Dancer Ryan Sherk one of just 20 students selected for prestigious program
Dance phenom Ryan Sherk has one tenacious grandmother in his corner.
Ryan, 18, has just been accepted into the world-renowned Juilliard School in New York to study dance.
He’ll be enrolled in the bachelor of fine arts program, one of just 20 students chosen for this fall from among thousands of applicants around the globe.
Ryan’s Gramma Sue — Sue Sherk to her friends — has quickly jumped into action, working tirelessly to help her grandson find the estimated $80,000 (U.S.) a year needed to attend the prestigious institution.
Susan Sherk is a real townie, a five-generation Irish immigrant, from the Lavell family who arrived in St. John’s from County Mayo in Ireland in 1802 and eventually found their way to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her family has at least five plots in the St. Mark’s cemetery church yard.
Susan’s Old Town childhood provides insight into her current-day determination.
She grew up on Castlereagh Street, just past the museum.
“I really had to work for everything,” she remembers. “The rest of our gang were on the other side of the tracks. We all took riding lessons. Of course, I had to pick strawberries at Lailey’s to pay for the riding.”
“The stable was way out on Concession 2 at Line 5. This big station wagon with all my friends would swoosh by my bicycle on the way to the stable. I had to stay all day, clean the stalls and help out.”
She attended Parliament Oak and Niagara District Secondary School.
On graduation, Susan became a student nurse at Toronto General Hospital, then followed her soon-to-be husband Rick to the University of New Brunswick, obtaining her nursing degree. They were married at St. Mark’s church in 1972.
Then followed a decade wandering around Ontario with Rick’s banking career, to Windsor, Sarnia, Ancaster and so on, finally returning to Niagara to enter the insurance business in 1983.
Fast-forward almost 40 years. In a few short weeks, Ryan will be off to New York City.
His dance journey started at the age of 4½ watching his sister Marisa during her dancing lessons in St. Catharines. Marisa is two years older and studying dance at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“I started in hip-hop classes,” says Ryan, clearly excited about his future, something he has worked toward his entire life.
“Marisa was my main inspiration. I just wanted to do what she did. The moment I took my first dance class, it felt so natural.”
“Dance has always been my calling — such a big part of my life. I just like moving to music and connecting with others in an artistic format. I love solo on stage. Having that time to be one with yourself.”
He believes dance has brought him endless benefits: “Discipline, time management, physical strength and creativity.”
Ryan tried hockey and soccer. “None of them fulfilled me the way dance did.”
The recent graduate of the District of Niagara Academy for the Arts at Laura Secord Secondary School in St. Catharines (an Ontario scholar and gold medallist), Ryan admits he has little free time or social life outside his dance community.
“I rarely have a day off. I dance every day of the week.”
His dedication is paying off.
In 2021, Ryan won the American Dance Award for “America’s Teen Dancer of the Year” in
Boston, a competition that attracts hundreds of dancers from around the world.
And just this past week, he was named America’s Male Dancer of the Year at a competition in Rhode
Island. These awards highlight a long pedigree of competitive victories over the past five years.
The three-page resume provided by Ryan’s talent agent in Toronto is impressive. It stands as a kind of preamble to his future goals of becoming a professional dancer and choreographer.
To gain Juilliard admission, Ryan entered the fray with thousands of applicants from all over the world. The process included an essay, references, auditions and personal interviews. In the end, he was one of only 20 students admitted into this fall’s four-year degree program.
“I’ve had a huge journey in dance,” Ryan says with all the understatement of an 18-year-old phenom.
“So many different moments and my family has always been there, supporting me. They’ve always been my biggest cheerleaders.”
“Dancing is not like a traditional job, being a doctor or whatever. It is also such a huge commitment financially.”
It’s the financial side that has Gramma Sue so focused.
She describes herself as “Rabid Granny.”
“It is really hard to be a granny,” she says, in the voice of every granny everywhere. “You’ve gotta step carefully with your grandchildren. You have to bite your tongue occasionally.”
Her real worry is the cost of attending Juilliard, a huge amount by any standard.
“Ryan is a person who will make the most of it. We are so proud of him. We have faith in him.”
They have left very few stones unturned.
Along with friends, family, and dance coaches, Sue has attempted to open every funding door available.
They’ve started a GoFundMe campaign. They’re exploring the taxation status for Canadians donating directly to Juilliard. They are working with accountants and lawyers on both sides of the border.
They are searching for former Juilliard graduates, now living in Niagara, who might provide insights. They are connecting to area service clubs, particularly those interested in the arts.
“We’re helping wherever we can, RESPs and so on.”
And she makes certain this story includes a link to Ryan’s GoFundMe page: Please help support Ryan’s journey to Juilliard! (That entire sentence must be entered into the search line of the GoFundMe site).
She believes helping a small-town dancer achieve international opportunity is a cause worth supporting.