McDade School of Irish Dance Celebrates the Big 5-0
Maureen McDade McGrory used to tag along when her dad’s band, The All-Ireland Orchestra, played at all the dances and Irish events in the Philadelphia. That was back in the day when the dances were where the newly arrived Irish would meet to start new friendships and where countless marriages were made.
She’d listen to the music but mostly she would dance. She begged her parents for lessons. Both Philadelphia-born but with roots in Donegal and Scotland, they agreed. She learned the proper steps with the late Sean Lavery, a Donegal native and one of the leading Irish dance teachers in the area (for 50 cents a lesson!) in the ‘50s.
When Lavery died, his student decided to start a school of her own, right in her own home. She taught Irish dancing for the next three decades, training champion after champion, until her untimely death in 1993 of cancer at the age of 54. She left behind four children—and a legacy they refused to let die.
Her daughters, Sheila, then 18, and Maureen, then 14, along with one of her mother’s McDade School dancers, Bridget O’Connell, decided to keep the school going. Immediately.
“It was a crazy time,” remembers Sheila McGrory Sweeney, now a 37-year-old mother of three. “Mom passed away, we had the funeral, and Bridget was like, ‘Let’s go,’ and we had class the following Tuesday.”
To keep the school certified so its students could compete, Bridget had to get her certification as an Irish dance instructor. “You have to be 21 to be certified and we weren’t old enough,” says Sheila.
The three women (Maureen is now a Lisowski) have not only kept the school going, they’ve made it thrive. Today, the McDade School of Irish Dance is also the McDade-Cara School of Irish Dance, a merger that provided more times, locations and instructors to handle hundreds of students, from tiny beginners to top champions (there were nine world qualifiers from the combined schools his year).
McDade is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a reunion dinner of sorts, inviting back all those young men and women who learned their moves from Maureen McDade—and the grandchildren whose recitals they now attend. It’s scheduled for Sunday, September 30, at the Springfield Country Club in Springfield.
“We’re going to have people there from the first generation of my mom’s dancers,” says Sheila. “The minute we posted the event on Facebook we started hearing from people. My dad, John, who is a year in recovery from a stroke, told me that one lady stopped by the house—he still lives in the same house—and brought four of her old dancing costumes and a CD of pictures from 1962 to 1970. And she stayed for an hour and a half, talking about how her parents had come out from Ireland, didn’t know anyone, got involved in dancing and the people they met then are who are their friends today.”
That’s part of what’s kept up in the interest in Irish dance in the Philadelphia area long after the “Riverdance effect” wore off, says Sheila. Dancers become part of a community that persists even after everyone has sold their performance dresses and boxed up their wigs.
When she and her sister were growing up, dancing wasn’t just part of their world, it created their world. “It was a nice, tightknit group of girls who all had something in common. Our mothers were all friends, and we built weekends away around the dancing. But it was more than just about the dancing. All of my friends now are people I danced with.”
It’s been the same for her daughters, Regan, 11, and Darcy, 8. (Son Brendan, 14, “danced until kindergarten and then told us he was officially retired,” she laughs. “But he’s a musician. He plays piano.”)
“We just had a group of families go up to the Catskills, a trip built around a feis (an Irish dance competition). They all camped out and that’s all the kids can talk about,” says Sheila. “The kids love to dance, but they also love the opportunity to travel and love being on stage. My daughter, at 11, has already been to Scotland, England, and Ireland, for dancing. My husband says she has more stamps on her passport than he does! And they like to wear pretty dresses. But, really, it’s the friendships.”
That camaraderie is one of the reasons Sheila Sweeney has been teaching Irish dancing for the past 19 years. The same goes for her sister and their partner, Bridget, as well as their brothers, Jim and John McGrory, who have become accomplished musicians (and feis musicians too).
“I love it. I can’t imagine not having it as a big part of my life,” she says. And, she says, it makes her feel closer to her mother. “Of course, sometimes I shake my head and say, ‘Mom, what did you get me into?’ But it’s amazing to have that connection, to be able to carry on her tradition. If she was looking down, I think she’d think that she’d left it in good hands, between me, Maureen and Bridget. I think she’d be pretty darn proud.”
For a look back at the McDade School, check out the photos here.