight; SUPER TROUPER: Joanne leads the line in Riverdance spectacular; EMOTION: With dance partner Brendan de Gallai in the international hit
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 30, 2004
Words:1762
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