If there’s one thing I learned from graduate school (and I mean curriculum-wise, not “finding myself”), it is the power of oral history as narrative. I was reminded of this genre as I interviewed Kevin Doyle, a lifelong Irish step dancer, a native Rhode Islander and the 2014 recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship — the highest honor a folk artist can receive. Doyle is a natural-born storyteller. As much as I tried to box up his rich history and lively anecdotes into a nice Q&A package, I realized the best way to present his story was to let him tell it himself. So, without further ado: Mr. Kevin Doyle.
“I was born and raised in Providence. My father’s parents emigrated from County Longford, in Ireland, to Fox Point in the early 1900s. There was a large population of Irish living there, and my grandfather, John Doyle, was nicknamed the mayor of Fox Point.
“Both my father and grandfather were carpenters. They did a lot of work in the homes of the wealthy on the East Side, and in churches, like St. Joseph’s Parish. My mother, when she came to this country from County Roscommon, started working as a domestic in Colonel Chaffee’s home — he was the one who started the RI State Police many years ago. My mother’s job was to open the door and welcome guests into the home because she had such a beautiful smile. My dad ended up meeting her when he was working in some of the homes out there.
“Of course, in those days, the Irish would gather in certain places to have social dances, so that’s pretty much how my mom and dad got together. Back in the ‘gilded age,’ 1800s, the Irish would gather in along the Cliffwalk in Newport at The Forty Steps, where 40 steps go right down to the water. They would get together at night with their fiddles, and would sing and dance and carry on. There was a lot of community back then, perhaps to help everyone feel less homesick.
“I grew up with that Irish community in Providence. I started dancing at 8 years old, learning the basic steps from my mother. She was a beautiful step dancer who brought her folk art with her to this country. A lot of the steps she learned came from her mother, my grandmother. My sister Maureen, who was 6, and I would go out to all the Irish organizations and clubs and they would invite us to dance. It wasn’t uncommon for us to hit five, six, seven places in an evening — especially when St. Patrick’s Day came, everyone wanted step dancers. Organizations like the Knights of Columbus and The Elks would have us, and they’d say, ‘Thank you very much! That was wonderful. We’ll see you next year!’
“So I went into tap dancing. I had a love for tap dancing, and I did most of my entertaining throughout the year with tap dance. I was 10 years old, and my inspiration was seeing the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, with James Cagney portraying George M. Cohan (who was also born in Fox Point). When I saw that movie, I went straight into the kitchen and told my mom I’d love to learn how to dance like that.
“I continued step dancing, but I added tap to my repertoire. I went to this wonderful lady — Theresa Landry’s School of Dance in Pawtucket. She just closed her studio at the age of 93, only because the building had been sold to make lofts. But prior to that, she was still teaching two days a week. She came to Washington, DC with me in September when I received the National Heritage Fellowship award. She was actually with me the day I got the call from Washington. I was down in Point Judith washing some windows to help her open up the cottage for summer, and it was just the two of us there when I got that wonderful news. I sat her down and I said, ‘Stay healthy,’ I said, ‘because we’re going to Washington, DC’ She started crying because she was so thrilled that one of her students had reached that level of achievement.
“The other great thing about that award was that the Irish press did a beautiful article in the main newspaper for Roscommon in Ireland. It was all about a US Award-Winning Dancer Ties His Roots Back to His Castlerea Mother. It was an honor to be able to give it right back to my mom who gave it all to me. She brought her art to this country, and I’m so proud to be able to carry that on today.”
Reserve your ticket to see Kevin Doyle as he joins his sister, Maureen, and his daughter, Shannon, along with the Irish fiddler and 2013 Heritage Fellow, Seamus Connolly, to create “Roscommon Soles: The Dancin’ Doyles” at the Narragansett Theater, May 30.
You can also find him regularly performing with the Celtic Band, Pendragon, or Atwater-Donnelly. Calendar at: kevindoyledance.com