Trinity's Darren Smith

Darren was kind enough to share with the Celtic Cafe a glimpse into his life of accomplishments. This is a young man on the go, and he and the others of the Trinity Irish Dance Company are flying off on another tour, delighting Irish dance fans starting this Saturday, February 2nd. See the related links at the bottom for the tour dates, because you do not want to miss an opportunity to see Trinity.

He has also provided some exciting prizes for the winners of a caption contest, including a pair of tickets to see the show!

The Interview:

Darren, you've been dancing for 21 years, since the age of three. Your professional career started after you won the World Irish Dancing Championships in 1997 with a rare perfect score from every adjudicator. At what point did you first realize that your talent might transport you into a career in the performing arts? Did the Eurovision and the subsequent world interest in Irish dance mark a turning point in attitudes among Irish dancers who were doing it mainly for competition? What was the "buzz" like at dance classes after news of Riverdance and its spectacular success reached you young dancers?

I remember it being rather surreal actually. It really did take the world by storm. We would go to a feis every weekend or so, go to the Worlds, the North American Championships, the Canadian Championships once a year. Suddenly it all changed, and a new avenue for experience quickly evolved from competing to a professional career. Although I'm sure most parents who have children involved with the various shows are quite proud, I bet they wish they were the ones dancing and making money, considering how much they invested in it over time. I've been dancing for a long time - I don't think I could pay back my parents half of what they put into it, except to say "Thank you!"

I was about five minutes away from signing a Riverdance contract a few years ago and turned it down for various reasons. The pressure was intense to be involved with something so incredibly world-renowned; however, I chose a path of artistic vision rather than commercial vision to be a principal dancer with Trinity. I haven't regretted that decision ever, although the world of not-for-profit can be frustrating sometimes.

How do dancers join the Trinity company? What made you decide to go with Trinity and not Riverdance, for instance? Please explain how Trinity differs from the other Irish dance shows. I had the pleasure of seeing you folks when you came to my area about three years ago, and am wondering what the show is like now. I know that Mark Howard believes in experimentation, and the show leans toward "fusion." What elements are being experimented with now? What can the fans expect on the coming tour?

Trinity needs a minimum of sixteen girls and one boy to do its show. We typically tour with at least eighteen girls, two guys, three musicians, and three techs, although the company has a list of approximately 30-35 dancers it can call on at any given time.

I chose Trinity because it is the only company of its kind: a non-profit organization with a goal to exist long after the flame has died out for commercial Irish dance shows, so to speak. Trinity has the honor of being on the same type of tours as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Pilobolus, Mark Morris Dance Co., etc. The performing arts world is not the same as the commercial show world. Our repertoire changes constantly and may be completely different from one night to the next on tour. With Riverdance for example, the set list never changes. You do the same thing every night for the better part of a year. In fact, they strive for exactitude from night to night. With Trinity, you get the chance to be artistically challenged and involved with choreography. We work with a varying degree of modern dance choreographers. Actually, we had the honor of recently working with Sean Curran again who is a former Irish dancer and member of STOMP. He choreographed a piece for the company (which I'm in) called 'Jump, Jive, and Jig'. It's a swing/Irish piece. Very fun but very tiring! I thought Irish dancing was tiring - try mixing some swing in. :-) For the coming big tour in February 2002, there will be some new Irish dance pieces as well. Mark loves to experiment and be different. He is a creative visionary that loves to break new ground. I don't think anyone will be disappointed with the coming tour.

I assume that "Curran Event" is still part of the program? I look forward to seeing the Sean Curran dance company in the spring. What can you tell us about the choreography?

Sean Curran is one the most pleasant people I have ever worked with. He is a former member of STOMP - and a former Irish dancer! He basically melded body percussion and Irish dancing together to make this piece. Quite often, audiences will mimic what the girls are doing on stage with the clapping. It shows that Irish dancers can use their arms and hands in amazing ways too! It's hard to take Irish dancers, most of whom have very little dance training outside of Irish dance, and get them to do different things properly. This company is full of willing and talented people who are given the opportunity to expand their abilities in ways they didn't think possible.

We have a CelticCafeDANCERS group on Yahoo, and it has grown very large, with many Irish dancers of all ages and levels of expertise joining us. What kind of advice might you want to offer them, taking into account the career opportunities that have opened up in recent years. And do you think it's possible to have TOO many Irish dance shows on the world stage at one time?

Anything is possible in anything you do. It sounds cliché but honestly, if you feel like you want to make a career out of dancing, surround yourself with supportive people and work hard. There are opportunities out there all over the world. I know people who have started schools in all sorts of countries you wouldn't expect an Irish dance school to be.

