January 21, 2020
Ashley Smith-Wallace: A Dancer of many styles, choreographer, actress, singer, she lights up a stage
Westwood native Ashley Smith-Wallace can cite time-honored reasons for her success as a youthful Irish step dancer, and then as a multi-style dancer/choreographer and rising actress and singer – things like hard work, patience, support from family and friends, and good fortune.
But here’s one factor you might not expect: attending her high school’s “college fair” event.
The daughter of Irish dance teachers Michael and Noreen Smith, owners of the Smith-Houlihan Irish Dance Academy, Smith-Wallace began Irish dance at age three and as a high school sophomore became the youngest American female at the time to win the World Irish Step Dancing Championship – for which she was included in the Top Irish Americans list that year (2004) by Irish America magazine. (She went on to earn two more gold medals in competition.)
So Smith-Wallace envisioned a pretty straightforward career path entering her senior year: “I figured I’d graduate and go right into ‘Riverdance,’” she recalled with a laugh.
Making the rounds of the college fair, however, she had an epiphany. “I saw these schools which had dance and theater programs, and I began to think how much I could do with Irish dance. I wanted to expand my experience into other areas. There was so much more to learn.”
The revelation led Smith-Wallace to Manhattanville College, just north of New York City, and an intense period of artistic and personal growth that, to her mind, is still in progress nearly a decade-and-a-half later. She has taken up ballet, hip-hop, jazz and other forms of dance, foremost among them musical theater, and alongside her stage appearances have come opportunities in TV and film. Over this time, she feels she has transitioned from a dancer to a performer.
Yet Smith-Wallace hasn’t entirely left behind her Irish dance roots. In 2017, she was lead dancer in “Rockin’ Road to Dublin,” a nationally touring Irish-rock fusion show, and last month she was the featured female dancer in the 17th annual production of “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.” The latter event brought her back to the Boston area for a whirlwind two weeks of practices and performances, during which she made many new friends while relishing the chance to integrate her new skills and outlooks into a more familiar milieu.
At a “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” rehearsal break one mid-December afternoon downtown at the Cutler Majestic Theater, Smith-Wallace reflected on the path she’s taken, full of gratitude for where it’s brought her so far.
“I loved competing in Irish dance all those years,” she said. “But there’s a difference between competing and performing Irish dance; when some dancers get on that stage, they can do the steps and figures, but they don’t necessarily know how to perform. Going into theater has really helped my Irish dancing, to the point where I am not simply dancing – I’m telling a story.
“I feel very fortunate: I still feel like I’m learning a lot, and it’s very exciting.”
Before 2019, Smith-Wallace had never been to “Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” not even as an audience member, but a friend who’d been a cast member had waxed enthusiastically about it. So when Dance Director Maureen Berry – who had seen an audition video Smith-Wallace submitted for a different production – reached out to her with an invitation, Smith-Wallace consulted her father, who gave a hearty endorsement.
“I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” declared Smith-Wallace as she enthusiastically described her immersion into “Celtic Sojourn”: studying and rehearsing her parts on her own, meeting and getting to know her cohorts – including the male lead dancer, Jason Oremus, whose credits include “Riverdance” – then “all of us working to put the pieces of this big puzzle together.”
Impressed as she was with the professionalism and sense of commitment she found among her “Celtic Sojourn” mates, Smith-Wallace said the camaraderie meant even more. She recounted the bus ride to the show’s first performance, in Rockport, during which cellist Natalie Haas and her husband, guitarist Yann Falquet, led a game of “Heads Up” – a variation on “Charades” using a smartphone app – with riotous results.
“We had been working hard, and it was great to have such a good laugh,” she said, praising show creator/narrator Brian O’Donovan for his ability to foster togetherness. “Once you get to know everyone, you have the sense they are there for you. It really makes the show better.”
Smith-Wallace was upbeat about her “Celtic Sojourn” spotlight performance, in which she portrayed a Christmas doll that comes to life and dances in celebration. “Even though it’s a contemporary piece, I’m drawing on Irish dance – bringing my ‘other’ world into this one. And it brings back memories of Christmas past, which is a nice thing to have in mind for this scene.”
Berry first encountered Smith-Wallace at the 2009 Irish Dancing Championships, where she won her third gold medal – putting her squarely on Berry’s radar. “She danced with such power and grace. I could see that she was, simply put, a ‘star,’” said Berry. “When Brian [O’Donovan] told me to select my top choice, I knew I just had to find Ashley. I was like a kid in a candy shop once we met up in New York City for our first rehearsal. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do.
