Stepping Away to Live His Dream

By Susan Gonsalves

Photo by Matthew Atanian at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Mass.

When John Declan Crowley '15 was 5 years old, he remembers that his parents and grandparents went to see "Lord of the Dance," Michael Flatley's Irish stage extravaganza. His mother Trish recalls popping a VHS tape of the show into the recorder at their Ballston Lake, N.Y., home shortly afterwards.

"He was smitten. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the screen. He jumped around the house watching that tape at least once per day," she says.

"I was instantaneously addicted," is how Declan, who has always been called by his middle name, describes it.

From then on, he embraced the world of Irish step dancing, beginning lessons at a local school at age 6 and moving on to the competition circuit with the prestigious Broesler School of Irish Dance in New Jersey until 2008. He racked up multiple eastern region, North American and All Ireland championship titles en route to ultimately capturing his dream gig.

As a high school senior in April of 2009, Crowley competed at the world championships, placing fourth. "For many dancers, it's your curtain call (for competing)," he says. Believing it was probably his last competition as well, he turned his ambitions to performing in shows. Crowley and a few friends were delighted to learn that the "Lord of the Dance" director was in attendance at the event. After the awards ceremony, they approached her, asking, "Hey, are there any spots available?" 

She told them that Michael Flatley would be launching a return to the stage at year's end and encouraged them to submit audition materials.

After sending in an audition tape, Crowley carried out his plans to enroll at Holy Cross, thinking that, whatever the outcome, he'd like to dance in shows during breaks and summer vacations. Like his instant bond with Irish dance, the English major and political science minor had quickly developed an affinity for the Hill.

"Something struck a chord the minute I stepped foot on campus during a visit," Crowley says. "I had a list of possible schools, but Holy Cross was where I felt at home. I used to drive by on my way to Maine and for some reason, I felt like I belonged there."

In July, he received an email from the company manager offering him a spot as one of 100 dancers on the "Feet of Flames" tour, marking the stage comeback of his idol, Michael Flatley. The tour would take the troupe to several large stadiums across Taiwan.

" 'Feet of Flames' began after final exams in December," Crowley recalls. "As I walked out the door two days earlier than my freshman roommate and varsity baseball player Patrick Puentes '13, he said, 'Don't come back here next semester. Take advantage of this opportunity for as long as possible. This is what you've wanted for much longer than I've known you. I can tell. We'll be here for you when you get back.'  "

Taking his words to heart, Crowley applied for and was granted a leave of absence from school and embarked on his once-in-a-lifetime gig. "It was a real big deal because Flatley hadn't danced in eight years," he says of the large-scale production across Taiwan, which featured gigantic arena crowds and fireworks.

Rehearsing and performing alongside the dancer he admired for years was "a surreal experience," Crowley says. "I grew up watching him, idolizing him. He was my favorite. It's like a kid having a poster of a sports star on his wall who ends up playing on the same team at the Super Bowl!"

Crowley describes his idol with a string of adjectives, including "gracious ... a task master ... perfectionist ... down-to-earth," summing up with, "He's kind of  'the man.' "

When "Feet of Flames" ended, Crowley returned to Holy Cross for about a year, but in 2011, he got another job offer, this time to dance for a seven-country European tour with "Lord of the Dance."

He met with Nancy Baldiga, his class dean, to make the unusual request for a second leave of absence. "I had no hopes they'd let me off again," he recalls. But the leave was granted. Although his class graduated in May, Crowley is currently considered a second-year student. "Holy Cross has been amazing about letting me in and out. I'm very grateful. And, I will be back," he says.

Holy Cross Registrar Patricia Ring explains the difference between a leave of absence and withdrawing from the College: "The door is always open for a student who withdraws or requests a leave of absence to return and resume classes. But those who request a leave of absence intend to return within a semester or two."  

While acknowledging that most students graduate with their class in four years, Baldiga says that Holy Cross is willing to be flexible and let students complete their education in a way that makes sense to them.

"Declan is doing something very special. There aren't many people who perform at this top level. He's a role model for others," Baldiga says, adding that Holy Cross wants to attract individuals like Declan, who are curious, passionate and have interests that overlap with academics. "Declan strikes me as an extremely hard working, strong and talented person who is pursuing his dream. That takes courage." 

As part of the "Lord of the Dance" ensemble, Crowley has traveled across the United States, Eastern Europe, France, Canada and other parts of the world. He says touring is hectic and "crazy in a good way," but mostly fun. The cast members travel from city to city on a bus equipped with bunks, a refrigerator and a bathroom. 

"We set up shop like a big home for all of us-a group of really fun friends," he says. Though movies like "Black Swan," and recent incidents of competitive sabotage (like the January 2013 acid attack on a Bolshoi Ballet director reportedly orchestrated by a jealous lead dancer) conjure up images of cutthroat backstage misdeeds, Crowley insists his experience has been exactly the opposite.

"People are surprised to hear that there is no jealousy backstage and minimal drama. The best part of this job is traveling the world with my best friends. I don't know where it's possible with any other occupation to do that," he says. "The other best part is the performance itself. That's what I came here to do."

On the flip side, touring can be draining, and Crowley is mindful of staying on top of stretching and icing before, during and after a show to avoid overuse injuries which are always a danger. Proper nutrition is also a factor. "There's no babysitter to tell you what to eat, but it's in the back of everyone's mind to keep fit."

