By Loraine Ritchey
NOTE: This interview with Alex McGuire appears in September 2001 issue of Celtic World , Published by Bruce Campbell who also is the interviewer/writer for this piece. You may subscribe to Celtic World by contacting email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex McGuire is pictured standing in the group photo
ALEX McGUIRE is the immediate past president of the Scottish Official
Highland Dance Academy. He is a former champion dancer, current judge and
well known for his straight shooting, no-nonsense ideas on Highland dancing.
This is the first is a new series of interviews with leading lights in the
world of Highland dance.
Traditional dancing has certainly grabbed the spotlight these days.
Riverdance, Lord of the Dance etc. have obviously propelled Irish dancing to
the forefront yet Highland dancing has never quite caught that slipstream.
Is there a reason?
I suppose the success of shows like Riverdance etc, evolved from the public
in general, latching-on to a presentation that was crying out to be
The visual idea of what seemed for years to be a local Irish style of dance
suddenly being augmented by a stage full of what were originally solo
dancers all performing as one and accompanied by brilliant Irish folk tunes
from top Irish musicians couldn't fail to inspire and excite its audiences.
The fact that it was headed by Michael Flatley, whose dynamic personality
helped more than anything to elevate the show world-wide, proved once again
that a good idea fronted by a good-looking lead dancer was the recipe for
spreading the word and plugging Irish dancing to the masses.
To try something similar with Highland dancing has been tried by a few
groups jumping on the bandwagon (Riverdance a la Celtic) but none have
reached the heights of emulating their Irish counterparts.
Remember, Riverdance had a good front man to carry the show - a character
who stretched the boundaries of his local art and was able to turn what used
to be danced at small Irish ceilidhs and concerts into a stage spectacular.
To do this re Highland dancing would need someone of the same calibre who
could expand the limits of our art and find a financial backer who would
have the courage and funds to stage a Celtic similarity - but let's face it,
that's exactly what it would be - a type of Riverdance with tartan and
backed by accordionists and fiddlers.
And who would we get to carry the show?
At the moment in the Highland dancing world there is no-one who stands out
as a dashing leader as, to tell the truth, no-one has the "courage" to go
beyond the confines that today's dancers are limited to.
Decades ago we could have taken our pick of "characters" who competed weekly
on the games circuit, but nowadays all Highland dancers are ordered to
perform like robots and haven't the fortitude necessary to reach a higher
level of "breaking the rules" and thinking for themselves.
Until then, Highland dancing will remain in the depressing, monotonous state
it has been in for the past half century.
Your organisation, SOHDA, has a long history yet in recent years it has been
overtaken in the numbers stakes at least by SOBHD.
Does that concern you, is there room for both, and how do you feel about the
Of course the situation concerns us, as it does all the members of the many
other free-thinking dancing organisations throughout the world.
But when dancers from North America, parts of Australia etc. are brought up
with no choice but the SOBHD to join then obviously there numbers are more
superior to the other dancing bodies who prefer to maintain their own
heritage in styles and steps, which each country takes pride in defending.
As for there being room for both, then that is something we have been trying
to balance out over the last few decades by attempting to make contact and
talking over ideas that would be beneficial to all concerned.
But, as I'm sure you will be familiar with, any contact we have attempted is
ignored, our letters are very often not answered, and we all know it would
be futile as we would be dictatorially informed that there is only the SOBHD
way of dancing and no other.
So, this only makes us all that more determined to uphold and preserve our
own styles and contest this overbearing attitude.
There are subtle differences in the dancing styles of the proponents of both
SOBHD and SOHDA, is there room for give and take with both styles,and in the
case of a truly open competition just how difficult is it for a judge to
evaluate these differing styles?
As with the previous question, this lack of communication by the SOBHD makes
it impossible to discuss styles and steps.
It's the old chestnut, you either do it their way or we can forget about a
In fact, one of the few replies we received basically stated that our entire
membership should become SOBHD members and only then could we iron out any
And as for judging various styles at the Games, the judges of the SOHDA
have, over the past decade or so, been intensely learning the styles and
dances of countries like New Zealand, Australia, etc. and all are thoroughly
competent in judging any style of dancing that appears before them on the
Surely a welcome relief for "foreign" dancers when they fulfil their dreams
to dance in Scotland, without having to learn a complete new programme of
dances for a few weeks' visit.
As to SOBHD judges, they are more or less brainwashed into accepting only
SOBHD steps from dancers and will often ignore or mark down any dancer who
performs anything other than the steps they have been indoctrinated to
How's that for an impartial and democratic decision?
Furthermore, the current ruling of the SOBHD states that their judging panel
(who are considered qualified) cannot sit with an adjudicator outwith the
jurisdiction of the SOBHD (who are considered unqualified).
However, this particular rule is continually being flouted when you witness
judges from the SOHDA and Independents sitting with judges from the SOBHD.
This is clearly a case of double standards.
Some say dance is pure art, some say it is a sport because of the aerobic
nature and competitiveness, others that it is an amalgam of all; what are
your own thoughts on the definition of Highland dancing in the Year 2001.
