Shauna Doherty: ‘You can take the mammy out of feis, but you can’t take the feis out of the mammy’

Shauna Doherty (nee Kavanagh), and her entire family are completely steeped in the Irish dancing tradition and honed their more than considerable talent under the tutelage of sisters Elizabeth and Rosetta McConomy at their school of dancing.

By Eamon Sweeney
Friday, 15th April 2022, 12:39 pm

Like many young dancers, Shauna was thrust into the dancing world having not long mastered how to walk.

“I started dancing when I was around three-years-old. I know that sounds really young, but I have a four-year-old boy myself now who never does what I tell him, so I think that having the opportunity just to learn how to learn things at that age is a fundamental part of the process of life.

“I had turned in feet and I wore an eye patch, but I thought I was the ‘business’ getting to go along to classes with my big sister Joanne. And, in time, I got it. I learned how to dance,” she said.

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Shauna also toured Europe as a lead professional dancer in the stage show ‘Magic of the Dance.’

With dedication to practice, success followed for Shauna. She secured a second place at world championship level as well as winning American and British national titles. Unfortunately for her though, these brilliant achievements were overshadowed within the walls of her own home.

“In our house my achievements don’t even secure bragging rights,” she laughed.

“My older sister Joanne, was the first to go to dancing, followed by me and then my younger sister Rachael. Joanne won multiple world titles and now teaches her own world champions at the Holly and Kavanagh Dance Academy based in Dublin. My cousin Cyra Taylor is a five-time world title winner and a leading lady in ‘Lord of the Dance’.

“When it comes to family weddings we don’t just show up and do a few steps, we choreograph full routines to the tunes from the Irish dancing stage shows. Then all our mad feis mothers tell us who is still good enough and who isn’t when we are finished.

Shauna started attending dancing classes when she was around three-years-old.

“We all danced for the McConomy School. People in Derry are really spoiled for choice as there are so many fantastic schools, but I have always felt particularly proud and blessed to learn under Rosetta and Elizabeth. They are known across the world for their excellence in dancing. But, you were there to learn and not to waste their time or to waste your mammy’s money by sitting on your bum. They had a reputation for being talented but tough in equal measure. I love them, respect them and I am grateful to them still for training me so well,” Shauna said.

For Shauna, Derry Feis wasn’t only a matter of dancing. She competed in a variety of other disciplines as well.

She said: “I don’t remember the first time I competed in Derry Feis, but I’d bet that it was as soon as I could walk or thereabouts. I remember dancing at St Columb’s Hall, the Guildhall and the Rialto over the years. I also remember running between halls for speech and drama competitions for Mrs Biddle or to represent Longtower Primary School or Thornhill, often with my feis dress and wig on and carrying my school uniform. The Rialto and the Guildhall on the Friday night of the feis were my favourite venues. I remember sitting up in the balcony in my new Easter clothes and my smuggled in Easter eggs having a ball to myself watching the older girls dancing.

“Derry Feis is the week after the world championships so the build-up to it in our dancing school was pretty intense because there were no more classes in between both competitions. We had solo classes during the week then ceili classes for teams on a Friday. I remember practising in Pilots Row and then in the Stardust. Every year, as we grew up it was like pass the parcel with the team dresses until we all had one that fitted.

Sisters Joanne, Shauna and Rachael Kavanagh all attended the McConomy School of Dancing.

“There was always a special excitement about Derry Feis in our home and in our dancing school. We enjoyed learning team dances that we usually didn’t do at feises. Extended family who didn’t normally come to see us could come and watch us because there wasn’t any travelling involved and we didn’t have to get up at ‘crazy o’clock’ to get on the road. Don’t get me wrong, we were representing our dancing school and there to do our best, but it was almost unique in terms of competition because it felt pressure free for me and it was more like a celebration of what we could all do.

“In a house with three young girls, getting ready for anything involved tears and tantrums. Wearing wigs for dancing is frowned upon from those on the outside looking in, but wigs were a Godsend in our house. Mammy had three heads to get into rollers and worse still was removing them and styling our hair. We had to sleep with those hard plastic rollers in covered in that itchy setting spray and cigarette papers at the ends and a big mushroom hairnet on so that you had to sleep face down on your pillow. But, we all trained really hard and it was a joy to put on your beautiful dress and get on stage. It made you feel amazing.”

It’s well-known that there are two main organisations involved in Irish dancing and it would be remiss not to note that this has been a source of contention between both ‘sides’ for decades. However, it is another remarkable feat of Derry Feis that it remains the only platform in the world where both organisations compete together.

Shauna said: “Some of my strongest memories of Derry Feis centre around the different dance federations coming together. It was always so interesting for everyone to see different trends in choreography and costumes.”

Shauna, her husband Michael, son Michael and baby daughter Roise.

Now a mother herself to Michael and baby Roise, Shauna is no doubt whatsoever that they too will know all about Derry Feis. She said: “I am absolutely certain that they will both compete in Derry Feis in the future in something. I’ll be one hundred per cent hard to stick. I joke with my mammy Pauline that ‘you can take the mammy out of the feis but you can’t take the feis out of the mammy’ because she still loves picking out the winners at Derry Feis and she is always right.

“We love our Friday night out at Derry Feis and I will be there with bells on to watch the veterans’ ceili competition for the centenary.

“I think Derry Feis is an institution. It has always been a safe space to celebrate and develop the immense talent of the teachers and pupils of Irish culture in our city. I cherish the memories I made there. Last year I went for a baby scan in Altnagelvin. It was a scary time because mammies had to wait in the area alone with covid rules and I was really afraid. But there were two other girls from my age group at the McConomy School waiting for their scans too and it was so, so comforting to have them there with me.

“The competitors of the past are the teachers and feis mammies of the present and future and that is the real magic of Derry Feis. It has given so many generations the platform to develop life-long passions for things like dancing, singing, poetry and drama that they want to share with their children, and often the confidence to make careers out of it all over the world. I have always thought and still do that it really should be promoted as the must-see cultural attraction of the year in Derry.”