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Dancing on air: Dream job in the theatre and new life in the US for Deborah Maguire

The Ligoniel-born choreographer didn't even have time for a honeymoon and is constantly flying across the Atlantic to help local actors trip the light fantastic in four shows, as Ivan Little reports

Choreographer Deborah Maguire clearly loves tripping the flight fantastic. Which explains why the talented Ligoniel girl, who now lives near New York, has become a transatlantic commuter to teach the stars of no fewer than FOUR Christmas shows in Northern Ireland how to dance.

Deborah, who has inherited her nimble feet from her footballing legend of a grandfather, and her rhythm and timing from her musician dad, has been hopping back and forward between her two homes all year to choreograph shows in Belfast and using Skype back in the States to check on the progress of her dancers.

"I really do have the best of both worlds," says 38-year-old Deborah, who made the Belfast Giants ice hockey players world-famous hoofers three years ago when she got them dancing for an hilarious video of a Christmas song which went viral on YouTube.

And that wasn't the last waltz. For Deborah fell big time for a giant Giant – 6ft 4in tall Tim Cook. They were married earlier this year and have set up home in New Jersey.

Not that Deborah quick-stepped to the States immediately. She didn't even have time for a honeymoon, because she went straight into rehearsals for a musical based on Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors, at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey on the Monday after the wedding.

"I have a very understanding husband," says Deborah, who has clocked up thousands of air miles over the last year to choreograph the likes of the musical version of Pride and Prejudice and Marie Jones' comedy Weddins Weeins and Wakes at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.

During rehearsals for those shows she had to jet back to New York for 24 hours so that she could attend an interview for her Green Card and she also paid a flying visit to the States for a party to celebrate her wedding with her husband's family.

Currently, Deborah is choreographing two productions at the Lyric – Cinderella and the night-time satire Forget Turkey, and she's also involved in the Waterfront show Little Red Riding Hood and the Armagh panto Aladdin.

"Yes, it is a hectic time," says Deborah. "But I can just about manage to cope with the schedule. All the companies know me well and we all work together to make things happen. The organisation of it all is actually more difficult than the choreography itself."

Deborah prepared for the shows months in advance in her new home in the States.

"The emails started coming through in the summer, as directors set out their plans for the shows and the stories and what they're looking for from me in terms of tap routines, say, or big musical numbers," she says.

"But I'm fluid and flexible and it's not until I get to meet the people who are involved on stage that I get the final vision of what they can do and what they can bring to the performances. For me, choreography is like painting with people rather than brushes."

Deborah admits she uses different strokes for different folks in the productions. "There are standard patterns in Christmas shows and pantos, but all the dances are very different," she explains.

She has been so busy with shows over here that she's had no time to even think about the possibility of work over there. "Besides it's a great excuse to come home and see my family," she says. "We are all very close and I enjoy staying with my mum and dad.

"Even when I am back in New Jersey, I speak to my family via Skype every day. I see their faces every day and I don't think I could have made the move if it hadn't been for the technology."

She has also used the internet link-up to watch productions in Belfast from her home in the States. "For example, I went back to New Jersey after choreographing Pride and Prejudice. I was with the cast when they opened in Cork but I was anxious that I couldn't get to see it on the Lyric stage. So using Skype, I was able to see the entire show in Belfast from my home in the States and I emailed my notes to the director later. Nothing beats the feeling of seeing a production for real but Skype gave me enough to find out what I needed to know."

Deborah also uses the internet to keep in touch with her sister Diane back home and her brother Stephen, who's an up-and-coming musician in Canada. Their dad Patrick was a showband star, playing guitar with the likes of Brian Rossi and the Golden Eagles.

Mum Roberta's father was Jimmy McAlinden, the former Belfast Celtic player who won an FA Cup winner's medal with Portsmouth in 1939, played for both Ireland international teams and became a successful manager with Glenavon and Distillery, for whom he signed Martin O'Neill – who has acknowledged that he was one of the greatest influences on his career.

