Highland Dance

Always the Bridesmaid to the Irish Dance Bride?

The Celtic Cafe's dance focus happens to be on Irish dance. That is not by design... we would like to feature all dance that is associated with "Celtic countries." Highland dance should have an equal focus here -- yet it doesn't. Irish dance shows have entered the mainstream consciousness, sparked by the success of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Where are the shows featuring Highland Dance? Needfire, The only major one we know of, did not tour, although successful in both its Toronto runs. We need more Needfires, and we need them to tour!

We are fortunate to have as a Celtic Cafe contributor the wonderful Loraine Ritchey, who has been writing about Highland Dance for nearly a decade. Her monthly columns run in Dancer Magazine (USA) and Celtic World (UK) and with her help, we'll increase our Highland focus here at celticcafe.com. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we can look forward to Highland dance shows taking their place alongside Irish dance as popular theatrical entertainment.

Meanwhile, here are Loraine's thoughts about why we haven't seen that happen as of yet, in an article exclusive to the Celtic Cafe.

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Why is Highland Dance Always the Bridesmaid to the Irish Dance Bride?

It has been this writer’s lot for many years to cover the Highland Dance scene on a worldwide basis for more than one magazine, and to be the mother of a Highland dancer. Whilst I am not an expert in the technical differences between Irish and Highland dance, or even in Highland dance itself, I am one of the very rare monthly columnists who have written regularly about Highland, on a continuous monthly basis for the past nine years. (Articles may be found at lritch7.tripod.com)

The first step in understanding Highland dance is – just what is it? Most people, when I say I cover the Highland dance scene, believe I write about Irish dance; and those that do know the difference think I’m referring to Scottish Country dancing, which is a different and distinct dance form. (For information on Scottish Country dancing, see www.strathspey.org.)

Highland by the Numbers

So just what is Highland Dance? Even within the Highland Dancing world, which by Irish standards is extremely small, there is disagreement. However, for the most part Highland Dance is primarily a competitive art form and not performance based. The dances, danced competitively, are limited; dancers perform and are judged as individuals.

There are organizations in place that govern the competitive arena. The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing, the largest governing organization at this time, claims to oversee over 50,000 dancers and other participants worldwide, and states in one program that 25,000 of these are based in North America. However, broad marketing claims aside, the numbers are closer to around 15,000 worldwide with less than 7,000 in North America.

Taking those figures into account, the vast majority of dancers registered with the SOBHD are primary and beginning level dancers. The USA only has approximately 600 of the 2000-odd registered dancers who have completed the full range of competitive levels – beginner, novice, and intermediate – and reached “Premier” status. Of these, only a small percentage are over 18. Do you begin to see the problem? Numbers! Now ask yourself how many Irish Dancers there are in the USA. Those same numbers also tell what ratio of a performance audience is available to Highland dancers. As small as that pool is to draw from, this is not the only problem. To be successful, dance must cross over nationalist lines to entertain all audiences.

Steve McGrail, a writer for Scottish Life states in his article “New Lords of the Dance” (Scottish Life, 1998) that the “Irish Dancers had the audience clapping and stomping at the ‘Fair’, whereas the Highland dancers’ audience seemed to be made up of mothers and polite applause.” He goes on to ask, “Could it be the reason for the demise [of Highland dancing] is boredom?”

The question McGrail posed in 1998 is still to be answered in 2003. Although the “spin doctors” of the Highland world tout a great increase of numbers, the truth is that the numbers of Highland dancers remain either just perking along if not decreasing. The 50,000 figure has been thrown out for at least the last 10 years by the President of the SOBHD, Billy Forsyth (himself a World Champion); but it was not an accurate count 10 years ago nor is it today, no matter how the spin doctors protest.

Restrained dancers, restrained applause

Still, all it should take is one talented person or a “hook” to set the world on fire – it worked in the case of Irish dancing, did it not? The overall appeal to audiences, Irish or not, was a force to be reckoned with. Could Highland dance also find that niche? There are the Irish coattails to grab on to. The way should be easier for another Celtic-choreographed production to storm the stage. Highland too has its talented dancers, with championship titles galore. In fact it has been tried, on more than one occasion; only to fail miserably, fading away after a few performances, or just perking along in church halls and byways for the small but appreciative audiences “educated in Highland”. These shows have never generated the excitement or audience numbers of even a third-string, truck-and-bus Irish dance show.

Why is it that a performance which had seven, count them, seven World Champion Highland Dancers among its performers, dancing in front of an audience “educated in all things Highland” lost the standing ovation to the lesser-titled and less talented (in this performance) Irish dancers? What made the audience jump to their feet for the Irish, when the seven Highland World Champions were greeted with warm but restrained applause? If this ocurred with an educated Highland audience who understood more than most the difficulty of the routines being performed, what chance can Highland have with the average theatergoer?

Can it be the art form itself is its own worst enemy? Over the decades – some say in order to make life easier for the adjudicators – the competitive circuit has refined and reduced steps and dances to a very few. In the case of the SOBHD, the World Championship Cowal Highland Gathering (the crown or cup that most Highland dancers wish to attain) is based on the same four dances, year in and year out, the possible steps from years gone by. The dancers are judged on a strict criterion: 80% technique, 10% costume, and 10% left for the rest. The focus is mostly below the waist, on how well the dancers perform the steps. This, say critics, has taken the expression of the art form out of the dance and made it no more than a technical and mechanical dance sport. Although there an a few smaller organizations worldwide that still compete using the older dances and steps, they too are lacking the numbers of people involved. Room for flair, guts and artistry has been programmed out of the dance and the dancers.

