Honours for Australian Irish Dance Teachers

A News Item by Jeannette Mollenhauer

Geraldine Ryan, doyen of Irish Dance Teaching, who featured in an ABC TV production of Backroads located in Koroit. Photo courtesy of IrishCentral.com.

Two prominent Irish Dance Teachers have been honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia in the past year. Janice Currie-Henderson (NSW) and Geraldine (O’Shea) Ryan (Vic) have both made remarkable contributions to the propagation and development of Irish step dancing in this nation. While the general term ‘Irish dance’ is used, it is the solo form known as step dancing to which I refer. Their achievements serve not only the Irish community but also the Irish dance community which is now multicultural in nature; young people from many cultural backgrounds find enjoyment in the pursuit of excellence as Irish dancers.

Janice Currie-Henderson received the OAM in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Early references to a young Janice Currie may be found in the newspapers which are curated by the National Library of Australia through its online portal, Trove. The Catholic Weekly (30 May 1946, p. 6) records that she won second prize in the Jig section for dancers six years and under at the St Patrick’s Day Sports in Sydney. Records of her competitive successes go on from that time, including a competition in 1958 when she won the sections for the jig, reel and hornpipe (The Biz, 29 October 1958, P. 8).

In 1964 the first mention of success by a student of Currie-Henderson’s was recorded, when Noelene Simmonds placed second in the Australian Intermediate Championship (The Broadcaster, 27 October 1964, p.1). In her official citation, found on the website of the Governor General of Australia, it is recorded that she began the Currie-Henderson Academy of Irish Dancing in 1959, was a Founding Member of the Australian Irish Dancing Association (AIDA) when it was formed in 1969, is a Life Member of AIDA NSW Branch and has been the Patron of AIDA since 2011. Currie-Henderson is also a Past President of An Coimisiún le Rinci Gaelacha (The Irish Dancing Commission), the governing body for the vast majority of step dance schools around the world.

Geraldine Ryan joined the cohort of OAM recipients on Australia Day 2020. Born Geraldine O’Shea, she learned from both Duncan Conroy and Tim Downey in Melbourne. Her first newspaper citation was in 1936 when she danced both a jig and a reel in the St Patrick’s Society’s concert held in Melbourne (Advocate, 10 September 1936, p. 24). Multiple references to her competitive success appear over the following years, along with citations about her pupils (see Advocate, 31 March 1949, p. 18). As early as 1953, her school boasted 200 students (The Argus, 13 March 1953, p. 20), and one important step undertaken by O’Shea was to take Irish dance to regional Victoria and this is still her practice in 2020.

Ryan was a true trailblazer, becoming the first person from outside of Ireland and England to formally qualify as an Irish dance teacher in 1953. This achievement required great personal strength as she undertook the long sea voyage to Dublin, having prepared for the exam without the benefit of the mentoring process which is available to current candidates. Ryan now holds the record for being the teacher with the longest registration record with the Irish dancing Commission. She was also responsible for introducing a significant new trend, Irish soft shoes (which make no sound and are worn when dancing the reel or slip jig) to dancers in Australia in the mid-twentieth century.

The history and development of Irish dance in Australia is an important part of the overall narrative of Irish migration and settlement in this country as well as representing a vital part of the nation’s wonderfully diverse performing arts landscape.  Janice Currie-Henderson and Geraldine Ryan have been pioneers in their field and deserve every accolade given to them for their lifelong service and devotion to the art of Irish dance.

By way of addendum,  the Sydney dancer Natasia Petracic, who has won multiple Australian Championship titles, danced the lead role in the twenty-fifth anniversary performance of the full stage show Riverdance in Dublin in early February. Another great achievement for Irish dance in Australia.

Jeanette Mollenhauer

Jeanette is a dance historian and ethnographer, and has two daughters who are former competitive Irish step dancers.