Usually by the first of the year, Damsha Dance Studio has a full dance ticket.
But the last two years have been anything but ordinary. The studio went virtual and events celebrating St. Patrick’s Day were canceled. However, the studio never lost the love of dancing. Once allowed to resume classes, routines and entire performances were videotaped to be shared.
Thankfully, that has changed and as gatherings once again started happening, requests for Irish step dancing poured in. It happened quickly.
Studio owners Gráinne Conley and Colleen Kenyon weren’t prepared for the sudden demand, although it was a relief to have a sense of normalcy return. On Saturday, they staged back-to-back performances at the William Shields American Legion Post and the Tri City Elks in Warwick. The 18 dancers wore masks just to be safe.
“Smile with your eyes,” says Kenyon to which Conley adds, “Irish eyes are always smiling.”
Damhsa won’t be doing any parades but they will visit some nursing homes and on St. Patrick’s Day perform at 4 p.m. at the Warwick Mall.
Irish dancing brought Conley and Kenyon together 18 years ago. Conley, whose family immigrated to this country from Ireland, was living in Boston when the pair crossed paths at the Harp and Shamrock in Warwick. “It was friendship right away,” says Conley.
Marianne Beirne, Kenyon’s mother, knows the studio as well as the girls. She’s been the “gal Friday” who manages the books, schedules performances and even drives the van. After Covid-19 shutdown the state, Damska closed the studio as there was no point to renting a building that couldn’t be used. Now that they are back in person, the studio rents space at the Elks or on Bald Hill Road across from Target for lessons and practice.
What’s been tough during the virtual period is introducing dancing to the little kids, says Beirne. Students range from three years old to 18. The studio also has adult classes.
Purposely Conley and Kenyon have avoided competitions. They are not looking to be in that league and refer to their shows as “culture and educational performances.” The shows are lively with the rhythm of clicking hard shoes or the soft shoe dances where legs fly and curly hair whether wigs or the real thing bounce in time with the jig or reel. It’s fast, choreographed and precise and one wonders following a 35 to 40-minute performance whether students have the stamina to slip out of their stiffened elaborately hand decorated costumes that can cost upwards of $1,200 and drive across town for upwards of eight performances on a pre-Covid St. Patrick’s Day.
Beirne is surprised by the question.
“They love it,” she says. “It keeps them going.”
The studio traveled to Ireland in 2014 where they performed at a variety of venues. They had planned another trip for 2020 but the pandemic ruled that out. Kenyon would like to go back but for the moment the focus is on the students and recovering so much of what was lost by not being in person.
There are other considerations and responsibilities, too. Conley is the education program manager at Save the Bay where she has worked for 18 years. Until recently Kenyon taught second grade at St. Peter School. She is now working in productions at PBS.
Then there are the kids.
Kenyon learned she was pregnant the day Conley delivered her second child. A pandemic baby, Nora Kenyon who is now 15 months has had her exposure to Irish music and mother’s tapping feet. She’s not on her toes yet, but she proudly wears her shoes.
Coventry’s Kelly School of Irish Dance is also back to performing in-person events for St. Patrick’s Day. For dancers, the day is an opportunity to share their passion for dance and Irish culture.
“St. Patrick’s Day is much more than leprechauns and green beer,” said Kathleen Chilton, director and lead instructor.
Chilton and her sister Meghan Kelly established their Coventry studio on Sandy Bottom Road in 2011. Prior to that, Kelly (KSID owner and artistic director) taught Irish dance at the Irish Ceilidhe Club of Rhode Island. The dance studio has a range of classes, from youngsters all the way up to adult classes.
Due to the pandemic, KSID’s last in-person showcase was their 2019 Merry and Bright holiday show. Only recently did dancers return to the stage by performing at the Providence Art Club on Feb. 19.
Dancers are excited to return to the stage and will visit locations throughout the state with stops at several nursing homes and girl scout troops.
“Making them feel good makes me feel good,” said Bridget Peterson, a member of KSID’s Moy Company, which is filled with dancers ages 10 to 12.
In past St. Patrick’s Day performances, KSID would have 60 dancers at one venue. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the largest group of dancers they will take is 16 – most places will be between six and eight dancers.
The pandemic has not deterred dancers’ motivation. Kelly and Chilton said their dancers have been resilient in reaching their individual goals, dancing in full masks and going from Zoom dance classes to being back in person. The dance studio recently lifted its mask policy this past week.
“It makes me happy,” said dancer Caroline Colligan. “I’ve been dancing for a couple of years, and it brought out personal traits that I have now.”
Dancers will finally get to share their passion for Irish culture, saying it is ‘their time of year.’ This includes lacing up their ghillies and hard shoes and putting on their school dresses or solo dresses to perform an assortment of reels, jigs, slip jigs, set dances and more.
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