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Irish dancers deliver a thrilling spectacle

It's a thrilling spectacle -- two-dozen Irish dancers lined up shoulder to shoulder, leaping into the air, feet striking heel and toe and heel again before vaulting back into the air.

In these iconic moments in "Riverdance," which opened Friday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center, the fancy footwork produces astonishing, almost impossibly fast-paced rhythms.

But who would have ever expected that two loose-limbed jazz-style tap dancers would almost steal the show from the straight-backed stars?

The tappers' number, "Trading Taps," comes early in the second act, which tells the story of Irish emigration. On a street in a big American city, three Irish boys, sporting striped shirts, high-waisted pants and suspenders, meet the two black-clad jazz tappers, Jason Bernard and Parker Hall. The Americans do a few bits of cool, swaying fancy footwork, and the Irish counter with some of their straight-backed precision taps. The Americans speed up their taps, the Irish throw in some high kicks, and soon it's an all-out dance battle that would make the Sharks and the Jets hit the bleachers to watch.

The encounter's caricatured rivalry and humor, including a mimed nap Bernard takes on Parker's shoulder while the Irish trio break out some of their best moves, had the Shea's crowd yelling, whistling and interrupting with applause.

While "Trading Taps" was spectacular, it was only one of many highlights in this two-hour presentation that showcased both Irish dancing and singing, and the traditional Irish instruments, the uilleann pipes and the bodhran drum.

Each type of performance got its turn in the spotlight, from soloist Niamh McCormack lovely lament, "The Heart's Cry" to bodhran player Steve Holloway's use of a small wooden striker and his hand on the back of the flat goatskin drum to produce an amazing array of sounds. At one point, you'd swear a helicopter was about to land.

But the heart and soul of "Riverdance" is the Irish dancers, and they shined, especially leads Maria Buffini and Marty Dowds. Buffini is a slender doe-eyed beauty with flying feet whose moves are quick and graceful. Like all great dancers, she makes it look effortless.

But whether it was his muscular athleticism or the fact that the choreography seemed to favor the men -- it was, after all, done by flamboyant showman Michael Flatley, who danced it himself -- Dowds owned the stage. With Patrick Swayze-esque looks and feet like a jackhammer, Dowds lit up "Thunderstorm," a first-act showcase for eight men who provide all the sound with thundering feet and the occasional shout.

The first act deals with Ireland's prehistoric era, and offers homage to the elements, the sun, the moon, and, as a closing number, the rivers. (The brief "Firedance" was cut when the flamenco dancer became ill, but a replacement is en route.)

The first act, varying high-energy pieces with the dreamy and enigmatic, laid the foundation for the rollicking, culturally varied second act. Five dancers from the Moscow Folk Ballet Company added spice with their traditional gymnastics.

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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Dance Review

Riverdance

Friday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Additional performances at 2 and 8 p.m. today and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

For more information, visit www.sheas.org.

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