Highland dancing is definitely an ART - it always has been and always will
The idea of it being a sport is due to the fact that today's dancer has easy
access to improved training methods, re gyms, work-outs, etc.
So, obviously today's dancer will be much fitter and more equipped
physically to perform our traditional dances than the dancer of yesteryear
who, although unable to reach the fitness standard we have today, was still
able to achieve a high level of expertise when competing.
So, this new century will see fitter and more powerful dancers capable of
sustaining a day's heavy competition.
But, all the exercising in the world won't make you a better dancer - if you
haven't got that little spark that lifts ordinary dancers above the others,
then all the work-outs in the world won't improve your chances of elevating
yourself in the art of Highland dancing.
Over the years you have judged and danced with many greats. Have you a list
of elite dancers, those whom you have thought are just that bit extra
During my competitive dancing career I've had the privilege of dancing
alongside some of the dancing greats.
Dancers like Charlie Mill, the great Victor Wesley, the inimitable Rosemary
McGuire, Mharie Stronach, Jean Boyd, Kathleen Scott, Ann McIlroy, May G.
Falconer, Sandra Adams and so on.
In my very early days I recall Bobby Cuthbertson (probably the greatest
dancer and character to light up the dancing world), Dave Beattie from
Montrose, the Lowe brothers from Arbroath, etc.
During my teen years there was Bobby Watson from Aberdeen and J.L.
MacKenzie, also from the Granite City - all "characters" who went out to
entertain week after week.
It was a pleasure to rub shoulders with these giants of the Highland dancing
world, all, without exception, "doing their own thing" in trying to catch
the judges' eye with their little extras that everyone looked forward to
Of course, "doing your own thing" today would be looked on as sacrilege, and
if an SOBHD member tried to do what these greats did then they'd be banned
from competing for a certain period of time!
Is this the way to promote and encourage Highland dancing?
Bring back the good old days of freedom.
And what of the great masters of yesteryear, who should be elevated to some
kind of peak status?
In the "good old days" when Highland dancing was mentioned we constantly
talked of Watson, Cuthbertson, MacKenzie, etc.
These greats are now long gone, but we still bring up their names in
conversation, because they were the characters who lit up the dancing world
with their individual interpretations and styles.
Today, there are plenty of excellent dancers - but no characters.
This is because today's dancers are all "brainwashed" to reach a certain
level of excellence, and once they have that level they are unable to think
for themselves and go beyond this limit - so they end up like the thousands
of other replicas you see week in week out on today's dancing platforms.
As I said, we are still talking about those dancing greats from yesteryear
today - in some cases 50 years after they passed on.
Can you imagine in 50 years' time who we will be talking about?
You can bet it won't be any of today's exponents as there is absolutely
no-one who springs to mind as a character - only flocks of sheep being
penned-in by a dictatorial shepherd.
Given a magic wand, is there anything you would change in the world of
Highland dance, other than the obvious disparity between the various
For a long time I've dreamed about forming a "World Alliance of Highland
I've mentioned this to our many overseas friends and they all have an open
mind on the matter and would like to see it happen.
The basic idea would be for each organisation to maintain their own dancing
styles but amalgamate under the one banner.
This, of course, would mean learning each others styles, but as the SOHDA
has proved, in learning several styles, it can be done.
The most important aspect of this Alliance is that there would be no "big
chief" to dominate, as each "country" would take it in turn to organise
their period of office.
For example, let's say that Australia took over the reins for their
occupancy of office (perhaps two or three years), then it would be up to
them at the end of their tenancy to organise a "true" World Championship
that would be open to all and not, as the so called World Championship is at
the moment, only "confined" to dancers registered with the SOBHD.
In truth it should be called the SOBHD World Championship as that is all it
Do the SOBHD dancers realise only half the world can enter?
Once Australia has had its "turn" as organisers, then they would pass on the
reins to say, New Zealand or Scotland or Sweden, and it would be their turn
to organise the proceedings, culminating in an open-to-all World
There is obviously a lot of work to be considered, but it can be done.
By learning each other's technique and styles, wouldn't we all increase our
dancing knowledge and gain an understanding that would enhance greater
appreciation of our ART?
And finally, where do you see the positioning of the Highland dance world in
another ten years time?
We have been hitting this brick wall for the last few decades and although
the SOHDA and other open-minded organisations have all bent backwards to get
round the table to iron out disagreements, the domineering attitude of the
SOBHD has blocked all avenues of justice.
They are the stumbling block in this jigsaw and until their attitude of
supremacy alters then I don't see any chance of a change during the next ten
years!! It's a sad situation, but it can all be settled with give and take
by BOTH sides - not just ONE.
Finally, many thanks indeed for allowing me the opportunity to speak my mind
and answer your questions.
It's nice to be able to pass on my thoughts and feelings on today's Highland
dancing imbalances and perhaps it may hopefully inform your many readers as
to the situation that is bringing our art to the sorry state it is in today.
Bruce Campbell (Editor and coffee boy)
Celtic World (incorporating Highland Gathering).
The best selling Celtic cultural monthly.
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