When Gregg Senko talks about Irish dancing, his whole demeanor changes. He gets wide-eyed and dreamy.
When he talks about Michael Flatley, the lord of all lords of the dance, he sounds like an Irish dance scholar. He’s a fervent Flatley fan who can recall the exact date he spoke to the famous hoofer from Chicago.
It was Sept. 19, 1997.
Senko interviewed the dancer for an entertainment website.
“It was the most inspiring conversation I ever had,” Senko says. “The guy is basically a rock star on stage.”
A native of Cleveland, Senko, grew up playing hockey and soccer, traditional boyhood pastimes.
At 20, he got his first taste of Irish step dancing when he saw his first “Riverdance” performance on PBS. A few weeks later, he caught Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance.”
At the time, an Irish dance phenomenon was sweeping the country. Although Senko knew little about the art, he knew Flatley’s production, with its bad guy/good guy plot and rock-and-roll attitude, was unlike anything he’d seen before.
He bought his first pair of hard shoes shortly thereafter.
“Not to take anything away from ‘Riverdance,’” Senko says, “but ‘Lord of the Dance’ was that on steroids. I had to learn it … fast. I didn’t want to start off in soft-soled shoes. I wanted to make noise right away.”
It wasn’t easy finding an Irish dance school in Cleveland that took adult students, so Senko studied tap for two years.
Like any diehard fan, he began stalking the message boards on “Lord of the Dance” websites, where he met Justin Boros, an Irish dancer from Akron, Ohio, who would later land a spot on tour with Flatley.
In 1998, they met in person for the first time at a “Lord of the Dance” performance in Las Vegas.
Their dream of forming an Irish dance troupe was still a decade away, but the seeds were planted that day as they watched Flatley flit shirtless across the stage, pounding out 28 taps per second.
“It was nothing short of mesmerizing,” Senko says. “It left me awestruck.”
He had a lot of lost ground to cover, so in between studying dance, he put his police science degree to use and applied for a job in the United States Secret Service.
He was accepted. A month into training, however, the 34-year-old had a change of heart.
“I thought, ‘If I do this, that’s it. No more dancing,’” Senko says. “It was a turbulent time. People looked at me like I wasn’t right. I left the Secret Service in the midst of training to become an Irish dancer. I know how that sounds.”
The gamble is paying off.
Two years ago, he and Boros launched “Rhythm in the Night,” an Irish dance troupe based in Sarasota. And, unlike “Lord of the Dance,” the show’s musical plot revolves around a villain, not a hero.
“Because not enough stories talk about the bad guy,” Senko says.
In November 2010, the company made its debut to a standing room-only crowd at the Irish Rover Pub.
They followed up the gig with a performance at the 2010 Downtown Sarasota New Year’s Eve celebration, followed by a spot on the Sarasota Highland Games and a show at Sahib Shrine Auditorium.
Since then, they’ve stepped up production in preparation for their biggest dance yet: the premiere of an all-original dance showcase at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
“We’re not shooting for mediocrity,” Senko says. “We looked at a lot of venues, and the Van Wezel was obviously top-notch.”
Over the course of last year, Boros and Senko auditioned dozens of professional dancers from all over the world.
They disseminated choreography via the Internet, hired a scene shop in Clearwater to build the set, commissioned a Cleveland-based music duo to compose the soundtrack and designed costumes that they hope will shatter all frilly Irish dance stereotypes.
Both men will perform in the show — Boros as the lead villain and Senko as a member of the ensemble.
“I think people are in for a big surprise,” Senko says. “There’s nothing mundane about it. We’ve seen enough Irish dance to know what works and what doesn’t.”
IF YOU GO
“Rhythm in the Night” will perform its Irish Dance Showcase at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20, at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The show will include a discussion with co-creators Gregg Senko and Justin Boros and a reception following the performance. For tickets, call 953-3368 or visit vanwezel.org.
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