BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
It’s a dead-of-winter Saturday, but things are quite lively inside the German International School Boston building in Brighton where some three dozen students of the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance are going through their paces.
Three groups of dancers, from elementary school to college age, are spread out in the gymnasium/auditorium, while a fourth group rehearses on the stage. Hard-shoe choruses reverberate through the room as O’Shea-Chaplin teachers scrutinize each group’s progress, occasionally yelling out an instruction or offering a compliment.
Meanwhile, yet another group of dancers is practicing nearby on a smooth, shiny wooden floor in a narrow hallway; a recording of an accordion-piano duo playing a hornpipe blares from a CD boombox as the dancers shift and pivot and tap their feet, surrounded by turquoise and pea-green walls that are adorned with various signs like “Restrooms, Damen und Herren” or “Die Pinguine.”
And watching intently – occasionally emphasizing the recorded music with a verbal “daddle-dee-DAH!” – is 76-year-old Rita O’Shea-Chaplin, doing what she has done literally almost her whole life: teach young people the joys, responsibilities and traditions that go with Irish dance.
O’Shea-Chaplin – the person and the school – is marking 60 years of teaching Irish dance, and will formally celebrate those six decades with a banquet and dance on March 8 in Melrose [details below]. Technically, the Boston operation is younger, since O’Shea-Chaplin didn’t emigrate here until seven years after she started the school in her native Galway. But however you compute the numbers, the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy – like its namesake – has compiled a distinguished record of achievement.
Over the decades, O’Shea-Chaplin dancers have consistently enjoyed success at regional, national, and world Irish dance competitions, been featured on local TV and on a Discovery Channel program, and toured throughout the United States as well as Canada, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Russia. Some O’Shea-Chaplin students have gone onto dance professionally, as part of well-known productions like “Riverdance,” “Gael Force” and “Lord of the Dance,” or with organizations like the Trinity Dance Company and the Busch Gardens dance troupe.
As for O’Shea-Chaplin herself, one of her most recent, and heartfelt, honors was being feted by her peers during the World Irish Dancing Championships held in Boston a year ago. “It reached greater proportions than I ever could have imagined,” she quipped in a subsequent interview with Boston Irish Reporter. “I didn’t think it was all necessary. “But,” she added, “I felt very honored, and it felt very much like a culmination of so many years of work.”
A dancer at age four and a champion in her teens, O’Shea-Chaplin made the first of several fateful life decisions when her dance instructor told her she was retiring and invited the-then 17-year-old O’Shea-Chaplin to take over the school. The teenager had planned to become a schoolteacher, but found she was as well-suited to teaching Irish dance as performing it, and embarked on what became her career.
The next crossroads for O’Shea-Chaplin came when, following her mother’s death, she came to Boston for what was supposed to be a temporary stay. Instead, she wound up settling in the area. Although she was not as actively involved in dance during this period, to be Irish in Boston during the early 1960s almost always meant visiting the city’s legendary social dance halls, and so she did.
There’s that cautionary phrase about not talking to strangers, but an encounter one evening at the Irish Social Club in Dorchester led O’Shea-Chaplin to yet another crossroads. Two men, noticing her obvious skill on the dance floor, asked her if she would be interested in teaching Irish dance. She was initially reluctant, but the men – one of whom was the president of the Irish Shamrock Society – offered to find her a hall and help recruit students. Two weeks later, O’Shea-Chaplin received a phone call offering her the job.
“I started out at the Italian-American Club in Central Square with seven dancers, and made no money the first year,” she recalls. “The days became weeks, the weeks became months, and the months turned into years. But I didn’t mind; being a teacher keeps you young.”
Today, the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy offers classes for children age four and up, beginner to championship level, and as well as ceili and step dancing classes for adults, taught by six professional, certified teachers, including O’Shea-Chaplin and her daughter Lisa Chaplin. In addition to the German School, O’Shea-Chaplin holds classes at satellite locations in a dozen communities including Norwood, Lowell, North Attleboro, Quincy, and Winchester.
