Irish dancers enter world contest

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When the children in the Shovlin family started studying Irish dance years ago at what is now the Burke Conroy School of Irish Dance in Pittsburgh, the art form wasn't as popular as it is today. The arrival of Michael Flatley, Riverdance and Lord of the Dance in the 1990s changed all that.

In 1999, several siblings of the Shovlin family went on to start the Shovlin Academy of Irish Dance in Dormont. Enrollment is now close to 100 students.

This year for the first time some of the academy's dancers are entering the 2013 World Irish Dance Championship to be held Saturday through March 29 in Boston.

"In the more than 40 years the competition has been in existence, this is only the second time it has been held in the United States. It's usually staged in Ireland, with occasional years in Scotland, although it has also been staged once in Philadelphia in 2008," said Liz Shovlin Grinko, 55, of Mt. Lebanon.

To qualify for the competition -- regarded as the Olympics of the Irish dance world -- Shovlin dancers had to first qualify at the regional level. The school started preparing last spring for the Mid-America regional competition, called a feis, which was held in November in Grand Rapids, Mich. At that competition, the school placed second, which qualified the dancers for the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, as the big competition is called in Gaelic.

Twelve dancers and one substitute will represent the school at the world competition, which will draw about 5,000 dancers from 450 schools all over the world. Dancers compete in group and solo categories. Shovlin, however, will compete only in the group sessions, which are scheduled for March 29.

The dancers and members of their extended family are traveling by bus to Boston. To help pay for the trip, the academy held a fundraiser Feb. 24 at Mullaney's Harp and Fiddle Pub in the Strip District, with entertainment by the Red Hand Paddy Irish band and dancers from the Shovlin academy.

At the Boston competition, each group will perform a "drama" -- a six-minute story dance with an introductory narrative -- before a panel of judges. The Shovlin drama is titled "The Shamrock Dance Hall" and tells the story of how two young Irish immigrants looking for work in London in the 1950s met in an Irish dance hall.

" 'The Shamrock Dance Hall' is really the tale of how my parents, Sheila and Peter, met," Mrs. Shovlin Grinko said.

All 12 of the Shovlin academy's competing dancers are young women. Half will be dressed in '50s attire with fluffy skirts, and half will be dressed in men's suits from that era.

The Shovlin dancers will perform the drama set to "Scraping the Barrel" by the band Shooglenifty, "Beoga's Surprise" by the Colin Grant Band and an instrumental version of "Glad You Came By" by The Wanted.

"This is the first year we've prepared a drama choreography for a competition," said Sheila Shovlin, 44, of Mount Washington, who has participated in the world competition as a soloist and group dancer twice in Ireland. "When the kids came off the stage at the regional competition, I noticed how elated they were by the expressions on their faces. It made me wish we could have done this years ago."

The Shovlin Academy of Irish Dance offers classes for those 5 years old and older from 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays at the Dormont municipal building, 1444 Hillsdale Ave. Special classes are available on Saturdays by request.

"While many of our students don't have Irish last names, many of them do have some Irish ancestry," Mrs. Shovlin Ginko said.

From Castle Shannon, sisters Rose, 11, Grace, 9, and Leah Hartnett, 6, enrolled in October.

"When my daughters saw the dancers from the Shovlin perform at the Irish Festival last year, they were entranced and decided to enroll," Joseph Hartnett said.

Some academy students performed on stage Saturday in Market Square after the St. Patrick's Day parade Downtown. The dancers also perform at festivals in the summer and at private parties, weddings and senior retirement communities throughout the year.

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Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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