When Irish dancing teacher, Geraldine Ryan, was a child, her father told her ‘age is nothing, it’s just numbers’.
Ms Ryan seems to have taken her father’s advice to heart. At 90 years of age she has the energy one usually associates with a much younger person, and she’s showing no sign of slowing down.
Her weekly schedule is revealing.
“I am very, very busy with classes throughout Victoria,” she told me.
“On Monday I have a class in Kilmore. On Tuesday I head off very early in the morning to catch a train to Ballarat to catch a bus that takes me through to Hamilton, where I have a class. Then I take another bus down to Port Fairy where I have a class in Crossley and I overnight in the area.”
Her week continues in the same manner, with classes in Warrnambool on Wednesday, Warragul on Thursday, Wodonga on Friday, and Echuca on Saturday.”
“Every second Sunday I fly up to Mildura and I have a class in Mildura. That takes a full day out because I leave early in the morning. I don’t get back to my home until about 9 o’clock at night.”
She also travels overseas once a year.
“Every year I take a group overseas. I take part in folk festivals around Asia and Europe,” Ms Ryan told HelloCare.
“Over the last 30 years, we’ve performed in 33 countries so far around the world.”
I note her use of the words “so far”.
Began dancing in 1935 aged five
Mr Ryan grew up in a family of Irish heritage in Melbourne, and lived among an Irish community. She began dancing in 1935 at the age of five.
“There was no television. There was only a radio, or a wireless as we called it then,” she explained.
“We made our own entertainment and it was always music, song and dance.”
Visitors to their family home were mostly Irish, and they brought their instruments when they came.
“We’d push the kitchen table back and dance there, and that was how everybody entertained themselves in my home,” she said.
She had great success early as a dancer, winning both state and national Irish dancing championships.
Began teaching at 12
Ms Ryan began teaching when she was only 12. A family friend had come to see them from Ireland, and taught her some traditional dances. She was asked to teach others the dances so they would not be lost to the community.
After some discussion with her mother about the matter of teaching at such a young age, Ms Ryan was allowed to start teaching.
“It started in a very simple, little way, but quickly snowballed,” Ms Ryan said.
In 1953, Ms Ryan and her older sister travelled to Ireland to observe and learn from the Irish dancing scene. She found the dances there were completely different to the dances she and her sister were performing, and her Irish hosts were amazed to see the Australians performing dances they recalled their grandparents performing.
“Irish dancing had not progressed from the time the early settlers came to Australia,” Ms Ryan said.
In 1954, when she returned to Australia, Mr Ryan brought the new dances back home, along with new costumes, soft shoes, and different music.
Today, the dances are different again. They are more elaborate and more about presentation. “They are putting on shows,” Ms Ryan said.
Supporting country communities
Many of Ms Ryan’s students went on become Irish dancing teachers or adjudicators, and over time there was a large pool of teachers in Melbourne, but families interested in dance in country regions had fewer options.
“I was always being called on to teach classes here, there and everywhere,” Ms Ryan said.
Ms Ryan now teaches only in regional and country areas.
“In all these country areas, there are small communities of people who are either Irish or of Irish descent and they want to do something with their Irish heritage. Quite often whole families come along,” she said.
And itt’s not only the Irish who are interested in her classes. Mr Ryan also has Greek, Polish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese students.
Walking frame “not me”
Ms Ryan generally been well, apart from a couple of “hiccups”. In 1997, she had a triple heart bypass.
“I was only out of action for one term and I was back on the road again,” she said.
Eighteen months ago she fell off a chair and received two small fractures to her spine.
Told she would never walk again without a four-wheeled walking frame, Ms Ryan thought, ‘No that’s not me.” She kept on walking as much as she could, eventually moving from the frame to a walking stick, and she now walks unaided.
“I have a bit of a humpy back but I don’t care. I can put up with a humpy back at my age. I’m able to walk. I’m able to dance. I’m able to do everything on my own.”
I don’t understand the word “retiring”
Ms Ryan’s dedication to Irish dancing saw her awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in January.
But she doesn’t have any plans to retire.
“I don’t really understand this world ‘retiring’. It doesn’t mean much to me,” she said.
“While the good lord keeps me chugging along, I’ll keep chugging along too. Why would I want to retire when I find there’s benefit out there to be had?
“I was brought up in a way that if you have a talent or something you can pass on to somebody, it’s your duty to pass it on so they can have the enjoyment of it too.”
She’s keen to encourage older people to keep active and engaged in their communities.
As the interview draws to a close she offers some inspiration to our older readers. “I do hope the article helps somebody who may be a bit hesitant,” she says.