While O’Shea-Chaplin says the school has enjoyed a fairly consistent enrollment over the years, there is no question that the arrival of “Riverdance” in the 1990s, followed by other similar stage productions, helped spike interest in Irish dance. But as exciting as all the innovation and spectacle may be, she says, would-be Irish dancers have to understand there is no shortcut to learning, and appreciating, the tradition.
“The thing about progress is, it’s easy to become a throwaway society,” she says. “For years, people stopped doing the tradition, and then once ‘Riverdance’ and the like came along there often seemed to be an attitude of ‘Can you top this?’ Well, now in the Irish dance community we’re retracing our steps – going back to some dances that are 600 years old – and you’re seeing a lot more emphasis on technical aspects. It can be difficult to get the students to focus on those things that seem so simple, but they’re part of the requirement.
“What those people, young or old, who truly love Irish dance understand is, the old dances and the traditions, they strengthen you. You feel more of a confidence and a stability, knowing that you are holding onto this great history.”
Each successive generation has its own particular traits and quirks, obviously, but O’Shea-Chaplin always looks for one characteristic among dancers. “You see a spark, and maybe it can’t be expressed yet,” she explains. “They want to do something with it, so we tell them that they have to be willing to interpret it, to work hard, even if it means doing the same thing 100 times. It’s up to them, and we want to help each one find their comfort level, and do as much as they’re capable of.”
“The school keeps going because Rita has made it so family-oriented,” says Lisa Chaplin, who’s been a full-time Irish dance teacher for about 15 years. “She’s not just a teacher, but a mentor and a friend; she’s written recommendations for colleges, jobs and so on, and people remember that. So when they’ve started families of their own, we’ll often see their kids take lessons – and then their kids’ kids.”
Echoing Chaplin’s comments, five current O’Shea-Chaplin dancers ranging in age from 15-21, all with at least a decade of experience, will tell you – practically in unison – what the school is all about for them: “Family.”
“So many generations come back here,” says 19-year-old Brianna Sheehan of Raynham. “There’s always someone whose mother or sister or aunt was a student at O’Shea-Chaplin. Even if their kids or other relatives don’t dance, people who used to be students here come by to visit or go to the competitions. You just see lots of familiar faces, and that makes a big impression.”
Sixteen-year-old Harper Mills of Boston and fifteen-year-old Ally Meringer of Belmont have been friends since they met at the school ten years ago. Those kinds of bonds, which the school provides and encourages, are often vital, explains Mills: “Irish dance looks like fun, and it is fun, but takes a lot of work. It’s hard if you don’t have a support system, and that’s something O’Shea-Chaplin definitely helps with.”
Perhaps the greatest source of joy and satisfaction for O’Shea-Chaplin is to stand in a place like the German School gymnasium/auditorium and watch the O’Shea-Chaplin dancers and teachers at work. Where an observer might simply see children and young people practicing steps and figures over and over, O’Shea-Chaplin sees legacies and a million stories.
“That little girl there,” she’ll say, pointing. “I taught her mother, who went to the nationals.” She points in another direction: That girl over there, she notes, is a cousin of an O’Shea-Chaplin alumnus who’s gone on to great things. Then she nods in the direction of a girl, of late middle school age, who’s working with another girl several years her junior: “She’s recovering from a stress fracture,” says O’Shea-Chaplin of the older girl. “She doesn’t have to be here working, but she wants to help the little one. There’s wonderful camaraderie among them, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Periodically, kids flit by O’Shea-Chaplin, and their greetings unfailingly include two words: “Thank you.” With a smile, she remarks, “I don’t know why they say that. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t do anything. But if that’s the badge they carry out into the world, where you show respect and appreciation, then I guess I’ve done my job.”
The March 8 O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance 60th anniversary celebration will run from 8 p.m.-midnight at Memorial Hall, 509 Main St. in Melrose. Admission is $40 per person, which includes a dinner buffet; beer, wine and raffle tickets will be sold. The event will feature music by The Silver Spears and the duo of Tomas and Patrick Bowling. For reservations and information, contact Brenda Crossen Finn at 978-758-9314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.