St. Pat's Dancers
The St. Pat's Dancers have been a fixture of the St. John's dance scene for over sixty years. In 1876, the Irish Christian Brothers came to Newfoundland to teach in the Roman Catholic schools. It was not until the 1930s, however, that a dance group was formed at one of the schools: St. Patrick's Hall School, St. John's. Under the leadership of Brother Samuel Murphy, five boys, called the St. Pat's Dancers, were taught Irish step dancing, performed with tap shoes. This group performed for various festivals and events throughout the city. During the following decades, the group flourished under the direction of different brothers.
It was in the 1970s, that the scope of the dancers began to widen. With Brother David "Bernie" Burton leading them, the group increased their repertoire by three or four traditional Irish dances. The boys were encouraged to make up their own dances set to traditional Newfoundland music. Five new dances were created during this period, including the "Jennings Jig," named for a popular fiddle player from Torbay, Newfoundland. As the dance variety of the St. Pat's Dancers grew, so did the locales in which they performed under Brother Burton's direction.
They continued to dance not only at local festivals, but also at events outside the province: the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976, at the British Commonwealth Games in Alberta, and at Expo '86 in Vancouver. In addition, the dancers have travelled to Folkarama in Winnipeg, to the Connecticut Irish Festival, to the Lowell Festival in Massachusetts, and to the Harbour Festival in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. They also had the opportunity to attend workshops and train with such figures as Jackie Scanlon, world champion Irish dancer, and Michael Flatley, of Lord of the Dance fame. The children have also performed for such dignitaries as the King and Queen of Belgium, the Prince and Princess of Wales, and Pope John Paul II, as well as numerous Prime Ministers and Premiers. Despite their international exposure, the group continued to perform locally.
Girls have been members of the St. Pat's Dancers since the mid-70s, and today they dominate the group though boys continue to participate. Instruction continues in the way it has for decades. The senior group, which has learned most of the repertoire, teaches the junior group, consisting of children who are not yet ready to perform publicly.
Photo by Don Shorock, 2003.
Currently the group performs 13 or 14 dances, including the 3 or 4 originally brought from Ireland. One dance, choreographed by Michael Flatley, and the rest developed over the years by the St. Pat's Dancers themselves. Children as young as 5 may train with the group, while the oldest student is presently 16. In total, 64 children make up the junior and senior groups. The dancers are accompanied by Graham Wells, accordion, tin whistle, and the Irish drum, Donna Kearsey, piano, and Francie Gow, fiddle.
For most of the year the children practise twice weekly. In addition, they perform for local charities, fund-raisers, schools, church functions, hospitals, and seniors' homes. They were recognized for their charitable work by the City of St. John's with a Certificate of Merit. The St. Pat's Dancers do not charge for their performances, nor do they take part in competitions. The focus of the group remains on enjoyment, both for performers and viewers. When performing, the dancers usually wear a uniform: the girls wear a Newfoundland tartan kilt and sash, while the boys wear a tartan vest.
In recent years, under the directorship of Mr. and Mrs. J. Steiner, the group has continued to travel outside the province, most recently to Ottawa, where they performed on 1 July 1997, during the Canada Day Celebrations on Parliament Hill. They also performed with Great Big Sea for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prime Minister, and millions of Canadians via CBC Television. For their work in promoting Newfoundland and Labrador culture, both locally and abroad, the St. Pat's Dancers were awarded in 1996 the Ambassadors of Newfoundland and Labrador Award, by the Department of Tourism, Hospitality, Newfoundland, and the Board of Trade.