Deborah remembers him fondly. "He was great fun. He had a great flair for the theatrics. He was always carrying on. He would open the door reciting Shakespeare. He would tap-dance and sing and he was the first person to teach me how to waltz."

Deborah was born to dance. "My mum loved the big musicals and I grew up totally absorbed with them, watching them on the TV with her. I went to Irish dancing and to drama classes at the Youth Lyric but after I joined Michael Poynor and his Ulster Theatre Company at the age of 18, it all changed and he encouraged me to believe that I could make a career in the theatre."

She went to drama school in Guildford and later studied musical theatre to the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Slowly but surely Deborah, however, realised that performing in the spotlight wasn't for her and that she got more satisfaction from choreographing productions than starring in them. She helped choreograph a special show for the opening of the Millennium Dome in London and started to work on shows for Michael Poynor.

With her sister Diane, she set up the Belfast Talent School, which is still attracting scores of youngsters to its drama and dance classes at the Crescent Arts Centre.

"Letting go of that was a huge thing for me, because we had built it up from scratch. I still miss the school," she says.

Deborah still has to pinch herself from time to time to accept that what was originally a hobby has now become a way of life. "I am so so fortunate. I didn't choose this as a path. It chose me."

Her involvement with the Belfast Giants was also more about serendipity than strategy. She says: "I kept meeting the players at special events in Belfast. Everyone always said other ice hockey sides had cheerleaders, so I was eventually tortured into setting up a squad.

"I was a fan anyway and it was a fantastic time, especially because of the Giants' cross-community appeal."

Deborah won a Pride of Britain award in 2009 for bringing the feelgood factor to sport in Northern Ireland, but she knows she will forever be remembered for THAT video with the Giants. But at the start, the idea didn't cut any ice with the players.

"When I went into the locker room and said I wanted them to lip-sync to the Mariah Carey song All I Want For Christmas Is You and dance along, it was like tumbleweed. But then one of the players jumped up and said that he would do it," she says.

That volunteer is now Deborah's husband, Tim Cook, who had played defence for a number of teams in Florida Texas and Michigan before joining the Giants.

Deborah says: "I had never spoken to Tim before the video was made but after it became a massive hit on YouTube, he and I did lots of interviews together for TV and radio stations all over the world.

"There was no romance, however. But as ever, fate took a hand in my life and it turned out that he and another Giant were on the same flight to Amsterdam as my sister and me just before Christmas.

"We thought they were planning a very different break in Amsterdam from us and I didn't expect to run into them in somewhere like Anne Frank's house. But they were keen to see the museums and the galleries and we spent a lot of time together.

"When we came home, Tim and I went out together but he had to return to the States. We still saw each other when we could and when he was over here he proposed to me as we walked to my parents' home in the dark, with Tim carrying two big containers of milk.

"He got down on his knee on the street where I lived and in an instant, I said I would marry him."

Tim, who gained a master's degree in business here, has now called time-out on his playing career, but he hasn't given up on ice hockey completely, as he works with the New York Islanders NHL side on their corporate and marketing team.

A homebird she may be but Deborah never had any doubts about flying the coop to the States. "The opportunities for Tim are better there and people thought that would be the case for me too, but I love coming home and I love the work that I get to do here.

"The travelling back and forth may sound tough, but with direct flights between Belfast and New York it's not that hard in reality."

Deborah admits, however, that if Broadway came knocking at her door she would answer with a yes.

"But I'm not rapidly photocopying what they call my resumes and sending them out to all the important people," she says.

"So, if it happens, it happens."

In recent times, a number of Northern Ireland productions have transferred with critical acclaim to New York. "So you never know – a show I choreograph here could take me over there anyway," she says.

Deborah and Tim recently bought a new house in Bloomfield in New Jersey which is just 15 minutes away from New York City.

The proximity of Broadway is a big bonus for Deborah, who goes to as many shows there as she can.

"It's inspiring to watch them. And I'm always trying to take in as much I can from the productions."

Deborah reckons she was born "in the lucky corner" and she adds: "Tim really is the best person and we have a great life in Bloomfield, where I get to swan about going to lunches like one of those women you see on the TV."

Belfast Telegraph


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