Oct. 29, 2021
‘A lifelong dream’: Morgan Bullock, now performing with Riverdance, takes center stage
Her TikTok videos last year were viewed by millions. Now the VCU student and longtime dancer is taking time off from school as a member of the touring cast of the beloved theatrical show.
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Millions of people viewed Virginia Commonwealth University student Morgan Bullock's TikTok videos last year choreographing Irish dance moves to hip-hop hits like Megan Thee Stallion’s song “Savage,” featuring Beyonce. Those posts garnered recognition from Beyonce’s mom and admiration from lovers of Irish dance and Ireland’s head of government. But they also brought out critics coming to grips with the fact that Bullock is a Black American who has embraced Irish dance.
Now the 22-year-old School of Education student and longtime Irish dance competitor is a member of the touring cast of Riverdance, a theatrical show of traditional Irish dance in conversation with other dance forms that is currently crisscrossing the United Kingdom. The Midlothian, Virginia, native told a BBC interviewer it is the ultimate honor for her as a dancer to be part of Riverdance’s 25th-anniversary tour. She is also making history for being the first African American female dancer — and only the second African American, after Blaine Donovan — to join the cast of the iconic show.
Charismatic, poised and talented, Bullock’s moment is unfolding on the largest of stages, and she is displaying an uncanny ability to both enjoy the moment and display grace while in the spotlight, said Padraic Moyles, executive director of Riverdance.
“We were just so impressed with how she was handling herself; the poise, the articulation, her ability to communicate when she posted those videos,” Moyles said. “She held herself so well when she experienced critical comments to her social posts. She showed grace and humility, maturity and poise, and so many other terrific aspects to her personality that really helps her stand out for not just the dancer she is, but the person she is.
“Those are values that we cherish in this organization, aside from the fact that we know that she’s talented and she’s a great dancer,” Moyles said. “She probably doesn't realize herself the potential that we see within her.”
VCU News caught up with Bullock, who has been performing to sold-out audiences and is about to travel to the United Arab Emirates to perform at the World Expo in Dubai, to find out what life is like on the road with Riverdance.
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What's it like to be back on stage?
It's been amazing and surreal to be on stage with this group. That first Riverdance show, when the lights came on and I saw the full audience, it was not just me who felt so emotional, everyone in the company did. We talked about it. We all got a little teary. It's an amazing feeling to be able to perform in front of an audience. It's been great.
How did you prepare to join the Riverdance Liffey Company ensemble?
I did the summer school with Riverdance, which is an academy where aspiring professional dancers who would like to be in Riverdance can enroll. You learn the whole show. It became like an audition process. I also did it when I was under 18. And I was invited to join the cast this past May.
Before that, I did a lot of training in the studio. I'm fortunate to have dance teachers who have toured with Riverdance before. I trained with them in the studio pretty much from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for a good week before leaving. But prior to that, I was taking cycling classes and cross-training at the gym and trying to get my fitness stamina up. I'm sure professional dancers will tell you the only real way to train for something like this is by doing it. Once I got here, I was in good physical shape after doing all the training, but it was still difficult. We had three days of rehearsals before our opening night.
What's it like to be on tour?
Touring is a new experience for me. It's been fun and very challenging. What’s different from competitive dancing is, a touring show is more about the show and the performance of it, whereas for a competitive dancer, it's very individual. Being a show dancer is more about working as a team. Getting to see new cities that I've never been to, having the opportunity to see another part of the world and experience different cultures has been amazing so far. I started in August and I'm excited to continue with this. When you do six shows in three days, it’s a lot of work. This whole new experience has solidified my love for Irish dancing. I definitely plan on going back to VCU once I'm finished touring.
We have been wearing masks and we're getting tested for COVID-19 twice a week. The UK is operating at full capacity for theaters. So, we're taking as many precautions as we can as a touring cast because the pandemic is still very much a real thing.
Have you been able to interact with the audience?
We can't really do much of the interacting with audience members that would usually be done, like autograph signing and pictures. There've been a few outside the stage door and we'll stop for a picture. I have to wear a mask. We have to have our own pens. Going to grab a bite to eat between shows, there've been people who have told us, “I went to see the show and it’s amazing.” That's been really great for me as someone who's new to the show and not having experienced that audience connection.
How diverse is the cast of Riverdance? And how do people react to you being part of the show as an African American?