Laura carruthers of Celtic Dance Theatre (www.celticdance.com), herself a Cowal winner and one of the most successful entrepreneurs when it comes to getting Highland “out there”, has stated, “Highland Dance is mostly looked at as a sport; I'm now looking at it as an art form. I really want to expose Highland Dancing. If it doesn't happen now it isn't going to happen!” Laura has worked diligently and with more success than most, first with stage productions and now in the area of film and video. Still there is not the momentum of interest that caught hold of the Riverdance phenomenon from the first beginning in the Eurovision song contest. It seems the excitement generated by that small beginning is not for the Highland counterpart.

Highland Appeal?

What of the costuming? There is a sexual energy with the professional stage productions based on Irish dance. This energy spills across the footlights, encompassing the audience members. Could it be the aggressive rawness of the males’ performance, the flash of young limbs displayed by the female cast members, those wild unrestrained tresses reminiscent of wild abandonment, a freedom of movement that also pulses as one within the group? The performers pull the audience into the performance, making them part of the tension and excitement.

Highland, in its very competitive nature and strict code of dress, has made uniformity a priority. Hair is drawn back into a bun or pulled tightly off the face. Male and female dancers dress in heavy woolen kilts and jackets, with woolen hose that makes even the smallest ankle look thick and solid, adding bulk till the calves seem more suited to the caber toss. In addition, the male dancer must contend with a hat pulled down low enough so as not to come off and a sporran that bounces and flops during his whole dance, with an annoying accompanying sound of leather whacking against the chain it hangs from.

Pity the Highland dancer. No raw sexuality here; in fact the dancers are nearly unisexual (in some countries the women also wear the hats). Yes, they have led the dance world in equality of the sexes (male and female compete on equal footing), but at what price? Before you in the Highland world cry foul, there is also the ladies’ dress, the “Aboyne outfit”, which is not worn in the four dances in the Worlds competitions. This is a simple peasant-style dress, with a fullish skirt, a blouse and vest, and a shawl pinned over one shoulder reminiscent of the innocent village maiden. It certainly does not stir the blood, although it might make the onlooker think of skipping through the heather.

The music to which competitive Highland dancers perform is more about the steadiness of the beat than the flair of the piper. The dance piper for a competition must play the exact same tune with the same timing every time, so that fairness will prevail for every dancer, group after group after group as they compete. (Indeed, some large competitions have the pipers play to a metronome.) Is it any wonder the competition audiences are made up of the mums and families? Hearing the bagpipes play ‘Gillie Calum’ once on a misty September morning in a field in Pennsylvania is one thing, sitting around to hear it played 15 times on end for 15 identically-dressed dancers doing the same steps is another.

Can it be that after years and years of training to dance within a standard technique, with regimented costuming, no apparent difference in the sexes, the Highland dancer finds it difficult to break out of the box and truly perform? Although various productions have changed the costuming from the competitive garb, it is still variations on the theme. No bold costume design for the Highland dancer. It is as if the producers are timid about leaving what they have been used to doing all their Highland life, the rules and regulations and staying within the boundaries set by the committees. Where is the audacity, the in-your-face, look-at-me costuming to catch the audience?

Roaring of the Blood

The percussive aspect of Irish dance also plays a role in the “roaring of the blood”. Patrick Campbell and Catherine Leneghan of the Masterson School of Irish Dance watched Highland dancers warm up at a concert where the two dance forms were featured. Campbell declared, “I was impressed with their athleticism and the incredible strength they have in their legs, and yet they were ‘soft’ on their landing. The hand movements and the control of the upper body at the same time and how the dances reflected the culture were really interesting.” Leneghan was also impressed with the Highland dancers’ strength, but also “the arch of the foot and the discipline; there was a reason for every movement executed. They don't just do a movement, or place a position just to place it.”

It may just be that the ‘softness’ on landing that takes away from the showmanship. Highland changes are invariably aerial; there are not the percussive changes in the Irish hardshoe dance. An audience will applaud the pipers of the pipe band, but nine times out of ten it is the drum solo that ignites the crowd. Is it the rhythm of the drums that evokes more in Irish dance? Those rhythms, reminiscent of our own heartbeat, stir ancient memories of our ancestral tribal past. The audience responds to the pipes and drums or the synchronized changes of the Irish dancer building to a crescendo. We, the audience, are fickle; the difficulty of what the Highland dancer is accomplishing is lost on us. It will take a dancer of extraordinary prowess to yank us out of our seats and demand the respect and awe necessary for a Highland performance to “make it on the world stage.”

There have been dancers in Highland that have trod the boards both in Highland and in the professional dance world; and some were world champions as well. However, none are actually earning a living from Highland. They have made it, but Highland is not part of their professional repertoire; the professional world of ballet, tap, classical and modern dance has embraced them. Other Highland World Champions perform Highland shows but have not quit their day jobs.

Laura carruthers (Celtic Dance Theatre) is one of the few that have managed to bring Highland out of the cow pasture; but it has been a long journey so far. The onus falls upon the slight shoulders of a young woman who is not only dealing with the artistry and creativity but the finances and logistics of pulling a successful Highland endeavor together.

Will Highland ever garner true respect on the performance stage? Probably not, unless the fire is lit and the shadows of the ancient Celts come to life in the flames of passion. Maybe there will be someone who has that ancient fire who will set the world alight – till then, Highland dance will remain the bridesmaid

Feature: Bernadette Price
Editing: Louise Owen
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas




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