Oban bay in the sun
When the fabulous Debbie Mackay (drama tutor) pulled up in her nippy, wee MG to give me a lift up to Oban, the Easter Fèis was off an exciting start! This was to be my first year of teaching at Fèis Latharna. I was added to the tutor list (comprising some 20 tutors) just a couple of months ago when Ewen MacPherson (Fèis organiser) received a call from the Gergel School in Kiev who wished to send five pupils to the Fèis in Oban on the request that there was a step-dance tutor. Scottish step-dancing in Ukraine – an unlikely combination one would think – however, you only need to type in a quick search into youtube to discover the many talented, young step-dancers over in Ukraine. And so, strengthening the dance element of Oban's five day festival of traditional arts for 8-18 year olds, step-dance was added to the choice of tuition alongside highland dance, song, fiddle, clarsach, accordion, whistle, chanter, piping, pipe-band drumming, percussion, guitar, art, drama, football and shinty! Phwah!
Five students from the Gergel School (Kiev)
It was a fantastic opportunity to work with the Ukrainian students. They already had a lot of steps so I was able to focus on precision of footwork and rhythm as well as introduce them to a few more intricate steps. They were accompanied by their dance tutor from Ukraine, Vera Gergel. Like myself, Vera initially learned step-dance by attending summer schools at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye. She now passes her steps on to her pupils, at the Gergel language school. In addition to this, the Gergel School also invite musicians and dance tutors from Scotland over to Ukraine to teach workshops and the students partake in céilidhs and Burns suppers as part of their cultural experience.
It is said that when Highland emigrants were clearing the forests in Cape Breton they would step-dance on the stumps of the cut down trees. Well, this was certainly my opportunity to practise my neat steps, close to the floor and within tight boundaries! The evening kicked off with big Donald MacPhee giving us a blast of the Highland Pipes after which each tutor took it in turn to give a short demonstration. With only a couple of near ankle breaks I made it through a strathspey/reel set, accompanied by Adam on fiddle.
A highlight of the week was the family céilidh, held in the Argyllshire Gathering Hall. The array of talented tutors performed throughout the evening in a rotating céilidh band as boys, girls, toddlers, teenagers, mothers with sons and fathers with daughters all took to the the dance floor. It was so delightful to see so many young people dancing with such enthusiasm and with such good knowledge of the dances! I was impressed that, considering the average age would have been about 10, the dance flowed more smoothly than any dance I had witnessed during my four years at University and reminded of me of school céilidhs in Fort Augustus. From dancing feet to smiling faces, the dance floor was brimming with fun and enjoyment. In between dances the gathering were treated to Gaelic songs from Darren MacLean, a Sailor's Hornpipe and a Seann Triubhas from Eilidh MacInnes and I did a spot of steps-dancing (this time with slightly more floor space!). Eilidh Munro also played a beautiful set of tunes on the clarsach for which the children huddled around the stage to listen.
When I was growing up in Fort Augustus, every Easter holiday, my mother would make the 4 hour round trip daily to take my brother, sister and I through to Fort William for Fèis Lochaber. I can still remember the excitement each morning as we queued up for our name badge in anticipation of the jam packed day of music, dance and drama ahead. We had the same excitement at the end of the day as we got in the car and would spend the entire ride home telling my mother all we had done that day. It was here that I picked up many of my steps from Jane MacNeil and Frank McConnell and also had my first opportunities to try out new instruments and participate in Gaelic language and song. Gaelic wasn't offered at my local school and therefore exposure to the language at the Fèis was a rare opportunity when growing up. The Fèis was hugely important in my dance development as well as my great passion for our musical and cultural heritage. Since those years of attending Fèis Lochaber as well as my local fèis, Fèis Gleann Albainn, which was set up later, my passion has continued to grow and influence the paths I have taken. Whether as a profession or simply as a hobby, music and dance is a love which I will always have and treasure. Thanks to the Fèisean movement, and all it brought with it, there is now a cultural climate in which Gaelic culture thrives. The biggest gratitude on this part must go to all the communities and committee members of localised Fèisean who work so hard to ensure that they continue each year.
Last weekend I took the Highland Dancer in me out of retirement and went along to my first Highland Dance class in nearly eight years! It was good to feel myself invigorated by the exercise and know that I had not forgotten the steps that I had spend so many evenings practicing in my younger years. It was a stamina test for sure... my calf muscles have only just recovered! Being among very young, extremely agile, Highland dancers re-opened my eyes to the world of Highland Dancing and made me realise some of the striking differences between modern, competition dancing and the step-dancing tradition. I was in awe of the tremendous proficiency and ability of the dancers at so young and age but then it struck me that this was really a young persons activity, with those in their teens probably being at their peek as dancers. Secondly, the ultimate goal in perfecting the steps was towards competing in front of a judge which contrasted with the spirit of partaking which largely characterises step-dance when part of social dancing.
What’s your experience of Highland Dancing? MacTV are researching competition dancing and would like to hear your insight from within the world of the Highland Dancer.
MacTV are currently carrying out research about Highland Dancing. We are looking for Highland Dancers competing at championship level to see if there is a good story to tell about the competing world of a Highland Dancer. We’d like to hear from Gaelic speaking dancers in particular, but we would welcome comments from anybody interested or involved in the world of Highland dance. If you are a competing Highland dancer, if you can suggest potential contributors or you think you can help us in anyway, please get in contact on 01851 70 5638 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
‘...the allegiance of dancers and spectators to one music and dance sensibility or another serves as a specific means of representing, and even reconstructing, their cultural identity in relation to, or even as resistance to, the dominant cultural formation. Moreover, this struggle against presumed cultural intrusion by perceived “outside” influences has profound and disturbing socio-political effects […] this project has caused me to consider further the implications of tradition versus innovation and of authenticity in the context of spaces of affects and becomings.'
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