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For Riverdance, the final flow

When the amazing Riverdance first opened in New York in March 1996, no one ever predicted its long success.“But here we are some sixteen years later still going strong,” said Jason O’Neill, lead dancer with the show, which will give its farewell performance at the Merriam Theater in Center City May 11 to 13.After all these years, Riverdance will close productions in the United States — although it will continue to thrill audiences in other countries around the world.“I’ll continue dancing with the company in other countries, but I will miss the American audiences,” O’Neill said. “In America everyone is so friendly, so very uplifting, and I think the best audience in the world. They express themselves when we’re dancing and we love all the energy they send to us.”O’Neill, 26, was born in Belfast and has been dancing for many years. He danced competitively and achieved first place in the Ulster championships five times. He also won the Great Britain and All Scotland titles, among others, and placed second in the world in solo and team dancing.“I was raised with six sisters and they all danced,” O’Neill explained. “So I guess it was just natural for me to eventually dance too, although originally I was opposed to the idea. But after enough time, I fell totally in love with dance and rhythm, and one thing just led to another.”Still fighting the idea of making dance his career, O’Neill attended college and majored in graphic arts. But soon the pull and the passion were just too strong, and when he auditioned for and won a role in Riverdance, he knew he had to take the chance.“When I was offered the lead I knew this could be my career option. So I turned my back on a graphic design studio and never looked back,” he said.And so it has been, O’Neill joyfully reports. Dancing with the company since 2009, O’Neill has no regrets and just looks forward to continue dancing. “Life on the road can be hard, but I have a real thirst for travel. I love to dance and I love to travel, so even though I don’t get home to Ireland as much as I’d like, it’s all bittersweet,” he said. “I do have days when I miss my family and friends, but every day I get to see new places and new people, so for me it’s all been a mostly positive experience.”Of course, performing in Riverdance can be quite strenuous, and dancers like O’Neill are not without their injuries.“I try to keep in shape by skipping and running every day, as well as dancing. That keeps my body knowing this is what it has to do. But we also travel with massage therapists who keep us on track, and they are lifesavers,” he said.And they’d better be.O’Neill said over the years he’s had sprained ankles, knee injuries and a fractured foot.“But, like anything else, the wounds heal and you just go on from there,” he said. “Riverdance is an original, the first of its kind to feature Irish dancing fused with other types of dancing. It’s a full-scale Broadway production. The music is excellent, and the dancers give it everything they’ve got every single night.”When the show ends its run in America, O’Neill will keep dancing to its music and magic in other countries — which he will continue as long as he can. Eventually, though, he hopes to do other things as well.“Eventually I want to do choreography, and also pursue graphic design and photography,” he said. “But I will continue on this road as long as I can. For me, it’s all about the passion and love I feel for the dance, and I just look forward to continuing to do it for many years.”For times and ticket information, call 215-731-3333.

Power plays that funky music

By Rita CharlestonFor the TimesLegendary funk-soul band Tower of Power will take center stage at Glenside’s Keswick Theatre on this coming Friday and Saturday. Also on the bill and in concert will be the Average White Band.Touring and releasing albums almost non-stop since they first emerged on the Bay Area music scene in 1968, Tower of Power is still bringing the funk more than 40 years later, and are in demand as the backing band for legendary artists including Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville and Santana.Larry Braggs has been lead vocalist with the band since October 2000, but getting the gig wasn’t that easy, he said.“Over time, there had been a lot of lead singers in Tower, but at the time I was trying to join up, every other singer they auditioned tried to duplicate what others before them had done. I just decided to be myself.”But Braggs didn’t realize how difficult it would be to become part of the band.“When I joined Tower it didn’t take me long to realize I was not the musician I thought I was. In every other band I was always the front man, the focal point, the one who took everyone else to another level. But that’s not how it worked with Tower. Singing is kind of the last element in the equation. You don’t get that impression watching the band. Within the band, though, trust me, that’s how it is. It’s very humbling.”Still, no matter how humbling it might have been, Braggs, 41, a native of Mississippi, always had confidence in his abilities, noting that he always loved singing and knew he’d grow up to do it professionally one day.“I started singing in the second grade but didn’t know it would become my career until I reached college,” he explained. “That’s when a friend of mine told me that no matter what else I might do, nothing in life would make me as happy as making music. And I knew he was right. Certain people are just built that way, and making music brought me so much joy that I knew I had to do it for as long as I could.”So when the opportunity to sing with Tower came about Bragg was excited — until he realized he would be on probation.“When the singer before me was fired, they called me to join the band — temporarily,” he said. “They fired the guy they really wanted and asked if I could do the shows that were coming up, and I said sure. But that meant I had to learn eighteen to twenty songs to sing with them quickly and without any rehearsal or anything. I just came in as a replacement until they could find someone they really wanted.”With any other man, that might have been a hard pill to swallow, but not with Braggs.“I know there were comparisons and a lot of them,” he said, “but I didn’t care. When musicians are looking for a gig they just do what has to be done. Sometimes when a band is looking for a singer, they’re looking for the perfect person. But I didn’t think about how that would work. I was just trying to learn all the songs I could when I was on tour with the band and keep going. And on that tour I could see the audience loved me and were very, very happy with my performance.”That was 12 years ago, and Braggs and the Tower of Power are still going strong with each other. The band itself celebrated some 44 years together. And the reason they are still gong strong is a little bit of a mystery.“But I think it may be because people still attach memories to songs by the band,” Braggs said. “Over the years, Tower has set incredible standards and have achieved a sort of a cult status. It’s a musicians’ band — musicians play in it and musicians come to see us. Berklee College in Boston even has a course dedicated to the dynamics of the band. The Tower name is known around the world.”As for Braggs himself, he has a major goal: “To make the group forget every singer they’ve ever had. Over the years, I’ve been in many bands, and this is another step up on playing on yet another level. But I still don’t consider myself a success.”And when will he accept the title?“I’m not sure,” he said. “Today, I’m just a hard-working singer who’s still perfecting my craft. But I know one thing for sure. Real success will come when I have the ability to give back to the community and make the world a much better place to live in.”For times and ticket information, call 215-572-7650.