It is definitely possible to have too many Irish dance shows out there. It's like having too many reality television shows. There are those that truly appreciate the art form and have a wish to show the world what a fantastic sight Irish dancing is. Then there are those that want nothing more than to make a quick buck. There are so-called Irish shows out there that don't even use Irish dancers in the chorus - they use tap or jazz dancers, or the most extreme I have heard is people who aren't dancers at all. I think that's a shame. Imitation is the best form of flattery though now, isn't it? :-)

Influences

Your mother and grandmother were dancers in County Derry, Northern Ireland. They must be very proud of you and what you have achieved. What kinds of things have they taught you, either in terms of dance technique or in attitude about Irish dance? Who have been the most important "role models" for you, whether it be in dance or other endeavors?

My mom is extremely proud and has supported me every step of the way. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away a few years back, but I still remember dancing in her living room in Birmingham (where she lived most recently) - indeed she was proud too. To be truthful, my mom didn't ever teach me anything about dance technique, but she did turn me into a gracious loser as well as winner, and fostered a positive attitude towards being successful at everything I have ever done.

Without a doubt, the most important influence in my dance career is one of my teachers, Brian Grant. I owe a large part of what I have achieved to him, as well as Brigid Grant (his mother, and my teacher as well).

Tell us about your teachers at the Grant School of Irish Dancing and their role in helping you become the dancer you are.

This goes along with what I was just saying … to elaborate on it I would say that Brian is the very essence of a champion and wonderful teacher. Sometimes I thought he was trying to kill me, he pushed so hard to bring success out of me. But he did it with grace and - I have come to realize - with true friendship. Brigid (his mother) has been teaching in the Toronto area for a long time and is extremely well-respected. She helped turn Brian into a multi-World Champion, and was definitely a part in making me one as well. I owe a debt of gratitude to both of them forever, as they taught with complete selflessness to see me do my best and succeed. It's great to be on top of the World Championship podium - I can't imagine what it's like to be a teacher watching one of your students up there - yet.

Who are some of the dancers you admire and why - what "styles" of Irish dance do you gravitate towards? How much do you contribute to the choreography of the dancing you do with Trinity?

I admire Brian Grant, my teacher, and Colin Dunne the most as dancers. I've been told too many times to count that I look like Brian dancing. Not surprising, considering he was my teacher for so long. Colin is just an incredible dancer - I have always been amazed watching him. In terms of my style, I would say I gravitate to intricate and interesting rhythms… I have a very masculine style… pretty powerful hard shoe dancer but with good lift off the ground. Great rhythm has always been my strong suit, though.

Where do you think Irish dance is headed? Undoubtedly you are aware of the changes in costume, etc., at the competitions these days, compared to when you were winning all the titles. What do you think of them, and btw, how did you like dancing in kilts?! ;-)

Irish dancing has certainly turned into a major industry. The numbers at competitions are huge compared to when I was competing.

With regards to costume, to be quite frank, I much prefer the traditional styles. The girls' embroidered solo dresses are absolutely gorgeous and a plain "Riverdance" type dress does not really compare at all. Although I have seen variations on the traditional dress styles that are quite beautiful, like imaginative materials for the sleeves and linings.

Kilts … we all know real men wear kilts. :-) To be entirely honest, I was totally embarrassed by my kilt for much of my competitive career. No friend outside of Irish dancing knew what a kilt was - it was a skirt, plain and simple. Only my mom wears skirts. I became much more comfortable with it as I grew older, and still today, I think a boy in traditional kilt and jacket looks much better than many of the boys in pants and vest. However, from a technical standpoint, pants and vest make many boys "appear" better because each costume serves to hide different things.

So I guess I'm a traditionalist on the competitive costumes.

Canadian Talent

We at the Celtic Cafe were quite excited about the reports we were getting about Needfire, and had hoped that it would go on tour. You were principal dancer for both of its two runs in Toronto. What was that experience like? Do you think that a show focused on Scottish-based music and dance can achieve the same kind of popularity that the Irish dance shows have? Why haven't we seen more of them, do you think?

Needfire was a show full of breathtaking Canadian Celtic talent. If it had toured, I'm sure it would have been a hit. Unfortunately (and I am surmising here), when you put so many well-known performers on one stage along with 40 dancers and a large band, the show becomes quite an expensive undertaking to tour. I also suspect that we were competing with the likes of The Lion King and Mamma Mia for production resources. It wasn't really much of a fight so to speak. Business is business. However, I can wholeheartedly say that both experiences were a joy and pleasure to be a part of. Especially in my hometown.

During the explosion of Irish dance shows, I did notice a few Scottish ones floating around. Not recently though. I think some producers saw an opportunity to capitalize on the Irish phenomenon and convert it into a Celtic one. It didn't quite catch, but you can't blame them for trying. In recent years we've seen Flamenco, swing, and tap-themed shows become big hits as well. Dance in general is a beautiful thing - the human body is capable of so much. Will we see something approach the level of what Irish dance did? Not anytime soon would be my bet.

Some of my favorite Celtic music comes from the Cape Breton area of Nova Scotia. You worked with a lot of exceptionally talented performers in Needfire. Can you tell us a bit about some of them, like Mary Jane Lamond and Slainte Mhath?

