Staying in step: Siblings, former KU students, strengthen family ties while touring with ‘River
A comedian once described "Riverdance" as the perfect career for someone if paralysis affected the body in the opposite direction.
True, the theatrical show's rendering of Irish step dancing -- in which the legs dart rapidly while everything above the waist is kept stationary -- is a sight that inspires wonder in some and chuckles in others.
Siblings and former Kansas University students Jenna and Steve Woods have grown accustomed to the jokes.
"All of us within the company have to have a good sense of humor about it," Jenna says. "Normally, the references you see in entertainment and stuff make fun of it, but in a jokingly cheesy way. I don't think anyone out here has the illusion that we're doing any kind of dramatic, life-changing thing. But it is an amazing show in a lot of ways."
Jenna, a 2001 Kansas University graduate in theater design, is the wardrobe supervisor for "Riverdance." Younger brother Steve -- who spent two years at KU -- runs monitors in the show's sound crew.
"A lot of my friends are like, 'Oh, "Riverdance." That's so silly. How can you stand the tapping every night?' To tell you the truth, I actually really love watching the show -- and I've been out here for 3 1/2 years, and I'm not sick of it," Jenna says.
The 27-year-old hooked up with "Riverdance" after she quit another theatrical tour. Friends helped land her a job selling merchandise for the "Riverdance" Boyne troupe while she waited for a union position to open up. (Each performing company is named after an Irish river. Currently, the best-known, Boyne, is the only one touring. None of them are affiliated with Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance" show.)
While Jenna doesn't have anything to do with making the show's costumes (they're all created by a designer in Dublin, Ireland), she and her assistant supervise a crew in each city in "cleaning, ironing, moving things in the right place, helping the dancers get dressed and that kind of stuff," she says.
"There are 50 cast members, and they each change between four to eight times a night," she says. "But it's different every night because they have a dancing rotation. Everyone is always in a different spot."
"She's very cool," Steve says of his sister. "We get along real well. Then if I'm real nice to her, sometimes she'll do my laundry."
Sound and fury
Steve's position on the three-man sound crew involves running the monitor mixes onstage for five live musicians and the array of singers and dancers.
One of the unique challenges is the performers actually have microphones in their shoes.
"The mics are custom-made in Ireland," Steve says. "Some of the dancers get them stuck right against their heel under their shoe. A lot of those break."
Like his sister, the 26-year-old Steve majored in theater design at KU. He gained experience doing shows for University Theatre, then was hired by the regional sound production company StagePro. Conveniently enough, he also worked the sound system at the Lied Center, which is where "Riverdance" will appear during its Lawrence stop.
After his sophomore year, Steve left KU to attend sound school in Nashville, Tenn.
"It's very fun working with my brother," Jenna says. "We grew up doing a lot of the same things. We played the same instrument in band. We both did theater. We've always really gotten along.
"We don't deal with each other directly during the show. But when you're on a tour, you only have a few people to be involved in your life. So it's really nice to have that interaction. He's a really calm presence to have out here on the road."
Jenna currently resides in Queens, N.Y., while Steve lives in Austin, Texas.
So far, they have toured through Canada, Mexico and most of the states.
"My favorite part about the tour is making a lot of international friends," Jenna says. "I've already had a chance to go and visit them in places like Ireland. When you spend day-to-day life with people from different places, you learn a lot about their places, but you also learn a lot about where you're from."
In fact, when "Riverdance" played in Kansas City last summer, the Woods invited the company members to their parents' home in Stilwell (where they grew up) for a Kansas barbecue.
Jenna says the cast and crew acts "like a big family." But for as much time as the Woods spend socially with their tour mates, they have yet to pick up any dance steps.
"It's not unusual for people to get a little basic instruction. But when you're around people who do it really well, it's kind of intimidating. Most of them have been doing it since they were 3 or 4," Jenna says.
Steve adds, "I thought about asking. But they all weigh a lot less than I do. And they're a little more athletic than me. Maybe some day I'll give it a shot. I'll do a lot of stretching first."