It didn’t seem to matter which direction she turned in the cavernous Hynes Convention Center. Nearly everyone at the World Irish Dancing Championships, held in late March, knows Rita O’Shea.
A pair of college students rush up to give the 75-year-old with the blond bob a hug. Performers stepping off the stage, their hair arranged in perfect Shirley Temple curls, consult with her. Dance instructors from around the world come over to greet her.
At the world championships for step dance (“the Worlds” as they are commonly known), O’Shea was a sensation. And with good reason: She’s a celebrity in this tradition-steeped subculture. O’Shea has instructed thousands of Irish dancers over nearly 60 years — a tenure that’s difficult to believe given her youthful gait — and has served on what appears to be every committee or judging panel on both sides of the Atlantic.
In this world, where girls whisper about who is sporting the finest wig and the most elaborate, acrylic-jeweled stage attire, O’Shea has a refined eye for talent. But she’s equally concerned with academic talent, and, like a proud mother, she pointed to dancers who have gone on to collect master’s degrees as she made the rounds at the competition.
These Worlds, which are viewed as the Olympics of Irish dance, made O’Shea the honoree in March, recognizing her work with the three generations of dancers. She may not remember all those faces, but says she has a photographic memory and can recall most of the names.
“The general consensus is that I deserve this honor,” O’Shea said, sitting backstage as a pair of young girls in jeweled skirts danced for the audience. “I don’t know if I do or not, but I am very happy that they think I do. For me the honor is in helping some people along the way make successes of their lives.”
It was only the second time the World Irish Dancing Championships took place in the United States, and the first time in Boston. More than 7,000 dancers competed here for top titles in the sport.
O’Shea is an Irish dance magnate in Massachusetts. Her school, the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance, which she runs with daughter Lisa Chaplin, is based in Boston but offers instruction to children and adults at a dozen satellite locations in Eastern Massachusetts.
Some of those students have gone on to become world champion dancers and now perform in shows such as “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance.”
Quincy native Kevin McCormack, a 19-year-old who is currently on tour with “Lord of the Dance,” said that it was O’Shea’s encouragement that helped him “see things in myself that I didn’t even know were there.”
“She’s always been a mother figure to me,” McCormack said. “She nurtured me and worked with me and made me what I am today.”
The words “mother,” “grandmother,” and even “fairy godmother” pop up often in conversations about O’Shea. In return, she regards her students as her children.
“The first thing that I learned as a teacher is that there is tough love, but you also have to give them the option that if there is a problem that they can come to you,” O’Shea said in a friendly lilt.
“I love them, and I regard them as a family. I have children who come back to honor me after 50 years. Why? I don’t know. But when they come back they love to see me and they all want to tell me their endeavors because they know I want the best for them.”
And like any good mother, O’Shea also has the ability to strike fear into the hearts of her dance disciples.
“There were times when I didn’t practice and then I’d get the horrible question, ‘Did you practice?’ I knew that if I said no then she would yell at me,” said 20-year-old Meagan Moffett. “And if I said yes, she’d know I was lying, and she’d yell at me.”
Despite her 59 years of dance instruction, O’Shea didn’t intend to teach Irish step dance. Her real dream was to become a schoolteacher.
In her hometown of Galway, Ireland, she began Irish step dance lessons at age 4 and became a championship dancer in her teens. She graduated high school and received a scholarship to a teaching college. At the same time, her dance instructor decided to retire and care for her ailing husband, and O’Shea was approached about taking over the dance school. With her mother’s encouragement, she did. In 1954, at the age of 17, she began her career.
After her mother passed away from cancer in 1961, O’Shea left Ireland and came to the US for a two-week vacation. She was looking to escape from the world of Irish step dance because it reminded her too much of her deceased mother. She came to the US with a round-trip ticket, but decided to stay. She started working for an insurance company and continued distancing herself from Irish dance, only occasionally attending step dance nights around Boston.
But at a dance one evening, she was approached by two men asking if she taught Irish dance. She explained that she had, but no longer did. One of the men, who was then-president of the local Irish Shamrock Society, helped her find students and a hall to teach in. She began giving lessons at the Irish American Club in Central Square.
“I didn’t even know where Cambridge was,” O’Shea recalled.
Chaplin said that 25 of her mother’s students have gone on to become Irish step dance teachers.
“She’s really passed it on to people,” she said. “She gets very personal with them. She writes college recommendations, or she’s there if they need a reference for a job. I can’t even tell you how many weddings she’s gone to.”
O’Shea, in a very humble manner, waves away the accolades and instead focuses on what she sees as the importance of Irish dancing: continuing a cultural tradition that has existed for hundreds of years, and, of course, helping her students.
“This is live history. It’s oral history,” O’Shea said. “I believe in this, because I can see that it helps concentration, self-esteem, and confidence. We try to teach all that is positive.”