In the cast, there are two American dancers [in the Irish ensemble], myself and a male dancer from Ohio. Other countries that dancers come from are Ireland, of course, England and Australia. There are also Russian dancers in the show. The tap dancers [who join the Irish ensemble at different points on stage] are American. The musicians are from Ireland, England and America. There is some diversity in the cast for sure. And everyone comes from different backgrounds, even the Irish cast members come from different places on the island. So, there is diversity. I feel fortunate to be part of this group and everyone's open and accepting.
Me being American, the non-American dancers think it's cool. We talk about our cultural differences. It's been great because I think the main message of Riverdance itself is about a blending of cultures — there's tap dancing, flamenco dancing, Russian dancing, Irish dancing. Of course, it's an Irish dance show, but the blending of cultures is a huge theme in the show. That's definitely shown in the backgrounds of the dancers and the cast members.
How does it feel to be one of the only Black dancers in an all-white Irish dance company?
It honestly is not something I've had to think about too much because I don't feel like I've been ostracized in any way, but it is something that I don’t forget. It is just an amazing opportunity. I have to step back and think about the fact that I'm in a position where I can be someone for other aspiring dancers to look up to in a space that they might not [previously] have had someone who looks like them. This is important because growing up, I didn't really have anyone that looked like me that I could look up to in Riverdance. The fact that I can be that for someone else is an amazing thing for me. The opportunity to perform with Riverdance is a huge deal. But when I think about the fact that I'm one of few Black dancers who got to do this, and have gotten to this point, it is pretty surreal.
Do you feel your impact? Have you gotten responses from people that you've encouraged?
I have, and that has definitely been the highlight of everything that has happened to me so far. I've been told that I'm the reason why someone has signed their child up for Irish dance classes. That means more than anything to me. That is what really makes it real for me.
When you think about your social media posts of you Irish dancing to hip-hop music, what reactions made the biggest impression on you?
After I started to get some pushback from people who were accusing me of cultural appropriation, the support that came after that from notable Irish figures is what I think will always stick with me because it solidified the fact that Irish dancing is not something that's only reserved for Irish people. And the fact that the accusations of cultural appropriation were coming from a place of ignorance and exclusivity, that was unnecessary. It meant a lot to me to get [positive reactions from] the prime minister of Ireland and Bill Whelan, the composer of all the Riverdance music.
You were dancing in those videos during the protests after the killing of George Floyd. Was there a connection and did that impact your dancing?
I was using dance as a form of therapy. The murder of George Floyd was obviously devastating. It was hard mentally. So I turned to dancing. It inspired me to do something different with it and have more freedom with it, just for the sake of healing in a way.
Who do you look up to in the dance world?
As far as Irish dancing, Jean Butler is a huge one for me, the original leading lady of Riverdance. Chloe Arnold, who is a tap dancer, has been a mentor to me since my viral video. She reached out to me and offered guidance. And another huge one is Misty Copeland because she broke barriers in ballet as a Black dancer who didn't fit the typical mold of a ballerina. Given my situation, she's a huge inspiration.
“I have to step back and think about the fact that I’m in a position where I can be someone for other aspiring dancers to look up to in a space that they might not [previously] have had someone who looks like them. … Growing up, I didn’t really have anyone that looked like me that I could look up to in Riverdance. The fact that I can be that for someone else is an amazing thing.”Morgan Bullock
How has the past year and a half with the pandemic changed your perspective as a dancer, your ability to train and keep up with Irish dance?
It's definitely made me more appreciative of the performances and the time I've been able to spend in the studio pre-pandemic, and it's made me want to push harder to do what I like, follow my dreams and dance. Going on this tour with Riverdance is definitely a lifelong dream for me. This is something I would never take for granted because during the pandemic, none of this was happening and I wouldn't have been able to do this. So it definitely made me appreciate the little things much more.
Your videos brought joy to so many. The outdoor settings put a spotlight on Richmond as well and made dance more casual, less formal. Had you done that before?
A little bit, but again, I wasn't really letting go as much as I had at that moment because I felt like I had nothing to lose. Like there was nothing else I could do other than dance for fun. It was a great opportunity to just let go of all my reservations that come with being trained as a competitive dancer. It’s intense training where it's more focused on your technique. So putting out the videos was me using that training to showcase the talent, joy and passion that I have for dancing.