By Loraine Ritchey
A Highland Loss
Orma Smith. MBE dies at the age of 80. "A Lifetime Dedicated to Dancing". So reads the headline in the 'Timaru Herald', New Zealand. Accompanied by a wonderful photo of Highland dancers forming an Honour Guard for Orma's last journey.
What of the woman who began teaching at the age of 13, whose many accomplishments and those of her dancers are overwhelming in their numbers and diversity. "If you want something done and done well give it to a busy person". Orma by all accounts got things done. A founder of the first Summer Ballet School. (South Island) N.Z, Founder of the Timaru Moteliers Assoc. President of many, many organizations through the years. Judge, teacher, advocate, wife, mother, grandmother and designer of the Jubilee Tartan in1989 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the South Canterbury Piping and Dancing Assoc. Her tartan achieved the very rare honour of accreditation by the Council of Scottish Tartans Society. 1993 found Her Majesty the Queen awarding Orma the title of Member of the British Empire. Lifetime memberships with the Royal Academy of Dancing (England), South Canterbury Centre, Piping and Dancing and many others. Immortalized by the late Donald Bowman (Piper) who composed a tune for Viking Records "The Orma Ford Irish Jig". Her students in dance won many accolades and silverware, the Commonwealth Medal, Scotland, New Zealand Champion of Champions, Australasian Championships.
It was the preservation of Scottish culture and Highland dancing in New Zealand and it's place in the world that was uppermost in Orma's thoughts when I first had contact with her. The dynamic woman whose friends called her "Bionic Bantam". She did not rest on her laurels, but was always looking to find ways that the dancing and culture she truly loved would not be lost. I received a letter a few days before her sudden death. She informed me that she was "definitely going to look into the Internet and computers". She was very involved with compiling a definitive manual on Highland Dancing. Her greatest fear was that the dancers and dancing of New Zealand would be "homogenized". New Zealand has been able to keep the "old ways" and "steps of their forefathers", but like so many things in today's world the easier route is the one more likely to be taken. Orma however was never one to take the "easy way" and fought vigorously to keep alive the dance of her forefathers.
In 1999 Orma arranged for SOHDA Judge, Charlie Mill to judge the 18 and over N.Z. Championship. Charlie writes "When the dancing world loses one of it's own it's always a sad time for family and close friends, but when that someone has been a universal driving force whose strength and impact in her native country has consolidated the entire structure of the art of the dance, then it is a doubly sad loss. Ask any dancer from New Zealand the reason why the standard of dancing in the "land of the long white cloud" is so high and the answer will be it's all due to the devotion and hard work of three ladies- Mrs. Jeannie Paton, Mrs. Emma Brown and Mrs. Orma Smith. It was all due to the meticulous pursuit for perfection that these three "kiwis" laid down an outstanding foundation, which would both benefit and encourage championship-winning dancers over the years. Orma's philosophy of life was simple- a fair share for everyone who was determined to concentrate and master the intricacies of Scotland's and Irelands traditional dances. Her ultimate passion was to see the instigation and development of a "World Alliance of Dancing Associations"
Mats Melin of the Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust, who recently returned from New Zealand. "We stayed with her (Orma) in February. She was still going strong; our last image of her was of her teaching young children in the basement studio of her house. Individually, in the old style, it was great!! She turned out some great dancers in her day and was one herself. She will be missed and the Academy (New Zealand) will not be the same without her."
Shiobhan O'Donnell, N.Z. " Orma's funeral was big, attended by a huge crowd, and went on for at least an hour. As popular in death as in life"
The New Zealand Academy members were well represented at St. Mary's Anglican Church. Among the large congregation were, the Patron, President, Past President, Executive Council members, Technical Director, Technical members as well as many members representing various areas of New Zealand.
The service was conducted by Archdeacon Philip Robinson was a celebration of Mrs. Smith's life. Her family and prestigious members of the various organizations gave verbal tributes. NZ Academy of Highland & National Dancing, Beckie Rout and Enid Weir were among the many who spoke. People and organizations whose lives had been touched by the talents and energy of Orma Smith. Perhaps the most touching was the selection of cornet solos, accompanied by Bill Grubb was given by Orma's grandsons, Barrett and Slade Hocking and Anthony Smith. Anthony also arranged the music for the hymn "Be Still My Soul". The Timaru Municipal Band provided the musical tribute "Canterbury Chorale" and the hymns.
Piper Don Sorenson, playing "Black Bear" led as the casket was carried from the church through a guard of honour formed by South Canterbury dancing students. The casket draped with the South Canterbury Jubilee tartan designed by Mrs. Smith.
Shiobhan remembers, "Orma was certainly a character and was a real driving force in the Piping and Dancing Assoc. and the Academy. She could be unpopular, very forthright in her views, but she never lost the respect of anyone and was well appreciated for the knowledge of the dance that she brought to the organizations. I used to wear "her tartan" (Jubilee Tartan) when I danced under 18. I must have been one of the last dancers to be examined by Orma. She examined me in both my Irish exams and my stage one Sailors. I remember her being a tough examiner who hated it when candidates did not know their theory. There are many good stories about Orma. One came to me via my sister, who was examined by her (Orma) often. I believe it was the Solo Seal and Orma was one of the panel of examiners. Being very concerned about appearances Orma got together with the other examiners (all female) and sold them on the idea of the virtue of "long skirts". That night, however, Orma wore a short skirt! But this was what Orma was like and why she was so well known. She was one person never afraid to give her opinion and was never afraid to go against the grain!"
It is my misfortune that although I have written about Orma in the past few years, spoken to her by phone on occasion and had the pleasure of corresponding with her; I never was able to meet with her in person. We tend to think these great teachers and "characters" will go on indefinitely.
Instead of gleaning every bit of their knowledge and opinions and "why they think the way they do" we tend to "wait". Unfortunately we have waited too long in recent memory. Why didn't I take the opportunity to contact the great Bobby Watson when I could, why didn't I contact May Falconer when she was in the States and why didn't I do more when I had the chance to ask the questions that should've been asked of Orma? It is too late to ask the questions but it is not too late to honour the memory of great teachers and perpetuators of the dance known as Highland. We should learn and remember after all that is what their lives were all about, teaching a great culture and art so that the world may "learn". Orma has left a legacy of talent, love of dance, of fighting spirit, of tenacity, of tears and laughter and truly a life that was celebrated. To Orma's husband- Doug, her daughter Iola, son-in-law Simon, son Kent, daughter-in-law Sheryl, grandsons Barrett and Slade Hocking and Anthony Smith and to the World of Highland Dance our heartfelt sympathy on the loss of a great lady.
As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at
Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.