Column: The Gardiner brothers are TikTok’s lords of the dance

Matthew Gardiner and his older brother, Michael, on Tawin Island in Ireland.
Matthew Gardiner, left, and his older brother, Michael, on Tawin Island in Ireland.
(Eoin Gardiner)
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I was going to write about the Gardiner brothers for St. Patrick’s Day — what better way to contribute to the celebration of Irish culture than with a column about two brothers, both of them Irish dance champions, whose pandemic videos have made them TikTok stars?

But as they are both performing in the postponed U.S. leg of the 25th anniversary “Riverdance” tour, they were quite busy in the days leading up to St. Pat’s.

So I am writing about them now because A) any 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 nowhere near it.


They did dance to Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” — how on earth could two men who actually know how to jig resist? — but that was way back in January.

That is just one of more than 500 videos of Michael, 26, and Matthew, 23, Irish-dancing to an astonishing array of songs they have posted since COVID-19 closures began. Pop and rock icons including Queen, U2, the Bee Gees and Kool & the Gang have gotten the Gardiner treatment as the two continue their efforts to expand what people think of when they think of Irish dance.

“Irish dancing 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,” which, after debuting during the interval of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, went on to transform the world’s image of the art form.

“We wanted to show what you can do with Irish dancing,” adds Matthew. “Even from a young age, we’d been dancing to modern music, though not a high exposure level.”

What they can do is almost anything. Using traditional steps, and surprisingly small portable dance boards, they perform on country roads and city streets, radiating a controlled exuberance, their aviator-shades cool belied by the joyful work of their feet, the fleet cadence of their steps. If you need a “timeline cleanse,” just search “Gardiner brothers.”

A video of them dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” went viral in 2011, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that the videos of seconds-long dances to popular and traditional music brought the brothers social media fame. When the separate “Riverdance” tours in which they were performing were canceled, the brothers returned to the family home in Galway County.


“We needed to keep ourselves fit,” says Matthew. “But with all the dance schools closed, we also wanted to keep the kids interested, keep promoting Irish culture.”

They started looking around for good songs to dance to and interesting places in which to shoot; the first was much easier than the second.

“Ireland had one of the strictest lockdowns; we couldn’t go beyond 2K [kilometers] of our home,” says Michael. “One time, we tried to get to a place that was 3K away — we thought, ‘Ah, it’s only 3K. They won’t notice’ — and the Garda [police] turned us around. We tried to explain we were dancers, but I don’t think they believed us. They probably thought, ‘That’s the wildest excuse yet.’”

When closures eased, the brothers were able to venture increasingly farther. Their trickiest shoot, they say, was on Tawin Island in Galway Bay, where they were constantly interrupted by traffic and buffeted by wind. It took two hours to film a 30-second video, they said, but it was so scenic that it has become the site of some of their most popular posts including Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”.

Born in Colorado to Irish parents, the two began dancing when, as in the “Chorus Line” song, their sister went to dance class. Michael noticed there were boys in the class, so he joined, and Matthew soon followed. When the family moved back to County Galway, the boys, then ages 11 and 7, enrolled in the Hession School of Irish Dance and began a career of competition and performance; in 2015, they made history by each winning the world championship in their age bracket.


In addition to their dance careers, Michael is an architect and Matthew an engineer. “So we can dance at your wedding and then build you a house,” Michael says.

But since their posts took off on TikTok, where they have 2 million followers, and Instagram (643,000), they have focused on their dancing careers, including a brand collaboration business, dancing in spots for local business as well as for McDonald’s and Red Bull. They recently posted a video of the two of them dancing to Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” while reading Don Winslow’s latest novel, “City on Fire.”

“We want to push what you can do with Irish dancing financially too,” says Matthew.

“We want other dancers to see you can make a living out of it,” says Michael. “Even if you aren’t in ‘Riverdance.’”

They are in “Riverdance,” of course, and for the first time dancing in the same tour. Alhough the Western leg was canceled earlier this year because of COVID-19, they have been performing the show that launched Irish culture into the modern age in the Midwest and along the East Coast.

“We travel by bus, and we’ve got a great system,” Michael says. “I lay across four seats, and Matthew sleeps on the floor.”


They still make time for videos, though; part of a recent post included the two of them dancing in front of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and they shot several videos in Washington, D.C.

“We were dancing in front of the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial, and it was quite early, but there were some boats out,” says Matthew. “And suddenly, we hear someone shouting, ‘Are you the Gardiner brothers?’ from across the water. So that was pretty great.”