By Loraine Ritchey
(As appeared in Dancer Magazine )
"Highland Dance" is it 'art' or is it 'sport'? What makes one group "more correct" than another? How is Highland dance judged? Does the way it is judged make it one thing or another? Who decides whether it is "art" or "sport"? Do the different "styles" come into play? Is the Internet a help or a hindrance to Highland? Well as you can see the great debate has found it's way onto cyberspace. Having spent the last few weeks garnering the opinions and histories of various organizations I find that I am really no further ahead in answering the questions recently put to me by "DANCER's" readership. I will try in the following paragraphs to present the information, as I perceive it to be and let the reader decide.
Highland Dance, the very name suggests it is an art form "dance" however the majority of the teachers, adjudicators and dancers of the SOBHD organizations seem to be of the belief that it is indeed a "sport", dance-sport if you will, but definitely the emphasis on "sport". In fact the SOBHD, if my information holds true, (as readers are aware SOBHD are not very forthcoming with confirmation) are registered with the Sports Council in Scotland. Easy enough, it is a "sport". However, not all teachers and adjudicators within the SOBHD organization believe that this is the case. They believe that Highland is a very specialized form of dance.
That first and foremost training in ballet, body alignment etc should be part of a Highland dancers regimen. The total aspect of the dancer should be taken into consideration upper body, lift through the body, learned turnout. How many times has the upper body and arms of a Highland dancer left a great deal to be desired. I have personally witnessed top dancers pumping the upper body and very sloppy arm positions. These were not beginners but some of our "champions". Is this because the majority of the judging is focused to the lower half of the body? Side view: dancers twisting at the hip and throwing out the bottom in order to get the illusive turnout. What is that doing to young backs? Jumping instead of lift playing havoc with "overdeveloped legs" and knee problems.
In the past 5 years, writing this column, I have had the privilege to interview many of Highland's champions from every organization. Every single dance champion "Worlds SOBHD and before" that I have interviewed, have all had other dance training. So even with in individual organizations there is the debate. Is Highland athletic, does it require years of training the body to work to the requirements, ( rather than adjusting the position to the individual's body) , is Highland performed in gymnasiums, football fields, in the open in varying conditions? Well of course the answer is Yes! Does the venue make it a sport? So what about "art", Highland is performed to music . Well, so are the floor exercises in gymnastics, they also have to "point their feet. Would you call floor exercises in gymnastics "art"? "ART human ability to make things happen, creativeness, any specific skill or it's application, making or doing things that have form and beauty…". Well according to "Webster" gymnastics and Highland would both fit in their definition. However there is one criteria that every performance artist will point out "does it tell a story?". Do floor exercise tell the audience a story or are they just going through physical motions in order to demonstrate an ability. No, I don't think, even when performed to music the most liberal of us could say that floor exercises tell a story" Does Highland dance tell a story. Yes! the dances are all based on histories and legends were meant to communicate a culture to an observer, to show joy, passion, anger, rebellion, love success even defeat etc.
To communicate the story to make audiences feel, think, entertain. Art??? The dances also (in some cases) were used to increase the skill, stealth and stamina of the warrior. To compete to be the Clan Chiefs No.1. Sport??? Here is the great debate again. Whilst some organizations are focusing on the "technique and sport" angle of Highland others are crying "foul!" Alex McGuire , adjudicator and spokesperson for the SOHDA " dancers should be "free" to interpret the music and the dance in a meaningful way. They should have a certain "flair/stylishness" for the dance but, it is not coming through nowadays. The way Scottish Highland Dancing is being performed at the moment and has been for some considerable time; too much emphasis is being placed on regimentation and, I think the SOBHD are to be held responsible for this. The "art" has been removed from the dance. In some quarters it is considered to be a "sport"…. Therefore, too much emphasis is being placed on the "Mechanics" of the dance at the expense of "Grace/interpretation of movement". "Foul" in regard that many other dance organizations world-wide consider the focus on technique and the limited steps that are being performed by SOBHD dancers etc will eventually cause indirectly, the loss of "dances and their culture". This is not to say that all SOBHD dancers are not succeeding in "marrying the requirements". Colleen Rintamaki (current World Champion SOBHD) does an excellent job (in my opinion) of being both the dancer and fulfilling the SOBHD requirements. Pat Miller and Carleigh Leyton also come to mind. However and again this is a personal observation from an "educated audience perspective" are they the exception rather than the rule?