“Ashley and Jason had never worked together before and what we had with this pairing was pure magic. They gave so much energy, not only to the band and each other, but to the audience.”
Understandable though it may be to think Smith-Wallace was almost literally born to be an Irish dancer, that’s not the case, she insists: “My parents never pushed me. I tried other things, but from the beginning I always loved Irish dance.”
What was also clear early on, Smith-Wallace said, was that she had a taste for theater: “It just came naturally to me. My brother, my friends, and I would stage plays in the backyard, and I’d be shouting, ‘You’re not on your mark!’” She took part in some theatrical productions during high school, though not as much as she would’ve liked – and, of course, if there was a part that involved dancing, it invariably went to her.
At Manhattanville, she was finally able to plunge deeply into theater, while at the same time exploring other varieties of dance. The first year of college constitutes a late start for learning ballet, but Smith-Wallace had a stroke of good luck: Her teacher was Andrei Kisselev, one of the leads in the “Russian Dervish” sequence of the original “Riverdance.”
“Andrei understood where I was coming from, and he was incredibly helpful throughout my college years,” said Smith-Wallace, affectionately mimicking a male Russian-accented voice as she recalled his exhortations. There were challenges in moving beyond the Irish dance form (“What do you mean I’m supposed to bend my knees? I can’t bend my knees!”), she said, but “being a dancer, something clicks sooner or later. You know how to count, you know how to keep moving while paying attention to the music. It’s just a matter of keeping at it.”
Smith-Wallace stayed in the New York City area and began making headway in show business, appearing in productions of “West Side Story,” “Peter Pan,” “A Chorus Line,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Pippin,” among others. Just prior to graduating from Manhattanville, she auditioned for Fox TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance” and wound up a top-30 female finalist in its seventh season. In fact, her audition video wound up going viral, catching the notice of Maureen Berry, among others.
As Smith-Wallace explains, a performer’s life involves equal diligence on the business as well as the artistic end, keeping eyes and ears open to seize the right opportunity – and sometimes letting opportunity come to you. So it was that, in 2012, she got a call from a woman who needed a partner to work with in a feature film that was to feature different dance styles, including Irish. She went to Philadelphia, met up with her partner, and the pair gave an audition.
“Next thing I know, I’m in the filming for ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence,” she said. However, the scene in which she appeared wound up being cut from the final version.
“Sure, that was disappointing, but I learned a lot – it was a totally different experience. You wait around for hours, you have to be patient, and when it’s time to go to work you have to be ready to get it done. I did what was asked of me, but the producers went in a different direction. That’s just how it is and you have to accept it. You put your name out there, and maybe there’ll be another chance sometime.”
In any case, Smith-Wallace is happiest in live performance situations. “You have the feeling of people reacting to you and what you’re doing; that human connection is very powerful.”
She has continued to study and hone her craft, not only in dance and theater, but more recently as a singer. She’s also been working as a dance instructor and choreographer, and is now a certified Irish step dance teacher (TCRG).
Her years at Manhattanville were important for another reason: That’s where she met her husband-to-be, Chad, whom she married in 2017 (“I planned our wedding while I was on tour with ‘Rockin’ Road to Dublin’”). They now live in Stamford, Conn., within easy reach of her New York City stomping grounds.
Yes, Smith-Wallace acknowledges, she is settling into domestic life – somewhat. But that makes opportunities like “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” all the more special, since they bring her back to the stage, and to Irish dance.
“The body feels a little rusty at first, but once I get going everything is fine,” she laughed. “Kind of like riding a bike with training wheels – at some point, I just take them off and I can go full speed.”
Being a veteran dance and theater performer means getting used to the profession’s unique calendar. The end of January, Smith-Wallace noted, traditionally marks the start of the audition season, and once again she’ll keep watch for potential leads, check for voicemails and text messages that herald a possible role in this or that production and, above all, stay positive.
“I think back to when I won the World Championship,” she said. “It took years and years, lots of work, and there were disappointments. When I came in second, my dad said that maybe ‘this is as good as it gets.’ But I thought to myself, ‘No, it’s not.’ And I came back the next year and I won.
“So I look back at that girl, and think about what she can teach me, which is you don’t give up. And I think about what I’ve been doing since then, all the things I’ve been able to do and how much I’ve learned as a result. So I will go wherever the road takes me.”