by Jim Boyle
The namesake for St. Patrick’s Day would be mighty proud of one Elk River woman.
Lisa Conway is the heart and soul behind the Irish Music and Dance Association (IMDA), a non-profit wholse mission is to bring Irish Cultural Arts to communities around the state of Minnesota.
She’s created such a presence she has gotten a call from NBC’s Today Show looking for help to book entertainment and an email from a schoolteacher in France looking for help teaching about Irish culture and the arts.
As president of the IMDA, Conway takes the lead in putting on events throughout the year. The largest events of the year take place tomorrow and again on St. Patrick’s Day at the Landmark Center, 75 West 5th St., St. Paul. More than 7,000 people are expected to attend this year’s celebrations. This year is particularly special as its IMDA’s 30th Annual St. Patrick’s Day Irish Celebration and Day of Irish Dance.
Conway is 75 percent Irish and 100 percent passionate about her Irish roots. For her, St. Patrick’s Day is a year-round adventure.
The task wears on her, but the sparkle in her eyes talking about it is still strong. She once submitted her resignation, but her five-member board wouldn’t accept it. They see it as her assignment in life.
She seems to agree.
“I have a scared sense of what would happen if I wasn’t here,” she said from the dining room table of her Elk River home in an older section of the downtown Elk River.
The Landmark Center events are scheduled annually on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day and on the holiday, which honors the patron saint of Ireland, who is credited with converting much of the Irish countryside to Christianity. He died on March 17 in the fifth century.
Conway will be too busy to enjoy all of this year’s celebrations at the Landmark Center, but she will have help from her board members and another 150 volunteers. The volunteers include her mother, Kathleen, and her daughter, Clare.
It was Conway’s grandparents who caused her to take such an interest in her Irish heritage. She remembers as a child relatives getting together to sing. Everything in their home pointed to her Irish heritage.
Her unique passion, howevere, was dance. She started out as a ballroom and Latin dance instructor at a Fred Astaire Dance Studio.
Her life would change forever one night at Kierans Irish Pub in Minneapolis when a group of friends pulled her up on stage to perform.
That kindled the passion inside her and led to her to join the Mooncoin Ceili Dancers in the early 1990s. She spent the next four year of her life with them. The highlight of the experience came in the mid-1990s when a select group of local dancers was chosen to dance with Riverdance at an event for the mayor of Minneapolis.
Her life changed again while on her way to her home in Uptown in 1997 when she was hit by a drunk driver at the intersection of 31st and Lyndale. The crashed wrecked her back and stole her dance shoes out from under her feet.
After recovering, she was appointed to the IMDA board in 2000. She became the group’s vice president in 2001. And then in 2002 the group named her the president.
“This gave me an outlet,” Conway said of her passion for the culture and history of Irish arts.
Conway moved to Elk River six years ago and she says she’ll never leave. The Chisago Lakes native has fallen in love with the small town atmosphere here and doesn’t miss her Uptown address at all.
She teaches Zumba at the YMCA, a low-impact form of dance. For her day job, she is a project manager at business called
“That pays the way for me to do what I really love,” Conway said of her volunteer work.
When she took over as president of the IMDA the group did not have website or even a logo. Those have been among the many changes she has instituted.
She has added an honors program to recognize Irish dancers with the Decade of Dance Award.
She has instituted IMDA Honors, which sets aside an evening to celebrate and honor the contributions of one of its great community members.
She also added an educational grant program for aspiring musicians, dancers and artists to continue their study and bring their new skills back to the community. Colleen White of Elk River was one of the early recipients of one of these awards.
The IMDA also sponsors a workshop tent at Irish Fair Minnesota in August. Workshops have included bodhran, whistle, great pipes, fiddle, banjo and many song workshops.
The group’s involvement has also included viral video contests, Irish Got Talent Contests and Best Legs in a Kilt contests.
The organization has many other feathers in its cap, including a 2-CD sampler set featuring 30 local bands.
It also works hard to keep its membership informed about Irish happenings and it serves as source for information for communities throughout the state. It even serves as a fiscal agent from some individuals and community organizations trying to preserve and advance Irish heritage.
“I want (IMDA) to be recognizable to the public as the place to go,” Conway said.
She seems to be doing that very well. St. Patrick would no doubt be proud.