‘From World Champion 2003, to the Dark Lord of Lord of the Dance to becoming a University of Cambridge graduate, Steven Brunning MA, PHD, ADCRG talks us through the trials and tribulations of maintaining excellence in the world of Irish Dance and Academic Life’
Introduction – Tell us a bit about yourself? What were your favourite subjects at school, where did you study further education?
I have always had a lot of different interests from a very early age. I started Irish dancing at the age of 3 and never looked back. As well as dancing, I was a keen boxer, runner and tennis player. I enjoy football but wasn’t a great footballer myself – much to my two sons’ amusement now!
I have always loved learning and was especially interested in the Arts subjects at school. My favourite subjects were English, History and French. I left school slightly early at the age of 17 to take up the opportunity to join rehearsals as an original cast member of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance. This was just 2 months before my final A Level exams but my school teachers were very supportive and knew what a special opportunity it was for me. I took my school books with me and sat my A-Level exams in Dublin instead where we were rehearsing for the show. This was very surreal. We were rehearsing up to 12 hours a day with very little time for any study but I managed to fit it in and get the grades I needed for University. It was always my ambition to go to University but I deferred my place as Lord of the Dance became such a huge success and offered me the opportunity to travel the world doing something I loved.
During my time in the show I progressed to the lead role of Don Dorcha and was very lucky to be given the opportunity to perform this role opposite Michael Flatley in the Feet of Flames World Tour in 2000-2001. I was also made Dance Captain of Troupe 1. In my final two years of the show I decided to a study for another A Level (Philosophy) to get myself back into study mode and to try and achieve my ambition to get into Oxford or Cambridge University. We had so much dead time on travel days and this was a great way to reignite my intellect and exercise my brain in a very different way.
After 5 memorable years in the show I finally left to take my place at Cambridge University. Whilst I was still having fun on tour I knew the time was right for me to leave and I was eager to start the next chapter in my life. I graduated from Cambridge University in 2004 with an MA in Law. Since 2018, I have also been studying part time for a PhD in law at Nottingham University (specialising in public procurement law) – yes, I think I would be an eternal student given the chance!
- Why did you choose to become a Lawyer?
I wanted to be a lawyer from quite an early age. I liked the idea of being a professional and it seemed a good fit to my interests and skills and my favourite subjects at school. The legal profession is incredibly diverse. I didn’t really know precisely what area I would practise in until I had tried a bit of everything and then finally found my strengths and interest in commercial law.
- What is your professional experience as a Lawyer?
I qualified as a solicitor in 2007 at a law firm in Nottingham and have since gained experience both in different law firms and in-house. I spent some time as an Associate in global law firms in London and Birmingham before joining the legal team at Inzpire Ltd, one of the fastest growing military defence companies in the UK. I am the General Counsel and board member at Inzpire, leading a legal and commercial team who advises the business on all aspects of commercial law. I also write for academic journals on the area of law I am covering in my PhD.
- What is your professional experience as a dancer, teacher and adjudicator?
I was introduced to Irish dancing by Frances Cassidy (RIP) who used to teach in my hometown of Newark, Nottinghamshire. When Frances stopped teaching in Newark I moved to the Glendarragh Academy at the age of 9 where I was taught by Helen and Aidan Comerford. During my solo competitive career at the Glendarragh Academy I won the World Championships, All Ireland, Great Britain, British National and regional Oireachtas Championships.
I qualified as a teacher in 2003 and was honoured to be given the chance to help Helen and Aidan by teaching at the Glendarragh Academy. This gave me a great grounding in teaching and I felt very privileged to be given the opportunity to help Helen and Aidan train the next generation of dancers. We achieved great success together with 2 boys in particular winning 6 world titles between them and I then qualified as an ADCRG in 2009.
After taking a break from teaching in 2010 to focus on my legal career in London, I helped to set up the Inis Cara School with some fellow local teachers and friends that I had grown up with at the Glendarragh Academy, Caroline Devaney and Colleen Roberts. Berni Togher, one of Caroline’s ex-dancers, subsequently joined the teaching staff also. It was a great combination with many of our dancers achieving podium placings at all major championships.
I still teach and adjudicate now but my free time is more limited due to work, family and study pressures. I have been the workshop teacher for the Bell School, Pittsburgh USA for many years and I consider Pittsburgh to almost be my second home now because of the wonderful friends I have made at the Bell School. My sons are close friends with Julia Bell’s sons also which is just fantastic to see – global lifelong friendships are the best part of Irish dancing!
Teaching and adjudicating Irish dancing is very much a hobby and passion of mine rather than a career. I stay involved because I love the art form – Irish dancing will always be a big part of who I am, and I am very lucky to have a supportive wife and family who allow me to stay involved!
- How did you handle dancing competitively and studying for University/Medical School?
This was very challenging but possible with a bit of self-discipline and will-power. The study schedule at Cambridge was very intense but I treated it like any normal job. I would get up early and study solidly all day allowing me to dance and pursue other interests in the evening. I even started boxing for the University and trained and competed as a Blues squad member.
It was very difficult to find space to practise. Stephen Masterson ADCRG very kindly allowed me to practise in his local class and I found a dance studio that I could hire out some evenings – even though the only available time slot I could get was between 10-11pm! There were times when I would be nodding off waiting to get into the studio but I was fine once I got started. I used to travel home to Nottingham at the weekends and attend classes with Helen and Aidan and then take myself off to feises when I could. My mum and Dad were incredibly supportive during these years and I can’t thank them enough for that!
- Did you take time out of dancing to study or did you manage both?
I never stopped dancing throughout my studies, even during GCSE, A-Level and University exam years. Studying for exams whilst in rehearsals and on tour was challenging but very rewarding. I won the World Championships whilst preparing for my second year law exams at Cambridge and passed my TCRG exam around the same time as completing my final year exams. I found it very cathartic to be able to leave my revision for a couple of hours and go and bang out a few treble jigs and reels in a hall by myself. I think this helped me to keep an equilibrium and in hindsight I believe it was essential for my mental well-being. I honestly think Irish dancing saved me at times when I was finding the pressures of studying very hard to manage.
- Do you think being involved in Irish Dancing has helped shape your professional life and helped you to develop key life skills?
Absolutely! I believe Irish dancing has instilled in me a thirst for learning, a perseverance to keep striving to reach my goals and a resilience that enables me to take a lot of blows without being knocked down! When I started dancing, I had a turned in left foot and throughout my dancing career I had to try so hard to turn it out. I became almost obsessed with turnout to the point that I think I was almost penguin-like by the end of my career! It can be done though with a lot of hard work, good teachers and a mirror as your best friend! I didn’t recall at my first Worlds but 3 years later I won my first Great Britain Championships and 10 years after that I won the World Championships! It was a long hard slog but totally worth it! In my professional life, I continue to set myself various goals and am never standing still. Sometimes I get knocked off track and other life events intervene. Through my experience in the Irish dancing world however, I have learned to keep my composure and focus on the long haul, safe in the knowledge that it will all work out in the end if you want it bad enough!