John Egan goes to Luton to see dance’s multicultural appeal
At the early age of four years Finbarr Conway’s introduction to Irish dancing was when his mother dragged him along to his first lesson in the Harp Club in Luton which was just down the road from where they lived. She learned about these lessons from friends and poor Finbarr had little choice in the matter. But now he is delighted that his Mum stifled his rebellion at his second lesson by insisting that henceforth this was how he was to spend his Sunday afternoons. Little did he realise then that another 20 years of lessons and dancing stretched ahead before his retirement from competition.
Dancing got into his blood and his love for it grew year on year. He is delighted that he stuck with it and it was inevitable that he would go on to establish his own dance school.
Finbarr proudly acknowledges the training of his sole dance teacher, John Brooks, during all of those years. Indeed the Brooks Academy of Irish Dancing continues to this day within the An Coimisiún umbrella, teaching new generations of Irish dancers in the southern region.
During his long career of competitive dancing I met Finbarr on several occasions at feiseanna and major events in the southern region and elsewhere in the UK and in Ireland. Who knows, I may even have seen his mother take him by the ear as she led him to his first lessons many years ago. I was certainly impressed by his performances when I saw him competing at the Bedford Feis in his younger days.
Indeed I wonder if I was around with my camera to capture his performances when he won the Senior Men Southern England Oireachtas, or was third at the All Ireland Championships, or when he took eighth place at the World Championships. Finbarr went on to graduate as a CLRG dance teacher (TCRG) in 2000 and set up his own school soon afterwards in Luton.
Graduates will know how challenging this study process is and the amount of time required to attain the level of knowledge, particularly in teaching ceili, that is required. His aim to further his professional development resulted in his postgraduate adjudicator qualification (ADCRG) in 2009. This latter qualification took him to adjudicator appointments at events in the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada and in parts of mainland Europe.
But back at base in the Luton church hall where I arrived to check out a typical training session for some of his 70 pupils, I witnessed evidence of the kind of expertise needed to develop and nourish the skills of a diverse demographic population of youngsters who want to be Irish dancers.
Yes, there is a sizeable population of first, second and third generation Irish in Luton but the demographic is now more diverse than ever before, and the interest and enthusiasm to learn jigs and reels has spread beyond the Diaspora.
I can understand why Finbarr’s Mum from Scotstown, Co Monaghan, wanted her son to retain the dancing link. And surely his Dad from Kilfenora, Co Clare, a place steeped in the history of céilí band music, was keen that these cultural links should not be totally diluted and lost.
I went along the line of Finbarr’s young pupils and asked them why they had taken up Irish dancing. It seemed the children of the diaspora were mostly influenced by Mum who wanted her daughter or son to remain mindful of and contribute to retention of cultural roots.
But what of those dancers who had no Irish roots and hailed from other parts of the globe.
Little Leticia, eight years old, whose parents are from Brazil and England, told me she learned of Irish dancing at school breakfast club and was smitten. She also does ballet, tap and modern but prefers Irish. Aleksandra whose parents are from Croatia, learned about Irish dancing from her schoolmates and decided to join in.
Sophia’s father is from Nicosia but her Belfast Mum enticed her into Irish dancing. Among the older dancers were a number whose parents learned about ID from the Butler/Flatley phenomenon and preferred it to their own national dance as a major pastime.
But the academy does participate in different cultural events involving dance forms of different countries and also in various charity events in and around the area.
Finbarr is clearly proud of his Irish roots but also of his Luton hometown. He told me, ‘My parents moved here in the 1950s as did many other Irish folk.
There is a very active Irish Forum here in which we are involved, such as the annual St Patrick’s Day events and in events aimed at strengthening the relationship between the Irish and other communities in Luton. There are several county associations such as Galway, Leitrim, Mayo and Monaghan, to name but a few.
There is also a strong Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann branch in Luton, of which I am a member. There are two big GAA clubs here, St Dympna’s and St Vincent’s, and lots of Irish pubs too’.
His description painted a picture of a little drop of Ireland that fell from out the sky one day. Apart from his own personal achievements he was rightly proud of what his school has experienced in its short lifetime. His pupils compete at all the major championships, and I personally remember Eamon Kitching winning his, and the school’s, first world championship in the Under 13 boys at Glasgow in 2010.
Earlier this year Eamon was again on the rostrum, this time for third place in the Under 19 men’s championship. In this year of the Rio Olympics I’m sure that readers will appreciate what an achievement it is to bring home a bronze.
But there is more to the ethos of a dance school’s performance than just its rostrum medals at major events. To quote Finbarr,’ My greatest joy is to see one of my beginners dancing a reel to music for the first time. I know how much work that the dancer and I have shared to reach this stage’.
Concerning the future of his academy Finbarr’s simple objective is to ‘continue the promotion of Irish dancing in the Luton area and to have some of my pupils join me as a qualified TCRG teacher in my school’.
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