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Article on Scottish Step Dancing
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by Maggie Moore
Prepared by: Sheldon MacInnes, Program Director,
Extension & Community Affairs, University College of Cape Breton.
See the end of [10.5] for details of a mailing list covering step
dance and highland dance
Article by Dr Margaret Bennett
"Step-dancing: Why we must learn from past mistakes"
MARGARET BENNETT of the School of Scottish Studies on the history - and
possible future - of a unique form of dance.
When I read your article "Step-dancing makes its return ..." earlier this year [in the West Highland Free Press (WHFP)] it was not my intention to "join in the dance" as I saw it as a useful piece of publicity for Harvey Beaton's step-dancing class that was to be held at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, [the Gaelic Adult Education and Community College on the Isle of Skye].
Publicity or not, it was a pity the article began with so many historical
distortions - all that nonsense about Queen Victoria's "infatuation with
the Highlands" which had a "lasting effect upon the style of music and
dance". Perhaps it is an attempt at retroactive "Royal bashing" for it has
no bearing whatsoever on reality.
Based on my own research, I would say that Queen Victoria took a sincere
and supportive interest in Scotland's culture and languages and would urge
others to read her journals before making such sweeping statements. There
are also accounts from oral tradition, such as one which was re-told to me
by my colleague, Dr John MacInnes, of Queen Victoria advising the Duke of
Atholl to employ a Gaelic-speaking nursemaid so that the language would not
be lost. If only twentieth century mothers had applied her clear-thinking
principle, Gaelic would be in a much healthier state.
In view of the fact that by far the greatest influence on Scottish traditional dance did not appear until well after Queen Victoria's death, it might be as well to remind readers of the facts. Ironically, (though too often the case with people who "mean well") the woman who undoubtedly had the greatest influence on dance had every intention of *preserving* it.
She was Miss Jean Milligan, lecturer in Physical Education at Jordanhill
College of Education in Glasgow, and as such, was in the ideal position to
train teachers in every aspect of the dances she clearly loved. She did
not, however, love the wild, undisciplined ways of the "untrained" village
hall or kitchen-floor dancers, who, at that time would dance in whatever
footwear they happened to be wearing, or, as was often the case in summer,
in bare feet. She was certainly willing to study dance, and if, for
example, she watched several versions of a particular reel, she would
decide on a standard *correct style*, then, with missionary zeal, set about
"correcting" rural dances. Beginning with footwear (dance-pumps, please)
she tackled "position", having decided it should be based on classical
In 1923 she co-founded The Scottish Country Dance Society, and published
books that set out the "proper" way to dance. From then on, there cannot be
a teacher who trained at Jordanhill who does not remember the classes - in
my own day, mid 60s, we had three years of them - you bought the books,
turned up with the proper shoes, learnt the "positions" and dances, and how
to teach them. Then, thoroughly trained, five hundred of us girls graduated
each year convinced that we were on the right track. (I did, however,
wonder at the instructions to the piano player which always began: "Thank
you Miss Peterkin, (shouted) *and!*" Just calculate the number of
school-teachers, to say nothing of the privately trained village-hall
teachers, who have influenced Scottish dance since 1923 - it was the ideal
system for "correcting" an entire nation.
I have no doubt that some readers will be irritated at what they might perceive as criticism of the RSCDS and its co-founder. That is not at all my intention. I believe that any form of dance is perfectly valid; what is *not* valid is to eliminate traditional forms along the way.
There is much to be said in favour of the RSCDS, as the organisation has given pleasure to millions of dancers and spectators over the years, and, in its own way, acts as an ambassador for Scotland. I would, however, suggest that anyone serious enough to research aspects of Scottish dance should read Miss Milligan's own account of what her aims were and how she set about attaining them. The reader will, at the same time, gain an interesting insight into her (lack of) understanding of Scottish culture.
To cite one example which will show how inaccurately she perceived dance in the broader scope of Scottish Customs: in 1912, before she cleverly discovered how to train school-teachers to promote her ideas, Miss Milligan founded the Beltane Society in Glasgow in order (she wrote) "to cultivate among the younger generation a knowledge of Scottish folk songs, ballads, dances and ... to maintain all the national customs and quaint ceremonies ...". Our forebears celebrated Beltane, *Latha Bealltain*, for centuries, and, as many of your readers already know, it had nothing to do with Jean Milligan's revolutionary ideas. Fortunately, membership of her Beltane Society was voluntary (unlike the Jordanhill dance classes) and did not last, otherwise we might be faced with the task of re-educating our own people in yet another perfectly valid part of our past.
*IT IS NOT* surprising, then, that the older dances which were so popular in the Scottish Highlands were preserved in the New World amongst emigrants who left Scotland before the massive re-education campaign started.
There were solo dances and group dances, all of which involved a variety of steps and formations, and depending on where the dances were performed, there were (and are) countless variations. They were not, however, confined to Cape Breton, as they could be found wherever Highlanders settled: New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Ontario, Quebec, and so on.
While it is heartening to watch a revival in step-dancing and to see it
taught once again in Scotland, when I hear of revivalists referring to this
solo dancing as "Cape Breton step-dancing" and then dictating that all
dancers *must* wear hard-soled shoes of a certain type, I wonder if they
are not in danger of repeating some of the same mistakes that Miss Milligan
is accused of making? In their zeal to "do it right" new enthusiasts may be
creating a new set of rules that may be just as definitive as those set out
by the RSCDS.
