The McConnell family founded the first Irish dance school in Ballymena, Northern Ireland over 100 years ago.
Agnes McConnell began teaching Irish dance to the local millworker's children and was one of a rare few who initiated the re-introduction of the Irish Dance tradition in the North. Agnes's younger brother Samuel followed in his sister's footsteps and also branched out to other styles of dance, such as Ballroom, Tap and Folk. In the tradition of the ancient Irish dance masters, Sam McConnell travelled the countryside to neighboring villages in order to accommodate the growing resurgence of the art- form in County Antrim.
Sam McConnell choreographed numerous CBC television shows, local productions and "Rainbow Stage" musicals. Many of the performers were McConnell Dancers who went on to have successful careers in television, theatre and dance. Sam McConnell was one of the founding members of the "Folk Arts Council of Winnipeg" and both Sam and Sarah received citizenship awards from the City of Winnipeg for their community service work. The McConnells were lifetime honorary members of the "Winnipeg Irish Association" and "Irish Association of Manitoba". On the school's 25th Anniversary, they were recognized by her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth.
Sam and Sarah McConnell established the "McConnell School of Dance" in Winnipeg in the fall of 1947. The Irish community in Winnipeg was quite small at that time and their first season had little more than a dozen pupils. Both Sam and Sarah found work at "Eaton's" department store, as many of the Irish immigrants did in those days. "McConnell School of Dance" rapidly grew in size and it wasn't long before the year-end recital was a two night, sold out performance at "Pantages Playhouse Theatre." In 1950 Sam travelled to Chicago where he received certification in Tap Dance from Gladys Height ( Fred Astaire's teacher).
Sam was first introduced to his wife Sarah McConnell (nee McNally) at a Ballroom dance competition, and together the two competed at events across the country. In 1947, shortly after the end of World War II, Sam and Sarah moved their family (consisting of three children) to Winnipeg, Canada. Sam's brother David had immigrated to Winnipeg several years prior, as it was the McConnell's wish to raise their family in a stable and peaceful country.
Pearl McConnell began dancing at age four in Ireland. She studied Irish, Tap and Ballet and would often accompany her father to lessons in neighbouring towns, perched on the handle bars of his bicycle. At a young age Pearl had the honour of performing an Irish Jig with Glenn Miller and his orchestra in Belfast, shortly before his untimely death. Pearl performed and choreographed over 300 CBC television shows including "Red River Jamboree" and "Pick the Stars" in Toronto. She was a regular dancer in Rainbow Stage productions and a choreographer for the "Hollow Mug" musicals for ten years running.
Pearl's background in musicals and exposure to varying styles of dance provided her with the ability to branch out with innovative choreography. She combined exciting choreography with traditional steps, captivating North American audiences with it's lightning fast pace. Whilst still preserving the traditions of Irish Dance passed down the family line, Pearl added unique elements to create a style that had never been seen before. She is the only choreographer to incorporate the Bodhrán (ancient Irish Drum) and spoons into her productions and the "McConnell Dancers" remain the only Irish Dancers who have the unique ability to drum and dance at the same time. Pearl was also the first to interweave traditional solo dances in full non-stop productions with military-precise choreography.
Pearl established the "Norberry Dancers" when she was only 16 years of age and continued to perform and teach with her father at "McConnell School of Dance." In keeping with the tradition of the Irish dance masters, she travelled to many rural areas to teach, including St. Norbert, St. Pierre, St Adolphe and Carman. Pearl established the "Shannon Irish Dancers" with the "Manitoba Irish Association." In 1982, after the passing of Sam and the retirement of Sarah, Pearl took over the running of "McConnell School of Dance."
In 1984 Pearl conceptualized and choreographed a 45 minute production called the "New York Irish", and it's success grew to enormous proportions. The show traced the history of the Irish people through generations of mass exodus to the New World. Over the course of it's ten year run, it delighted audiences with it's brilliant choreography, colourful costumes, and heartwarming music and remains a uniquely personal story of her reluctant immigration as a teenager.
