Jigging in St John's with Shawn Silver
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Jiggin’ in St. John’s
By Doug & Morri

The Celtic music thrums in 6/8 overdrive time. Violins fiddle. Mandolins pluck. It’s guitars allegro! Our toes tap, feet fly, legs leap. We sweat like salt cod in a barrel of brine. We are jiggin’ in St. John’s, and we don’t mean fishin’! Our Riverdance-trained instructor picks up the pace. Our hearts race, chests heave, calves cramp!

We are taking a challenging Irish step-dancing lesson with Shawn Silver in his spacious idance studio on Hamilton Avenue. Slender and lithe, with bright, long-lashed brown eyes and dark curly hair, 39-year-old Silver is a whirlwind of energy, who talks almost as fast as his feet go!

Shawn Silver with student dancers
Photo: Doug & Morri 

“Dancing is part of Newfoundland’s Celtic culture,” explains Silver, jigging as he speaks. “It’s our language. We’re famous for house parties, where everyone ends up singing and dancing in the kitchen. Traditionally, the women sing chin music – the dai, diggle-dee for the beat, clapping for the rhythm – and a few dancers at a time jump into the middle of the circle. In smaller Newfoundland communities, everyone knows Irish rhythms. That’s their entertainment.”

Painted ladies in downtown St. John’s.
Photo: Doug & Morri 

Yet, when Silver returned to his native St. John’s in 1998 after a 15-year career as a financial planner in Toronto, he found no formal traditional Irish dance instruction. Instead, he says, “people were tap dancing, clogging or square dancing to Irish music.

“Traditional Irish dance has a specific form and body posture. You’re high off the ground. It’s like an elite sport, like running the Boston Marathon,” adds Silver, as we gasp for air while straining to keep our chests lifted, arms back and down, thighs turned out yet glued together as we leap back and forth.

Sailboats in St. John’s harbour

Photo: © City of St. John’s

Silver has been dancing and performing since he was five. While living in Toronto, he mastered and taught Cape Breton-style Irish dance, then went on a mission to revive traditional Irish dance in Newfoundland and Labrador. The 2002 Juno Awards held in St. John’s were the catalyst for Silver. He was part of the show’s entertainment, which showcased traditional Newfoundland songs and dances. By then, Irish dance troupes like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance had become international phenomena, and the Canadian public reacted enthusiastically to Newfoundland’s home-grown talent.

Irish dance revival
“There I was on TV, dancing my knees to stumps, but I realized there was a misconception. Canadians assumed that all Newfoundlanders knew how to do what I was doing. In fact, no one in the province was certified in Irish dance. Consequently, Newfoundlanders were excluded from Irish dance competitions and had no link to the international dance movement. “I wanted to help build that link,” adds Silver, “so I went to the government and made my pitch: it was time to bridge the gap and build on our rich dance heritage.”

Silver received government cultural funding to spend two months in Ireland training for certification with world champion Irish dancers and members of the famed Riverdance troupe. (He’s been to Ireland many times since and performs with Riverdance dancers in Dublin from time to time.) Silver now is the only dance instructor in the province certified with the An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha, the international Irish Dancing Commission headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, which has been strictly regulating Irish dance since the 1920s.

“Mine is the only Irish dance school in Newfoundland & Labrador and I’m proud of it. My dancers and I are invited to perform all over the province. People can compare what we do with what they’ve seen in their grandpa’s living room.”


Iceberg outside St. John’s harbour
Photo: © City of St. John’s

Silver has invited Riverdance dancers to St. John’s to teach workshops. When two-time World and All-Ireland champion Stephen McAteer, from Toronto, was Silver’s guest, Newfoundlanders and the media overwhelmed him.

“People were starved for this,” says Silver, who teaches 80 people a week, from three to 73 years of age. “They love it because it’s part of their cultural upbringing. It just takes a while to make your feet learn to move in a percussive manner.” Last year, five public schools asked Silver to teach Irish dance as an after-school program. Up to 90 kids at a time would turn up for weekly two-hour sessions. Many of them got hooked and are now regulars at the idance studio.

As a great promoter of show dancing, Silver gives his students every opportunity to perform in public. He often takes students to O’Reilly’s pub – “Irish music central,” says Silver – on Sunday afternoons, where they present what they’ve learned during the week: step dancing, reels, jigs, rounds. “They’ve got to keep their toes pointed, their arms back. They gain confidence. I’ve got three kids who were so shy they wouldn’t dance in front of anyone. Now they’ll dance before thousands and I can’t keep them off the stage!”  

This summer, Silver and his idance students are booked at O’Reilly’s for two hours every Sunday afternoon, to show tourists how it’s done, in a combination of performance and lesson. “Irish dancing is about having fun. If you can get the steps, brilliant!”