As far as the terms of reference are concerned, if we adopt the same logic
which is applied to the naming of step-dancing and then, for example, apply
it to the Gaelic language, we would be able to state authoritatively that
people in Skye, or any other Gaelic-speaking area, speak "Lewis Gaelic",
for, after all, that is where Gaelic is spoken most widely. Imagine the
In the space of a few short years, the term "Cape Breton step-dancing" has
even taken hold in Canada, and can be heard in provinces where it was
completely unknown twenty years ago. This summer I encountered it on the
west coast of Newfoundland, where Scottish step-dancing has survived every
bit as well as in Cape Breton, albeit with a much smaller area. I was told
"well, I guess that's what they're calling it now - you see it on the
television." Only two years ago I video-recorded the same step-dancer who
never once used the term "Cape Breton step-dancing" although he has often
danced in Cape Breton at the invitation of Cape Bretonners who liked his
On the subject of hard-soled shoes, the same dancer commented that they are
"pretty good at a ceilidh," especially on a wooden floor, above the sound
of the fiddle, "but years ago, more often or not I'd be dancing bare-feet
out in the field and singing for myself." In the past, there were no rules,
and it was just as common for a woodsman in his steel-toed boots in the
lumber camp bunkhouse as it was for the priest to dance in his black
leather shoes at the church social.
Another Newfoundland Gael, whose people emigrated from Canna and Moidart in
the 1820s and 40s, described where they got their dances (transcribed from
"We had people here that taught step-dancing, the Scotch dancing ... there was one woman here, she was a MacDonald, she could dance sixty steps, different steps, and it was all the right dancing, you know, step-dancing. Oh I tell you they were pretty lively! They knew the tunes, a lot of them from Scotland ... they followed the tunes from Scotland right down."
There is obviously a crying need for a dedicated individual to document carefully the range of material available. Since I am a folklorist (not a dance ethnographer) who happens to have made a number of video and audio tapes on the subject (and yes, they are at the School of Scottish Studies), I have no plans for writing a book about the history of dance. I have, however, made much of my own collection available to interested individuals.
In my 11 years at the School of Scottish Studies I have only encountered three people whose interest was such that they were prepared to spend the time studying all the material available. One was a former Highland dance champion who was writing a post-graduate dissertation on Scottish dance, and during her studies she discovered that her own mother, brought up in the Stirling area, and by then in her seventies, had a repertoire of step-dances which she had never demonstrated until she saw a film of step-dancing in Canada. Till then, the older lady had thought her daughter who "had been trained to dance properly" might ridicule her.
The second person was one of our own students who studied village hall
dances; and the third person was James MacDonald-Reid, who quite correctly
stated in his recent letter to the WHFP that step-dancing did not, in fact,
die out in Scotland this century. Since he was courteous enough to ask me
if he could refer to my tapes (and without hesitation I agreed) it is only
fair that I should take some responsibility for his reference. As is our
policy, he did not mention any names, for we had not asked the permission
Apart from the tapes already mentioned, Mr Reid listened to a discussion by
a step-dancer in the Spey Valley who can still dance step-dances that had
been taught to her by her parents who were from Laggan and Barra
respectively. Like the Stirling woman, she did not simply display a glimmer
of recognition at the sight of "Cape Breton step-dancing", but she could
(and can) get out on the floor and dance the steps.
It is easy to understand why individuals such as these have kept silent
about their ability, for ever since they went to school they have been
shown how to dance "correctly". And, having mastered the RSCDS dances, both
women channelled their childhood energy and love of dance into Highland
Dance, which also has all the acceptability and status lacking in the steps
they had learned at home.
It is to this particular recording that James MacDonald-Reid referred, as he not only watched her dancing on video (in this case made professionally by the independent film company Caledonia, Sterne and Wylde) but also visited the dancer. Together they discussed aspects of dance, and though I was only able to observe one session of this discourse, anyone watching the two of them - one born and brought up in the Highlands, and the other brought up in Ontario in a Scottish family - would be in no doubt as to the continuity of tradition. Aside from those mentioned, there are reports of others, granted only few, who still dance the old steps, but to pronounce something dead while it yet breathes is inaccurate, to say the least.
*CLEARLY* there is much to be done to promote step-dancing and revive it.
If however, those who profess to have its best interest at heart ignore the
facts, then we are in trouble.
It saddens me to watch the very same bodies who declare a serious interest
make so many of the same mistakes that we watched in the past. It is all
very well to bring in an expert for a week or two a year, but what of the
rest of the time?
Those who decide on the appointment of dance teachers must consider
carefully what the demands are, as they plan the promotion of traditional
dance. The ideal person should possess a profound depth of knowledge, a
natural ability to dance, and good, clear teaching techniques. Anyone who
has seen Jamie MacDonald-Reid dance, heard him discuss the subject (and
*not* when he is unfairly cornered by interviewers determined to set him on
edge), or anyone who has seen him teach dance to a class of children or
adults could not doubt his abilities, nor imagine that he is responsible
for some of the damage that Mike Kennedy attributes to "professional
dancers and dance teachers" (WHFP)
Interestingly, though not surprisingly, Mr Reid is also the only person whom I have ever encountered who could, after watching the video of the Newfoundland step-dancing, perform the steps himself, as if they were second nature to him. (The usual reaction of new observers is to ask "how in the world does that step go," repeat, and try to figure it out.) I wonder when some organisation, perhaps a local authority, a feis or a festival, might risk asking James MacDonald-Reid to run a dance class?
Those who have taken the time to watch him are already convinced. It would
be a great pity if some of the so-called enthusiasts spent the rest of
their lives "trying to figure it out" instead of enlisting the talent of
someone who has taken the subject seriously all of his life. If there is
anyone who is more passionately committed to traditional dance in Scotland
then I would very much like to hear from him or her. Better still, I'd love
to watch the dance.
(c) from West Highland Free Press, 14/10/94
*emphasis* - the asterisks are to emphasise various words that might
otherwise be in bold or italic fonts.
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