Well we are back to sport and art and performing venues. Where do most Highland Dancers perform? Answer :-on the competitive circuit. Recent history, last 50 years or so, compared to the 2000 or so years of the dance, tells us that participants felt that on the competitive circuit there needed to be some sort of standardization so dancers could be judged equally on a level playing field. Thus, has evolved the current situation and the other great debate has the standardization gone too far? Dancers experience on the competition circuit "educated audiences in all things Scottish". The very few times that "Highland dance" has tried to get into the main stream performance arena it has not been overwhelmingly successful. Certainly not on the scale of the Irish movement. Riverdance, Feet of Flames, Lord of the Dance etc still selling to packed houses. Irish dancers also compete in similar venue to Highland so what is the difference? Audience involvement, the ability for the dance to bring even the most uneducated of audience members into the enjoyment of the performance, there is a story to be told and the Irish are telling it. Are the stories more interesting? No! of course not. So, why the lack of success with the Scots? Could it be as some organizations contend that the culture and performance is being lost, with the emphasis on the "sport" aspect? Dancers are learning and performing to a rigid code, which makes them extremely successful among their peers, but not to audiences as a whole. Can the aspect of promoting Highland as a sport eventually find a niche on the Olympic stage? Will that be the ultimate success story? If that is the case, and the organizations, which are at the moment, taking the opposite tack are not successful in their endeavors to promote the " performance art" and historical aspect of the dances. Who loses? As usual, Highland always seems to pose more questions than answers more twists and turns than a maze. In my humble opinion, I think of Highland as an art form one that is misunderstood by many but one that definitely has a story to tell.
The Internet and emails are still my concern again this month. I honestly believe that I should have struggled harder against my friends and family's wishes to join the WWW. An actress learns how to read a person by their body language facial expressions. Even when interviewing someone on the phone you have the inflection in the voice, the humor , sarcasm , passion etc. I have in previous articles mentioned some of the Highland lists, or message boards that one can join. I must admit I thought how wonderful, people communicating, speaking freely about their chosen interest. I really think for the "beginner" some one should put up a "beware, enter at your own risk sign".
There are a number of things that come into play here.
1. You forget, at least I did, that there are very many cultural differences coming into play when you are on a discussion list. We in North America are a little different in our approach to any given situation than the Australians the Scots and definitely the English. "style of debate".
2. Your conversation or posting is not only going out to the members of the "list" but world wide, your thoughts and observations are similar to sending a postcard for anyone to see.
3.E-mails are flat , one dimensional, probably lightly scanned by the reader. Fast food for the literate ( indigestion a danger) You open up your environment to anyone who wants to enter. You can get yourself in hot water pretty quickly, which is what happened to me.
I have been writing for "DANCER" for 5 years this month my address and phone number printed every one of those months. I have, of course, through the years have had people who disagreed with my opinions etc. The response has always been well-communicated and 9 times out of ten signed. Two weeks of jumping into the discussion pool brought forth more than I expected. Needless to say because of my experience I have some guidelines that I now intend to follow. 1. Know what kind of a list you are joining, just like real life there are the , very sweet and innocent , positive out lookers, children, then there are the love to have a debate (or heated discussion types …think I may fall into that category) , the very naïve, the bullies, the very educated and the holier than thou ,in fact all types of people that you would find in your own town make up the "society of the lists" and then the "LURKERS" this I found out pertains to those who "read the mailings" but are not members. Dreadful word really conjures up all sorts of pictures in my over active imagination. However, because some of my postings were not about "buttons, bows and everything in the garden is rosy" I apparently upset some people. My computer and telephone was given over to the likes of anonymous phone calls and set -up e-mails that were intrusive and insulting. not only to me but also to my daughter. 4. The one thing I have learned is that you never stop being a "mother"! The moment your child is attacked ( no matter that she is old enough to take care of any eventuality) you spring to the defense and in my case offence. I have curtailed my Internet chats to those I respect and I can only hope that the "lurkers, with a Highland bent" are few and far between. 5. Can you speak your mind when it pertains to Highland , ask questions, as you know I have had some worrying letters from people who are concerned that they can't . I thought it probably a case of over reaction , after the past few weeks I am not so sure.
Next month the debate and questions continue.
Still for those who still wish to write I can be reached at:
Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.