In 1996 Pearl established the "Isle of the Shamrock" pavilion in the Folklorama Festival, after 25 years of volunteering her talents for both the "Irish" and "Emerald Isle" pavilions. Pearl was the sole coordinator for the "Isle of the Shamrock" for it's eight year run.
In 1988 Pearl received a Citizenship award from the City of Winnipeg for her volunteer efforts and community service work. In 2004 Pearl retired, passing the "McConnell School of Dance" on to her daughter Shayleen, thus paving the way for the third generation of McConnell's.
Shayleen McConnell Finucan began dancing at age three with her grandfather at "McConnell School of Dance". At a young age she studied ballet with M. Grand Pierre and at five years old, she was also one of the original "Shannon Irish Dancers with the Irish Association of Manitoba. " Shayleen appeared on many television shows and commercials, including regular appearances on "Sesame Street".
As a young child, Shayleen accompanied her mother to nightly dance lessons, spending countless hours watching from the sidelines and playing the music when she was old enough to operate the record player.
Shayleen began her dance teaching apprenticeship at twelve years of age under the direction of her mother, Pearl. It was about that time she began playing the Bodhrán (ancient Irish drum) and she passed on her skill to dancers eager to learn the technique. Shayleen studied Jazz / Modern dance at the "Royal Winnipeg Ballet" and she teaches Irish, Jazz and Folk Dancing. She has performed with the "Irish Rovers", on television and in various international events and festivals. Shayleen apprenticed as a recording / sound engineer with her father at "Wayne Finucan Productions Ltd."
McConnell School of Dance is currently in it's 68th Season!
Well into its third generation, McConnell Irish Dancers are under the direction of accomplished dancer and choreographer, Shayleen McConnell Finucan. Shayleen's most recent achievement is choreographer of the international touring Irish Dance spectacular "The Magic of Ireland", produced by Peter Jacobs (Gael Force) McConnell Dancers have performed at the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, and with well-known performers such as "The Irish Rovers", "Tommy Makem", and "The Irish Descendants".
McConnell Dancers are recognized for their unique, high calibre, performance-style dancing which encompasses both traditional and modern forms of Irish Dance. The dancers perform with the very talented Traditional Irish musicians from the Barefoot Ceili Band featuring Kyle Borley, Cathy Rayner, D'Arcy Stearns, and Dave Strang. The group is joined by Irish minstrel singer Tom McDermott and the lovely Celtic Women voices of Katrusia Manning, Hilary Balagus, and Sarah Sabatini. Their skilled and entertaining performances showcase all aspects of Irish culture and tradition with the best of Irish music, song and dance.
McConnell Irish Dancers have been involved with Folklorama (C.I.O.F.F) for over 40 years and perform at over 60 shows locally each year. The dancers also tour with the Thistle Band as part of the Celtic Fury Show.
McConnell Irish Dancers have produced three full length productions with live music from the Barefoot Ceili Band, narration, and video production.
· "Irish Tradition, the best of Irish Music, Song & Dance"
· "The Legend of the Tuatha Dé Danann
· "Trasna na dTonnta - Over The Waves" - The Irish diaspora to the America
McConnell Irish Dancers have travelled the world to represent Canada and Ireland in CIOFF International Festivals, Peru (2007), Costa Rica (2009), Bulgaria (2011). In 2012, McConnell Irish Dancers performed at Walt Disney World, Florida at the American Celtic Irish Dance Festival and in 2013 they were honored to be the only Canadian Irish dance troupe to be invite to perform in Ireland as part of the Gathering 2013.
One of the longest established Irish Dance Schools in Canada and the largest school in Manitoba.
Agnes McConnell (Right) with McConnell Trophy, Ballymena Northern Ireland
Samuel McConnell with dance partner, Ballymena Northern Ireland
Samuel McConnell at McConnell's Annual Recital, Pantages Theatre Winnipg
Pearl, Sam Sr., and Ray McConnell performing shortly after their arrival in Canada 1947
Ray, Sam Jr., Pearl McConnell Ballymena, Northern Ireland
Pearl McConnell with Audrey Femister audition for Pick The Stars in Toronto
Pearl McConnell with McConnell Irish Dancers