Look East And Think Again
Chicago Irish American News,
Look East and think again
If I say “Newfoundland” what’s the first image that comes to mind? Maybe a grizzled old fisherman, damp with sea spray, hauling in the days catch? Time to put the ‘Gorton’s fisherman’ out of your head. Spend an hour with Shawn Silver and you’ll realize there’s an entirely new breed from ‘them there parts.
Shawn Silver, the only Irish dance teacher in Newfoundland and Labrador, has an energy level hard to match, and the kind of confidence that comes from following a path you seem destined to travel. He’s hard at work building up the Irish dance community up on the eastern edge of the continental shelf, and he’s come to Chicago to recruit fellow dance missionaries.
When Fashion, Finance, and Dance Collide
Silver began dancing as a child. He learned from his grandfather, a great dancer in his own right, who had a regular gig dancing on a television program called ‘All Around the Circle’. “I just had a knack for it. I was never formally trained, but I just seemed to be able to pick up the rhythms and steps. I always thought I’d have my own dance school someday.”
But other pursuits came first a fashion design degree from Montreal, a stock brokers license in Toronto. Still, Silver couldn’t resist the pull of his hometown or his never-failing love of dance. In 1998, he returned to St. John’s, Newfoundland and opened up his own dance studio. iDance (his school) is the only dance school in Newfoundland and Labrador dedicated exclusively to Irish dance.
In 2002, he envisioned, sought, and earned a grant from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) to complete a masters dance program in traditional Irish Step dancing. “I wanted to study the pure form of Irish dance,” says Silver, “and to bring that back to my students in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Shawn studied with Ronan McCormack TCRG, Roisin Cahalane TCRG and Gemma Carney TCRG, all formerly with Riverdance. He is currently working towards his own TCRG certification, which will enable him to begin developing a certified Irish step dance program the first of its kind in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“It’s important to ensure that what we’re doing is accurate, that we’re holding onto our traditions, and that we’re sharing it, passing it on,” Shawn explains when asked why the masters program and pursuit of the TCRG is so important to him.
With a missionary’s zeal, Silver is now reaching out to the rest of the world to experience the cultural gems of his beloved home. He learned about the work of Team Canada Atlantic, a consortium of industry and trade promotion organizations. They were planning various trade missions to encourage business ties between the U.S. and the Atlantic Canada provinces.
“I approached the organizers with the idea of representing culture as well as business on these trips. You know, it’s just too convenient to leave culture out of these things, and we can’t do that!” exclaims Silver.
Silver traveled to Chicago in mid-April with Team Canada Atlantic. He is working to establish professional development partnerships with Chicago’s Irish dance community. His plans include cultural and teaching exchanges, workshops and shared performance opportunities. Shawn encourages any dance teacher interested in exploring Newfoundland and Labrador to contact him through the iDance website (www.idance.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org ).
While in Chicago, his itinerary included stops at the Irish American Heritage Center, The Old Town School of Folk Music, Tim O’Hare School of Irish Dance, The Blackbird Academy of Irish Dance, and the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. He participated in dance workshops with the O’Hare school and the Blackbird Academy.
“We have some great events planned this summer in St. John’s,” Silver noted. “I’ve begun a fun series of dance workshops with tourists in mind. And we have signed a summer-long deal with the best pub in St. John’s to host weekly Irish dance lessons and mini-competitions with celebrity judges such as Breandan de Gallai, former principal dancer with Riverdance.”
Like a true TCRG at heart, Silver is quick to point out that these classes for tourists aren’t completely watered down. “I would be remiss if I just had them out hopping around. I am introducing them to the real thing. It’s about the proper steps and timing signatures. I’m really going to try to provide that standard, in a fun way, yes, but you must get their toes pointed and up to their butts, right!?”
“A Rock in the Middle of the Ocean”
That’s how Silver describes the geography of his homeland. Newfoundland, the furthest east point in North America, is “as close to Ireland as it is to Toronto,” says Silver. “It’s as Irish as you’ll get,” he says, referring to the area’s connections to Ireland through centuries of immigration, and a healthy dose of political repression and economic struggle.
The island’s history runs deep, with evidence of aboriginal tribes dating back over 7500 years and fairly credible claims that St. Brendan actually landed there around 570-575 AD. European explorers first discovered Newfoundland in 1497. The British and French made various attempts over the centuries to claim the island for themselves.
Until 1932, Newfoundland was an independent country. Then it became a dominion and later a province of Canada. Locals understandably have a strong sense of identity, pride and independence. “In school, we’re taught that we’re Newfoundlanders first, and then Canadians second,” explains Silver.
Irish immigration began well before the 1800s, and the island still retains elements of a Gaelic past. Street signs are in Gaelic; traditional music and singing are prevalent. Newfoundland dance traditions evolved from Irish and other folk influences, resulting in a “Newfoundland” style a form of step dancing that is very close to the ground, is very rapid and emphasizes the percussive nature of the steps.
Brand New World
Shawn is committed to expanding awareness, appreciation, and participation in Irish dance in Newfoundland and Labrador. He is optimistic that he’ll find a friendly ear or two among Chicago’s dance teachers. “It’s all brand new up there. My students are so hungry for the lessons,” Silver says, “so I bring in the best dance teachers whenever I can. And the students just love it.”
He’s also looking for dance teachers interested in collaborating with him and Breandan de Gallai on developing a masters class that they hope to tour along with the production of a new Irish dance show, Balor (tentatively planned to begin touring later this year). Anyone interested should contact Shawn at email@example.com