For one Sunset family, sharing their Irish heritage through music and traditional step dance is part of the family business.
As one of only three certified Irish step dance instructors in Louisiana, Sheila Ryan-Davoren has been dancing since she was 4 — and nothing has stopped her. When she was 25, she ruptured her Achilles tendon onstage during a performance. After 10 months of physical therapy, she returned to the stage, having made a complete recovery. She also danced while she was pregnant with each of her three children.
“I was dancing like a crazy woman on the floor here with a big belly,” she recalled.
Ryan-Davoren has operated the Ryan School of Irish Dance for 14 years in Metairie and Lafayette. Like her, each of her children — Roisin, 14, Aoife, 12 and Malachy, 9 — began dancing when they were 4. She trains around 27 adult students across her school’s two locations.
Kelly Caffery, 19, has danced Irish step for four years. She said Ryan-Davoren helped her transition from ballet to the more rigid style of step dancing.
“Mrs. Sheila took me under her wing,” Caffery said. “Especially since I was a later dancer.”
The school was met with excitement when Malachy placed third in his age group during the Southern States Irish Dance competition in Houston. Ryan-Davoren remembers “freaking out” in the audience with her son’s family and fellow dancers, especially because it was his first year competing.
“I’m his mom, but I’m also a dance teacher,” she said. “I saw the competition that he was up against.”
Although Malachy is eligible to compete in the 2019 National Irish Dance competition in Vancouver, Canada, he’ll attend Camp Rince Ceol Irish Dance Summer Camp, which Ryan-Davoren and her husband founded.
Malachy will also continue practicing for the next round of competitions in hopes of claiming the top spot at his next regional competition.
“I’ll just practice and practice,” he said.
His sisters, as well as student Brandi Rourk, 16, also competed, and Roisin placed 65th out of the 142 girls in the under-14 age group.
Ryan-Davoren’s dancers will spend early 2019 preparing for competition in late January in New Orleans. In March, they’ll perform with the Chieftains, an Irish music group with whom Ryan-Davoren served as a top performer.
Cultural events double as competition time for the school and a time for Ryan-Davoren to reconnect with dancers and reminisce about her time in national competition. At 15 years old, she placed fifth in the North American competition and 10th in the world competition centered in Dublin.
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In addition to her time with the Chieftains, she spent three seasons with “Riverdance,” a two-hour-long musical that combines live Celtic music with Irish dancing. Ryan-Davoren was one of the first Americans cast to the show.
During her time on the cast, she met her husband, Tony Davoren, who was cast as a singer. The couple married in 2003 and moved to Louisiana after falling in love with the area during multiple visits to friends.
Ryan-Davoren said Acadiana has been an ideal place to share some of their heritage. She pointed to late musician Dennis McGee, who was one of the earliest recorded Cajun musicians.
“He had Irish heritage in him, and he played Irish tunes,” she said. “A lot of people took his tunes in and kind of turned them into Cajun.”
Through his band Celjun, Tony Davoren explores that Cajun and Celtic fusion.
In addition to their dance summer camp, the couple has also founded the Celtic Bayou Festival, an annual event featuring Irish dance, music and cookoffs. Ryan-Davoren said they formed the idea after years of people asking them their plans for St. Patrick’s Day.
“We had a lot of like-minded people in the area that wanted to be involved with the Celtic culture and the arts, whether they were musicians, dancers or just family,” she recalled.
Ryan-Davoren describes her dance school and the Celtic arts communities as “family,” no matter the competition, as well as seeing her former fellow competitors introduce their children into their rich heritage.
“What I like about it is the memories that my kids will make,” she said. “They’ve made some great friendships over the years.”