But no one need feel intimidated. Go to O’Reilly’s pub on George St. any night of the week; the dance floor is jammed the moment the Celtic band starts to play. You may find 18- and 19-year olds step dancing, but others might be doing an old-fashioned two-step, and some simply keep time any way they can. On a Saturday night, head over to Bridie Molloy’s, where “the cream of the musical crop” get together for the love of Irish music.

Getting in touch with your inner Celt!
To fit right in on any Newfoundland dance floor – from pub to kitchen –book, like we did, a 90-minute introductory Irish dance class at idance, where Silver teaches “active tourists and visitors” the one-two-threes, the quick sevens and side steps of a treble reel, and the 6/8 timing of a simple jig. “Once you learn the basics, you can dance to any reel or jig you hear,” says Silver. “If I can teach you just two steps, you can amaze people when you go home.” Last summer, he taught more than 100 tourists in morning and evening classes. “My phone was ringing off the hook!”

Silver sees himself as an ambassador for his beloved province. “People come here for a cultural experience, for our traditions, quality of life and sense of community. This is a different and a special place. I want visitors to experience who we really are. I want them to see our icebergs and great scenery, of course, but I also want them to go home with more than a t-shirt and a postcard. Through movement and dance, they can take home an intangible piece of ‘the Rock’ … a piece that connects them to an integral part of our Newfoundland culture.

“There’s a magical quality to powerful Irish rhythms. When you’re dancing well, you almost float; you feel connected to something spiritual.”

By the end of our class, we’re on a cardio high, glowing and bedraggled, but thoroughly initiated into the spirit of the dance!

Olé in St. John’s
With a population of only 173,000, the St. John’s metropolitan area boasts an over-abundance of dance schools, an indication of Newfoundlanders’ enthusiasm for all things dance. More than a dozen schools teach styles ranging from ballet, tap, jazz, modern and ballroom to, yes, even flamenco!

“There’s something rudimentary and passionate about flamenco that appeals to me,” says Gillian Marx, a dedicated flamenco student, after performing a sevillanas (a traditional partner dance) at The Gypsy Tea Room, along with her instructor, the luminous, 29-year-old Jill Dreaddy, and four other dancers. Five years ago, Dreaddy was moved to tears at a performance by Evelyne Benais, whose troupe El Viento Flamenco developed a devoted following in St. John’s in the ‘90s but decamped to Halifax in 2001. Dreaddy studied with Benais for five years and toured with troupe for two. Now, she has several dozen flamenco students at her studio, Jill Dreaddy Danceco, which also teaches Latin American, hip hop, ballet, jazz and many other genres. To give her flamenco students more opportunities to perform, Dreaddy plans to develop a troupe of her own with musicians.

Visitors to the St. John’s area can drop in for a class (flamenco or other) at her Conception Bay studio, or book a private or group lesson.

Jill Dreaddy Danceco, 641 Conception Bay Highway, Conception Bay South (709) 834-9789.

Where to dance in St. John’s
idance Studio.  Book a 90-minute introductory Irish dance class with Shawn Silver. Cost: $20 per person. 181 Hamilton Ave. (709) 690-2101.

O'Reilly's Pub, 15-17 George St., (709) 722-3735.

Bridie Molloy's Pub & Eatery, 5 George St., (709) 576-5990

The Gypsy Tea Room. This charming restaurant-bar owned and operated by Emir Mahic, a handsome Bosnian émigré, features an eclectic, multi-ethnic cuisine deliciously executed at surprisingly reasonable prices. After the kitchen closes, tables are pushed back and the place rocks as dancers sway to a mainly Latin beat.
195 Water St., (709) 739-4766. Dining reservations recommended.

Where to stay in St. John’s
The Fairmont Newfoundland. This four-star hotel with all the amenities – full-service business centres, fitness room, pool, etc. – is conveniently located on a landmark site with breathtaking views of Signal Hill, the harbour and the Narrows. 115 Cavendish Square, (709) 726-4980.

The Fairmont Newfoundland
Photo: Doug & Morri

The Winterholme Heritage Inn, an opulent Queen Anne Revival-style mansion, has been restored to its former 19th-century glory by its congenial hosts, Ruby and Richard Cook. Fourteen rooms to choose from including king and queen suites, with whirlpool baths and working fireplaces. 79 Rennies Mill Road, (709) 739-7979

The Winterholme Heritage Inn

Photo: City of St. John’s

Doug & Morri on the grand stairway of the Winterholme Heritage Inn
Photo: Doug & Morri

Doug & Morri’s favourite things to do and see in St. John’s.

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Last updated  14-Mar-2015      © 2015 Doug&Morri Productions