I wanted to write about the Gardiner brothers for St Patrick’s Day – what better way to help celebrate Irish culture than with a column about two brothers, both Irish dancing champions, whose pandemic videos made them TikTok stars?
But since they’re both performing on the postponed US leg of Riverdance’s 25th anniversary tour, they’ve been pretty busy in the days leading up to St. Pat’s.
So I’m writing about them now because A) every day is a good day to write about the Gardiner brothers and B) we all need a break from the 94th Oscars and they were far from it.
They danced to Will Smith’s “Getting Jiggy Wit It” – how on earth could two men who really know how to jiggy resist? – but that was in January.
This is just one of more than 500 videos of Michael, 26, and Matthew, 23, Irish dancing to an amazing array of songs they’ve posted since the COVID-19 lockdowns began. Pop and rock icons like Queen, U2, the Bee Gees and Kool & the Gang have received the Gardiner treatment as the two continue their efforts to expand what people think of when they think of Irish dance.
“Irish dance is always changing – [Michael] Flatley changed it by using his arms,” says Michael, referring to the original male lead and co-creator of the record-breaking “Riverdance,” who changed the worldview of the art form after debuting during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest break.
“We wanted to show what you can do with Irish dance,” adds Matthew. “From a young age we danced to modern music, albeit not at a high level.”
What they can do is almost everything. With traditional steps and surprisingly small portable dance boards, they perform on country and city streets exuding a controlled exuberance, their aviator goggles belied by the joyful work of their feet and the nimble rhythm of their steps. If you need a “timeline cleanup,” just search “gardiner brothers.”
A video of them dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” went viral in 2011, but it was during the pandemic that videos of split-second dances to popular and traditional music brought the brothers social media fame. When the separate Riverdance tours they were performing on were cancelled, the brothers returned to the family home in County Galway.
“We had to keep fit,” says Matthew. “But with all dance schools closed, we also wanted to keep children interested and continue to promote Irish culture.”
They started looking for good songs to dance to and interesting locations to film; the first was much easier than the second.
“Ireland had one of the strictest lockdowns; We couldn’t go beyond 2K [kilometers] our house,” says Michael. “One time we were trying to get to a place that was 3km away – we were like, ‘Ah, it’s only 3km. You won’t notice’ – and the Garda [police] turned us around. We tried to explain that we are dancers but I don’t think they believed us. They probably thought, ‘That’s the craziest excuse yet.’”
As the closures eased, the brothers were able to venture further and further. Their trickiest shoot, they say, was on Tawin Island in Galway Bay, where they were constantly interrupted by traffic and buffeted by the wind. It took two hours to shoot a 30-second video, they said, but it was so scenic that it’s become the location of some of their most popular posts, including Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and ABBA’s “Gimme! Give me! Give me!”.
Born in Colorado to Irish parents, the pair began dancing when, as in the song “Chorus Line,” her sister took dance classes. Michael noticed there were boys in the class so he followed, and Matthew soon followed. When the family moved back to County Galway, the boys, aged 11 and 7, enrolled at the Hession School of Irish Dance and began a career of competition and performing. In 2015, they made history by winning the world championships in their respective age groups.
In addition to her dance career, Michael is an architect and Matthew is an engineer. “So we can dance at your wedding and then build you a house,” says Michael.
But since their posts on TikTok, where they have 2 million followers, and Instagram (643,000) took off, they’ve focused on their dance careers, including a brand collaboration venture, dancing in spots for local businesses, as well as McDonald’s and Red Bull. They recently posted a video of the two dancing to Hall & Oates’ You Make My Dreams while reading Don Winslow’s latest novel, City on Fire.
“We also want to financially push what you can do with Irish dance,” says Matthew.
“We want other dancers to see that you can make a living from it,” says Michael. “Even if you’re not in Riverdance.”
You’re on Riverdance, of course, dancing for the first time on the same tour. Despite the western leg being canceled earlier this year due to COVID-19, they have performed the show that ushered Irish culture into the modern age in the Midwest and along the East Coast.
“We travel by bus and have a great system,” says Michael. “I’m lying on four seats and Matthew is sleeping on the floor.”
They still make time for videos though; As part of a recent post, the two danced in front of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and they shot several videos in Washington, DC
“We danced in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and it was pretty early, but there were a couple of boats,” says Matthew. “And suddenly we hear someone shouting, ‘Are you the Gardiner brothers?’ from across the water. So that was pretty awesome.”