I can proudly say I've worked with some of the most talented musicians and singers in Canada, including John McDermott, The Irish Descendants, Natalie MacMaster, Jesse Cook, The Ennis Sisters, John Allan Cameron, Sandy McIntyre, and you've already mentioned Mary Jane and the ever-so talented Slainte Mhath. They're all down to earth, nice, normal people. Slainte Mhath in particular comprise some of the friendliest people I know. As far as I know, their careers are blossoming quite nicely, with a just completed tour of Europe. I speak to Lisa via e-mail every now and then, but I think it's her turn to write me!! :-)

You appeared with Natalie MacMaster, one of my all-time favorite performers, at the Juno Awards, Canada's version of the Grammies. I'd love to see a video clip of that. Will you have it on your website at some point?

Good question. Now, where did I put that videotape? If I can find it I will indeed.

You've made quite a few appearances on TV shows and been in a movie or two. What was that like? Any funny incidents you wouldn't mind sharing?

Regis was supposed to wear a kilt when I danced (in kilt) on his show. He chickened out! :-)

I did this gag for the Tonight show where they challenged a guy in the audience as to whether I could break all the bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap. In rehearsal, it took about five tries to get it right because each time I started dancing, I'd tear the bubble wrap to pieces and it'd fly all over the place. They had to tape it to a piece of cardboard and tape the cardboard to the stage.

We did this (really bad) movie called Mafia!, where this very large mob guy kills Michael Flatley (actually Tim O'Hare) and comes back on stage pretending to be him, to kick the head off his nemesis in the front row. I don't think the 14 hours of constant dancing would have been possible if it wasn't so funny. 14 hours for 30 seconds of screen time. Wow. But these are experiences I will never forget.

Off the Dance Floor

You majored in radio and television broadcasting. What made you decide to go into that, and what are your career aspirations once you think you've had enough fun dancing around the world?

I have this big aversion to sitting in lecture halls listening to some old guy talking about things I won't use in the real world. I'm also a big button-pusher and gadget freak. Television seemed like it had lots of toys to play with, and I was right. Unfortunately, it's an industry that doesn't cater well to random schedules. So I'm a sales and purchasing manager for a computer store in Toronto when I'm not dancing. I have a very supportive and understanding boss that gives me some time off when I need it. Television would never provide that. It is an option for in the future. I may decide to explore other avenues with dancing - get my TCRG and see what happens. I have aspirations of being a pilot - I may go that route too. I guess I'm not fully decided!

You actually work with computers quite a bit now. Do you spend much time online, and can fans write to you directly?

Sure they can. They can contact me through my website: www.darrensmith.com, or my e-mail address there is ds@darrensmith.com. I spend quite a bit of time online these days playing with my site, so I'm usually quite accessible.

What do you enjoy doing for fun? What kind of music do you enjoy listening to? What kinds of books do you enjoy reading? Tell us about your interest in flying! How much time do you spend on it? What do you like to do when you are on tour, assuming that you have the time? Do you like trying to see the sights, take pictures for a photo album, etc.? What do you look forward to the most?

I've been into computers since childhood and have made a small second living out of it when I'm not dancing. More appropriately, I'd call myself a gadget freak. I love the new and nifty in the electronics world. When I lose something (i.e., my portable MP3 player on the way back from Taiwan), I consider it an opportunity to buy a better version of it. :-) I'm also into photography - I own a Nikon SLR camera with two lenses and a regular point-and-shoot APS camera as well. I took seven rolls of film in Taiwan alone!

I enjoy listening to a wide variety of music - basically anything except country and hip-hop. I don't read as much as I used to or want these days. I'm a big science fiction and fantasy fan when I do get the chance though.

I've wanted to be a pilot since I was a pretty small kid. I was always fascinated with it. I was planning to start training for my private pilot's license this autumn, but the Taiwan trip put the brakes on it. I need to complete a few months of ground school and did not want to miss so many classes. I've flown a Cessna single-engine plane a few times, and it has only reinforced my desire to be a pilot in one way or another. Even if it only becomes a hobby I will be happy.

Since I recently got back from Taiwan, I can tell you a little bit about my fabulous trip. I saw beautiful Buddhist temples, gorgeous mountain scenery, a family of five on a scooter, and my life flash before my eyes in many a taxi. The food was very good and the theatres we were in are more like giant arts palaces. I must admire the dedication the people there seem to have towards arts and cultural activities. Each theatre was built in the middle of a public area where people would practice dancing, T'ai Chi, singing, or just hang out with family. You don't see that in North America.

The people in Taiwan are some of the friendliest and most wonderful people I have ever met in all of my travels. We always meet great people when we go to great places. I love being in places for more than a couple of days, which happens so rarely. We get a chance to explore and meet people. I've been to so many places and I can hardly remember half of them. Perhaps some places are best left forgotten, but I do cherish the extended periods we get to spend in the unforgettable ones.

What is your philosophy of life?

Believe in yourself. Be kind. Be true to your friends.


Interview: Bernadette Price
Web Design: Alexander Servas
Editing: Louise Owen

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