Elk River is home, but her heart’s in Ireland

by Britt Aamodt

Contributing writer

It’s the Monday after St. Patrick’s Day, and Lisa Conway’s feet are swollen. Her lower back is nagging her.

And she’s seriously happy that the Irish Celebration & Day of Irish Dance at St. Paul’s Landmark Center, the 32nd annual event, if you’re counting, has gone off without a hitch. At least nothing to write home about.

Lisa Conway, the president of the Irish Music and Dance Association.

Lisa Conway, the president of the Irish Music and Dance Association.

Home for Conway is Elk River, but her heart belongs to Ireland. So much so that this January she was named Distinguished Irish Woman for 2013 by the St. Patrick’s Association, sponsors of the annual St. Paul St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

It’s an honor you can’t campaign for. You have to be selected. The distinction means a lot to its recipients who, as Conway puts it, “usually have full-time jobs and spend the rest of their time promoting Irish culture.”

For the past eight years, she has been president of the Irish Music & Dance Association (IMDA).

Conway inherited the association, which began in 1983, and took it a dance step—or two—further. She designed a logo, helped establish an online calendar that’s a go-to spot for Irish happenings in the Twin Cities metro: dance classes, Gaelic language classes, Irish step dance, concerts, festivals and music.

IMDA also puts on the Landmark Center event every St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

Submitted photos Lisa Conway was named Distinguished Irish Woman by the St. Paul-based St. Patrick’s Association. In her role as Distinguished Irish Woman, Conway participated in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. She braved the cold temperatures in a convertible shared with her niece Emma Morgan.

Submitted photos
Lisa Conway was named Distinguished Irish Woman by the St. Paul-based St. Patrick’s Association. In her role as Distinguished Irish Woman, Conway participated in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. She braved the cold temperatures in a convertible shared with her niece Emma Morgan.

As the president and organizer, Conway “spent the weekend running around,” she says. That explains the aching feet and back.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people attend the two-day festival. There are traditional foods to please the Irish appetite, music to get the foot tapping, activities and nearly 1,000 students performing Irish step dancing.

People often ask why Irish step dancers keep their arms at their sides. Conway offers a history lesson.

She says the style emerged after the English invaded Ireland. The invaders outlawed Irish music and dance. So the Irish learned to hide their pub dancing by just using their feet. Anyone peeking in a window would only see the straight arms and stiff back, and miss the lively foot action.

Dancing was one way Conway got in touch with her own Irish roots.

“I was a punk rock girl that turned Celtic,” she said.

For a time in her 20s, she taught ballroom dance during the day and club danced with her brother at night. Then someone showed her how to Irish dance, and she was hooked.

These days, however, she does more promoting of Irish dance than dancing.

She’s proud that IMDA uses the money it raises from events to sponsor scholarships. Students have used scholarships to study Irish music and dance. They’ve taken lessons in Gaelic. They’ve had help purchasing the enormously expensive costumes worn in dance competitions.

As the 2013 Distinguished Irish Woman, Conway rode in this year’s St. Patrick’s Parade in a convertible, and of course it was freezing cold. Her title confers on her the role of ambassador. She attends St. Patrick’s Association events. She gives talks. She does what she can to keep Irish-American culture alive and in the press.

In August, the Irish Fair takes place on Harriet Island in St. Paul. Conway put her stamp on the festival some years back when she introduced the Best Legs in a Kilt Contest. It has become one of the fair’s feature attractions. Thirty men in kilts compete for best legs, best gentlemen legs, best youth legs, hairiest legs and best chicken legs.

This March, Conway was featured in Mpls. St. Paul Magazine’s “Walks of Life,” talking about her work and, what else, all things Irish. Because being Irish-American for her isn’t about the last name. It’s about cultivating traditions generation after generation.

“We can be Americans,” she said, “but we can still keep the traditions of Ireland.”

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