During the nearly two years that he spent working as a barista at Filter in Foggy Bottom, Joe Duffey never actually served customers Irish coffee, but he would have gladly smiled, made you an Americano and struck up a conversation about all things Irish, from whiskey to Michael Flatley.
Duffey, 24, is an Irish dancer. Until January, you could find him serving coffee, teaching Pilates in Dupont Circle, and then driving to Columbia to teach at the Teelin School of Irish Dance, all in the same day. But almost overnight last winter, Duffey’s luck changed. He sent a demo video to Lord of the Dance, the global Celtic dance juggernaut that Flatley has run for 20 years. Soon he was on his way to an audition in London. And now Duffey, the former D.C. barista, is performing eight shows a week on Broadway.
“Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games” opened last week at the Lyric Theatre, one of the largest Broadway venues. It’s the first time Flatley’s franchise has been on Broadway and also the entertainer’s last onstage fling: Flatley, 57, says he’ll retire from dancing in January, when “Dangerous Games” ends its run. Until then, he joins the ensemble onstage for the finale and encore, and that’s a thrill for Duffey.
“He was my inspiration,” Duffey said.
Duffey was just 6 when his parents, Susan McDonald and George Washington University professor Michael R. Duffey, showed him a video of Flatley dancing. He was enthralled.
“My parents put me in dance classes, and I liked it from the start,” he said.
Duffey grew up in a neighborhood in Bethesda, near Glen Echo Park, that was a pretty great place to be a kid. He faced little taunting at school for being the rare boy in an art form practiced mostly by girls wearing puffy skirts and sporting equally puffed-up hair. That’s in part because it is easier to demonstrate Irish dance at recess than, say, to do a jete on pavement.
“Instead of explaining, I just showed them what I did,” Duffey said.
“People responded well to that, for the most part, and dance began part of my identity. I was always encouraged to perform.” Except when he was actually in class. “I would get into trouble for tapping my feet during tests,” Duffey said. “That’s the downside of a loud, percussive dance form.”
Like its close cousins flamenco and tap, Irish dancing is as much about making noise as it is about footwork. At the highest levels, it’s both loud and virtuosic.
“Irish dancing, at its core, is very technical. I almost like to call it the ballet of percussive dance,” Duffey said. That’s because the basic positions of Irish dance are similar to those of ballet, including turning out your feet, pointing your toes and crossing your legs during jumps. Backs are ramrod-straight, however, and arms are usually both held at a dancer’s side, or one is raised in an arc above the head.
“Dangerous Games” incorporates other dance styles as well as pyrotechnics, projections and general razzle-dazzle. Several of the women’s Broadway numbers look more like balletic modern dance performed in lace-up slippers, while the men indulge in a bit of hip-hop. Duffey’s favorite number in the show is “Robojig,” featuring six ensemble men performing in robot suits. Other routines require dancers of both genders to partially disrobe, such as the shirtless battle scene in which the forces of the Dark Lord stalk good-guy dancers led by the Lord of the Dance, a role performed at most shows by Fergal Keaney, a Galway, Ireland, native with a degree in astrophysics.
Duffey doesn’t know yet whether he’ll have an opportunity to continue performing with Lord of the Dance once “Dangerous Games” closes, or be back serving at Filter. From March through September, he performed in the London run of Flatley’s show. It was his first time living abroad, and Duffey loved it. New York is fun too, but things aren’t quite the same.
“I miss the coffee in London,” Duffey said. “It was really good.”
Duffey’s Broadway debut was one of many events connecting D.C.-to-Broadway connections in the past week. Here’s a recap of other reasons showbiz types have been busy taking the Acela.
●First lady Michelle Obama welcomed about 50 students from performing arts schools around the country to “Broadway at the White House” on Monday. The event featured workshops as well as performances from the casts of “An American in Paris,” “Finding Neverland,” “Fun Home,” “On Your Feet!,” “Something’s Rotten” and “School of Rock.” Matthew Morrison and Kristin Chenoweth were among the stars of the East Wing’s musical review. While the first lady encouraged everyone to “Do the conga,” like Gloria Estefan, she didn’t stick around for the entire performance. Highlights from the day will air Nov. 26 on the cable network TLC.
●Washington’s recently concluded Women’s Voices Festival — a citywide effort to get more plays written by women onstage — will be the subject of a summit Wednesday in New York. The Good to Go Festival is sponsoring the day-long event, which will be held at Broadway’s Theater Center. Speakers include Signature Theatre’s Maggie Boland, National New Play Network’s Nan Barnett, Catholic University’s Eleanor Holdridge and Georgetown University’s Jojo Ruf.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.