March 17, 1997 12:00 PM

AT THE 1994 EUROVISION SONG competition in Dublin, the tune wasn’t even on the program—it was played during intermission. But today, “Riverdance” is the title piece of a high-energy step-dancing show that is the most popular Irish export since Guinness. “People are looking for something spiritual, soulful and rooted,” says Riverdance composer Bill Whelan, 46. It “is one of the most unusual and thrilling entertainments of the decade,” wrote Sid Smith of the Chicago Tribune.

A lot of Americans have been catching the beat. Since March 1996, Riverdance, a musical pastiche based on the traditional Irish folk art of step dancing, has played to sold-out houses in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Meanwhile the show’s Grammy Award-winning soundtrack has spent 36 weeks on Billboard’s World Music charts.

That’s a lot of fuss for a form of folk dancing that until recently had been dismissed in Ireland as “peasant culture.” Step dancing, a fast-moving routine that is performed with the upper body rigid, is both physically-demanding and emotionally charged. “There are occasional injuries” to knees and ankles, says Whelan. Traditionally it is done as a kind of competitive sport, and most of the performers in the two Riverdance companies touring the world are former competitors. But with as many as 35 dancers onstage at once, the show dazzles with precision ensemble work. “This is a celebration of human connection,” says Whelan.

It has certainly proved to be a good connection for Whelan. An only child reared by two musicians in Limerick, Ireland (his father played harmonica; his mother, classical piano), Whelan abandoned a legal career—he had earned a law degree at University College, Dublin—to become a professional pianist and guitarist.

He moved on to arranging and composing and, by the mid-’80s, to producing for such Irish superstars as Van Morrison and U2. Seven years ago he started writing orchestral pieces based on traditional Irish themes—and embarked on the journey that would lead eventually to Riverdance.

There’s talk of turning the show into a movie, but Whelan—who lives in Dublin with wife Denise and their four children, ages 14 to 20—is eager to head in a new direction. I’m River-danced, out,” he says. That doesn’t keep friends from hitting him up for hard-to-find tickets. His response: “Hiding from the phone.”


MONICA RIZZO in Los Angeles

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