Craig Mason has one person to thank for the interest in Irish dancing which has offered him a dream career . . . his grandma.
“She was a big Riverdance fan and she had the DVD when me and my sisters were young,” says Craig, who grew up in Gosforth, Newcastle.
“When I was seven, she took us along to a class because she said I was jumping around the living room trying to do the steps.
“My two sisters gave up after a few weeks, but I kept on going.”
And going. And going.
Ten years (and a lot of successful competitions) later, Craig auditioned for Riverdance and presumably made his grandma the proudest one for miles around.
By the time he was 18, he’d become part of the on-stage phenomenon, which came to global attention during a seven-minute slot at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, and went on to tour all over the world with the production for the next four years.
During that time, his long-time friendly rival on the Irish dancing competition circuit, Shane Cummins, also joined the Riverdance cast. “It was nice not to be competing against each other for a change,” laughs the now 24-year-old, who hails from Roscrea, County Tipperary.
Last year, Craig and Shane, who both achieved medals at the World Irish Dancing Championships and also clocked up respective Great Britain and UK champion statuses during their competing days, made the landmark decision to step off the end of the famous dancing line to start their own Irish dance school, so they could pass on what they’d learned to the next generation of young Riverdancers.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to leave,” says Craig, who is now 23. “Being in Riverdance was always a massive dream for both of us, and lots of people stay for a lot longer once they get into a touring troupe.”
Shane adds: “When I was seven I said to my mam that I was going to be an Irish dancing teacher. I’d been dancing since I was four. Irish dancing is compulsory in most schools in Ireland from a really early age.
“I think I was one of the boys who stood at the back saying he wanted nothing to do with it . . . and then the music started. I was hooked, and here I am 20 years later,” he smiles.
“It was always a dream to be in Riverdance, but you always knew that it was only the best of the best get into it.
“It was a great honour to get into the show, but when you’re in it, then you think about achieving the other dream, and become an Irish dancing teacher.”
“At some point we were always going to have to make the decision to leave,” says Craig, “and it was never going to be an easy one.”
What made it a bit easier, though, was the fact that both Craig and Shane kind of got to have their Riverdance cake and eat it. The friends, who opened the Mason-Cummins Academy in Newcastle last year and started offering classes across Tyneside and Wearside, were both kept on the Riverdance team after being recruited to be in what is fantastically known as the Flying Squad.
Craig explains, (and slightly disappoints me when he reveals they don’t have special uniforms).
“When the show is on tour, say in America, and there’s a one-off performance to do in London or somewhere, they’ll fly us down to perform a one-off gig.”
A recent example of this would be the End of the Show performance, which offered the climax to an episode of Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway earlier this year.
“We both went down for that and danced with Ant and Dec,” laughs Craig. “They were really working hard at learning the steps and did really well.”
“They were so nice when we met them, too. We had a great time,” adds Shane.
“Those kinds of things are brilliant because it means we get to remain part of Riverdance, but we get the best of both worlds, because we can dip in and out and can build a life and a business outside of the show.”
They can also call the Riverdance producers when the 20th anniversary UK tour is heading for the North East and ask if anyone fancies a few nights off.
“We’re both so happy to be dancing in the show when it comes to Sunderland,” says Shane. “There’ll be a lot of our friends in the tour, so it will be great to catch up with them.”
“On the nights that we’re going to be dancing in Sunderland, the guys who we’ll be dancing for will just get a rest because we’ve asked if we can go on and dance for our friends, family . . . and students,” laughs Craig.
“Loads of the kids who have signed up to our classes have booked their tickets, so we’ll have to make sure we’re good!”
I wonder whether they’ll have to undertake some intense rehearsals before they jump back into the fully-fledged Riverdance experience. Apparently not.
If you’ve got the ability, being part of the Riverdance cast is akin to riding a bike. “We’ll just turn up on the day and run through the numbers with the cast,” says Craig.
“It takes your whole life to train for Riverdance. You need to be dancing for a good 10 years before you think about auditioning. Then, once you get onto the show, there’s a two to three-week rehearsal period.
“My first show, I was so nervous. My legs were shaking. But within two weeks I was totally comfortable, and you don’t lose that.”
“It becomes like second nature,” says Shane. “Once you’ve done it for a while, you never forget it.”
Once the run at the Sunderland Empire is over though, the boys will be looking forward to getting back to training up their own little troupe of dancers.
“We currently run classes in Bedlington, Gosforth, Darras Hall and Washington, and it’s going really well,” says Craig.
“We’ve also started going into some primary schools in Newcastle, doing after-school clubs. I think it’s nice to offer an alternative activity for kids to try. It’s best to start teaching them as young as you can. The younger they are, the sooner they learn the language of Irish dancing.
“There are quite a few successful (Irish dancing) schools on Tyneside, but there was still room in the market for us to set up a school.
“Also, of course, we have the links with Riverdance and the fact that we’d done really well competitively. We’ve used all of our accomplishments as advertisements,” he continues.
“It would be amazing to have one of our students go through all the classes and training and do what we’ve done.
“I think it’s good for them to see that it’s OK for them to have big dreams, because they’re being taught by two people who had those dreams and made them come true.”
Riverdance comes to Sunderland Empire Theatre from November 10-15. For bookings, call 0844 871 3022 or visit www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland . Booking fees apply to telephone and online sales.