Four years ago, Shawn Silver was in a neck-to-hip body brace, having woken up from two-week-long coma with broken bones and a head injury. Doctors weren’t sure he’d ever walk again, let alone continue his career as an Irish dancer.
That St. Patrick’s Day, medicated but still in severe pain, Silver performed a successful two-hour show with his students.
“I had already booked the gig a year before and I didn’t want to send my dancers and not be present,” he explained. “I didn’t want to be the guy who used to be able to dance.”
About three months prior, Silver — an award-winning, internationally-known dancer credited with reviving Irish dancing in this province and establishing it as a mainstream dance form in other countries — had just returned from performances in Iceland with his dance company, iDance, and was on his way to central Newfoundland for another show.
It was December, the sun was shining and the first snow had fallen the day before, and Silver was excited to be on the road. Rounding a bend near Paddy’s Pond, he hit a patch of black ice and lost control of his car, which started spinning.
Two weeks later, he woke up in hospital, not knowing who or where he was, his partner or even the year. Not even a video of himself dancing brought back any memories or gave him any clues.
Bit by bit, over the course of a couple of months, Silver’s memory returned. In addition to a serious head injury, he had nerve damage and had fractured his L5 and K1 vertebrae. He was told paralysis was a possibility, and remained in the hospital for a month.
He was dependent on his partner, Bruce, for everything — a strange feeling for a man who was known and celebrated for his strength and movement.
“It’s really a humbling thing when you can’t go to the store for a container of milk or can’t get up to go to the bathroom,” Silver said. “I think the support from the people around me was key. People believed in who I was and wanted to help me.”
Silver was fitted for a brace and spent four months wearing it. When therapists first gave him the go-ahead to try to walk, they set a three-week time period for him to reach his first goal. He met it within a day.
“They were a bit amazed. I recall them saying the stairs would be a whole other process, but when I heard that, I went for the stairs,” Silver said. “There was pain, but as a dancer, I was no stranger to pain. I’ve broken legs and feet dancing. This was a new challenge, and once I knew there would be no paralysis, I was unstoppable.”
Silver started exercising his legs while lying down, and graduated to pilates and light weights.
After the Paddy’s Day show, Silver set his sights on a fall tour of the continent — which he did. Sixteen weeks after the accident which almost left him paralyzed, Silver was back to travelling and performing full-time.
Silver suffered a setback in 2010 when, while sitting in his parked car, he was hit by a driver in a truck. Again, he fractured a vertebrae — a different one this time — and ended up back in the brace for a period of time, although his injury wasn’t as debilitating or severe.
These days, Silver’s cognitive abilities are back to normal, although there are pieces of his past he doesn’t recall and he has issues with his short-term memory.
His learning process has changed as a result, and he now puts together choreography piece by piece, “like a quilt,” he said.
Despite the extent of his injuries, Silver considers his accidents just a momentary interruption in his dancing career.
He has completed multiple tours of his show “Celtic Fire” around the world over the past few years, and has partnered with other dance companies to establish iDance Ireland, iDance Iceland and iDance Portugal. On April 1, he will launch iDance Australia in partnership with the Cape Byron Celtic Dance Company.
Last year, Silver had been invited to perform at the Australian Celtic Festival in Glen Innes, New South Wales, which was marketed nationally and had an audience of about 15,000 people, he said.
He put together the choreography for his show while in St. John’s, then uploaded videos of himself performing it to YouTube for the Australian dance students to learn. They’d study it, and he’d then teach them classes online via Skype.
“Here I’d be at three in the morning and it would be five in the evening over there. They’d just be going into the studio and I’d be trying to stay awake to teach the class,” Silver said with a laugh. “It was a challenge, but it was a fun challenge.”
Final rehearsals for the show were held in person in Australia, and the show was “a smash success,” Silver said.
“There’s a highland dance champion, Dougie McFarland. We did 37 shows and they capped off each of the shows with the two of us, dueling dancers, Scottish versus Irish. We were friends at first, but honestly it became like Mortal Combat,” Silver said, laughing. “He’s like 6’2” and I’m only 5’8”, but there’s a photograph where I’m kicking right up to his head, determined to bring him down.”
Silver will perform at this year’s Australian Celtic Festival in May, and will then go on to spend a couple of months as artist-in-residence at the Ashdale School for the Performing Arts in Perth.
With iDance Australia, he will begin classes in Perth, Brisbane, Victoria and throughout Queensland. He will teach choreography, including some Newfoundland dances, to dance teachers Down Under, who will then instruct students, and he’ll continue his online classes once he’s home.
He plans to stay in Australia for four or five months of the year from here on in, and iDance Australia will put off a major performance once a year, under his supervision.
“It’s a really exciting venture,” Silver said. “I’ve had a couple of terrible things happen in the last couple of years, but other than that, I live a charmed life and I consider myself fortunate and lucky. It’s a bit daunting because it’s a lot of work, but it’s the work I love.
“If I drop dead on that stage down there, I’ll drop dead, and that would be a great way for me to go.”