Every seven or eight days, cast members get a day off, usually on Mondays. They typically perform eight or nine shows per week with matinees and work a total of five hours per day, including rehearsals. Mornings and early afternoons are often free for the dancers to explore their surroundings and other interests. 

For Crowley, that involves weight training and immersing himself in music. Although he plays ceili band drums and the bodhran-both used in Irish folk dance music-as well as other percussive instruments, he would like to do more. 

"As I get older, I realize that these few drums aren't going to be enough for me. Being around Irish music for so long has made me appreciate and crave it even more, to the point that I plan to start learning the box accordion and/or the Irish flute this summer," he says. "I can't dance forever, but hopefully I will be able to play music for a long time."

Audiences respond differently to the troupe's performances in various parts of the world, and Crowley gets a kick out of witnessing their reactions. "In Asia, they are very respectful in the beginning," he observes. "We get modest, mellow applause. But then at the end, it's crazy. Americans are usually kind of rowdy and applaud throughout. I love when the response builds up and explodes by the time of the encore." 

On the 2013 tour from January through April, Crowley played Don Dorcha, the Dark Lord, alternating the part with a few dancers. (Here's a fun twist: The name Declan, which Trish Crowley picked for her son from a Maeve Binchy novel, means "full of goodness.")

 "I was never interested in playing anything other than the villain. I only practiced the bad guy role," Declan explains. "The story has a good guy, a good girl and a bad girl. The Dark Lord is rising to take them down!" 

Noting that the role is more suited to his stronger, more masculine style, he adds, "I'm not light on my feet. I'm bigger and stockier."  

His mother confirms that Crowley is portraying his dream role. "To play the villain was his idea, and he didn't let go of it. That's definitely something he can cross off his bucket list," Trish Crowley says. When she and her husband John see their son perform, it is "serendipity," she says. "The stars are aligned. I'm happy to see him so enthusiastic." During the recent stop at Worcester's Hanover Theatre, the proud parents offered their support in the crowd. "The Hanover was one of our favorite venues," Trish adds. "It's incredibly lovely and reminds us of our Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, N.Y., which was also restored with great success."

When he returns to Holy Cross, Crowley hopes to get on a prelaw track with an eye toward law school and a career as an attorney and owner of his own dance school. But for now, his focus is on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  ■

Susan Gonsalves is a Leicester-based freelance editor and writer with specialties in higher education, health and arts and entertainment journalism.

Can you find Declan in this group number? He's the one on the far left. 


12 Questions with Declan Crowley (AND HIS MOM)

Q   You've been all over the world with "Lord of the Dance." What has been your favorite place to perform?

A   There's more than one. The Fox Theatre in Detroit, Palace in Albany, N.Y. ... Palace of Congress in Paris. Croatia. Any place where the crowd is crazy and screaming through the whole show is the most fun for us.

Q   What was your most memorable fan experience?

A   In Taiwan, after a show, we were going to get to the bus, and when we came out, the Taiwan full security team was standing shoulder to shoulder from the stage door entrance to the bus, holding back all of the screaming fans. That doesn't happen every night!

Q   Do cast members have other direct interaction with fans?

A   Definitely. We do "meet and greets" with local dance schools. The leads come out and sign autographs and pose for pictures a lot. At the Hanover Theatre (where the troupe performed March 7, 2013), students from a dance school in Worcester came and, also, the wife of one of my former professors. It was cool.

Q   Do you have a trick for helping sore feet?

A   Sure, roll a tennis ball.

Q   What was the worst injury you ever had?

A   It was a lower back repetitive injury.

Q   Hours and hours on the tour bus must get boring-what's your favorite way to pass the time on the road?

A   I'd say grilling steaks and watching European football with my English and Irish castmates.

Q   Did you get picked on or bullied as a kid because you were a dancer?

A   Maybe that happened a little bit, but I don't really remember it bothering me at all. I have no bad memories. I went to the Broesler School, which was voted the best Irish dance school in the country, and there were about 25 other boys there, so it wasn't a big deal fitting in.

Q   What are your plans for the summer after this tour ends?

A   I'm going to work with my Dad painting (at the home base in New York). There are a lot of things to keep me busy like summer classes and Irish music classes and festivals.


HCM also chatted with Declan's Mom, Trish Crowley, about her son's unusual path:

Q   You followed Declan on the dance circuit when he was competing. Do you consider yourself a dance mom or stage mom?

A   Definitely not. We went as a family just for fun, and if we couldn't all go, we didn't go. There was no pressure, and I made a major effort to be the anti-stage mom.

Q   Is it true you and your husband were skeptical about Declan leaving Holy Cross to pursue dancing on tour?

A   We weren't for it initially. We were thrilled he was going to Holy Cross and didn't want to see that jeopardized. But the second time, I put myself in his shoes. If that was my dream, how would I feel if I had to pass it up? So we supported him and left it up to him to work it out with his dream school.

Q   Are there other dancers in the family?

A   No, it's been more about music, writing, singing, sports ... Declan was into karate and lacrosse, too, growing up. And my son Shane plays tennis-and he will be a freshman at Holy Cross this fall. 

Q   Would you describe Declan as a leader or a follower?

A    He was definitely never a follower! Not many boys who dance are followers. He does his own thing, goes his own way and is pretty individual and unique.  ■