By Loraine Ritchey
Highland Dancing ….. The Good, The Bad, The Ugly by Loraine Ritchey
As with anything else in this world in which we live Highland has a "history" not only of the dance steps but the people and organizations who have helped the Highland dancing world get to the point we are today. These people and organizations all have their "takes" on what happened and to whom. Nine years of writing about this 'specialized minority" in the dance world finds this writer still somewhat confused as to what the majority of Highland participants actually want from their chosen art form.
This particular journey will start not in Scotland but in New Zealand. The year is 1773 and one of Capt. Cooks Scottish crewman played his bagpipes to see the effect upon the natives and thereby hangs the tale. 1908, found the formation of a Pipers and Dancers Association but not without some controversy as The New Zealand Athletic Union were loathe to give up the control they had held over the piping and dancing as it would "create a bad precedent for other sports affiliated to the NZ Athletic Union. (Piping and Dancing Association of New Zealand Inc 1983)
Post WW2 finds Mr. I.D. Cameron M.B.E (President of the Piping and Dancing Assoc. 1941-1950). Asked by the then Prime Minister Fraser, to undertake a publicity duty whilst on his travels to Scotland. Mr. Cameron wrote of his recollections of that time and his help in forming the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. "notes I have taken from my minutes and also some background for the reasons that the SOB (Scottish Official Board /SOBHD) was formed in Scotland."
"This followed the Balmoral Games and was held in the Hotel at Balmoral on the night of the games in 1949. This came about on account of the broadcasts. (Fraser's request for the publicity campaign) I had made in Scotland about our Piping and Dancing Assoc." Mr. Cameron remarks as to the quality of the judging before the Association's time. Judges without technical training or who had never danced, competitors who sometimes refused to dance before the appointed judges and those who decided amongst themselves who should receive the prizes. Mr. Cameron recalls similar situations in Scotland in 1949 this caused some "rather bad disturbances at some Games, as indeed was the case at Balmoral"(note aka Braemar Gathering as it is known today)
"Captain Davidson was the first secretary (SOB) Major Bourne their first Chairman, and Mr. Robert McNiven Cuthbertson (aka Bobby Cuthbertson was also influential in the founding of the SOHDA, 1947) 'was a leader' amongst the group who founded the organization". "The first meeting was held in the hotel which following the difficulties after judging Balmoral that Day. Mr. Cuthbertson who was a judge had to be let out of the Secretaries tent from underneath the back of the tent. It was HE who asked me to meet a small group to help them try and build an organization as we had in that time in New Zealand."
Mr. Cameron contacted D.G. MacLennan, George Douglas Taylor and PM William Taylor to get their support. Best laid plans of mice and men and the personal likes and dislikes that are still prevalent in today's Highland organizations soon became apparent. Bobby Cutherbertson continued with the SOHDA whilst brother Willie apparently stayed with the SOBHD and from the small beginnings in the late 1940's the "Highland Hatfield and McCoy's" (allegorical nepotism and inbreeding prevalent, the only thing missing is the shotguns) have progressed to the present day.
Against the advice of then President Mr. Cameron, the Deputy President, Mr. Cruden in order to strengthen the group (SOB) and have a closer relation to Scotland applied for affiliation with the SOB. " At or about this time certain dancers in Scotland (not all good dancers) somehow sent the early work of the Academy to them (CW note SOBHD), and as will be seen from their first publications much of the Academy (Dancing NZ) recordings were a foundation to their work."
" His (I.D. Cameron) persistence in bringing before the dancing authorities in Scotland the work being done in New Zealand brought about the establishment of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing." (Piping and Dancing Assoc.1983. pg.41)"
The years and the arguments and the dissention roll on. 2003 finds the fledging SOBHD the largest of all the dancing organizations. USA, Canada totally under the control of the SOBHD there are no alternative organizations. Australia, South Africa predominately SOBHD, only in Victoria, Australia, New Zealand and the SOHDA Scotland are there to be found organizations that perpetuate the older dances in competition. In 1980 the Scottish Official Board added World Governing Body to its letterhead and because no one asked the question as to the "official designation" another Highland myth has become "history". With the perception have come the perks and the credibility that goes with the WGB status.
Would Mr. Cameron, I wonder have been so keen to help with the formation of the SOB all those years ago had he known that same organization is now causing dissent and distress in his beloved Piping and Dancing Association and the Academy?
The visit last year of the Chairperson Shendl Russell and Secretary Marjory Rowan stated that the Academy should they wish to include their work in its (SOBHD) syllabus this could only be done in accordance with the terms of the SOBHD rules. The Academy technique (the same one that formed the basis for the SOBHD's first publications) would be restricted to "concert work" and "only" the Board technique danced in competition. Ironic?
The Scottish Official Board through clever marketing, aligning itself with other organizations and yes it has to be said hard work at getting their organization to the fore, including the garnering of the Highland jewel "Cowal Championship" surpassed the older SOHDA in numbers of participants and members. SOHDA dancers are not allowed to compete at Cowal as it is run under SOBHD regulations which negates their dancers and judges). SOBHD, it has been alleged by many outwith the SOBHD, in order to quell the growth of any dancing body not affiliated with themselves also took on a "restrictive policy" for it's members and judges and those dancers that must register with the SOBHD. " the prevention of those registered with the Board (SOBHD) from becoming members or organizations outside its control".
Also " the ineligibility of a competitor or judge, who has taken part in any "so called" championship not recognized by the Board, to compete or adjudicate in any championship or competition under Board rules until "given permission" to do so by the Board". This can only be seen as the tool to negate the growth of the older organization SOHDA as it only effectively affects the SOHDA segment of the dancing population at this time. The SOBHD hold the monopoly of dance in most countries you either are with them or you don't compete. It seems they are in the fortunate position of being "accountable" only unto themselves.
November 2002 found the SOBHD wrestling with a change in their ruling, proposed by Cowal Champion Deryck Mitchelson. The proposal although backed by Cowal and the US affiliate FUSTA among others did not receive the necessary votes to pass. This action had the effect of effectively "closing off" SOBHD dancers from competing in the Celtic Connection Festival inaugural Highland dancing competition. A venue at which the Celtic arts etc. shine for an estimated 94,000. The competition was to be run by a member of the SOHDA, although OPEN to all dancers. No guns but Highland once again shoots itself in the foot. Infighting and posturing and pecking order took the dance of Highland off of the "big stage" and back into the cow pasture. Once more it is the art form that suffers at the hands of those that "claim" to hold it in their hearts.
Through the years there have been many who within and without the various organizations have fought and tried to do what could not be done in past decades. Those that see it is the art form, in all its forms, that needs to be promoted and protected not just the organizations. They seem to be in the minority.
November 2002 SOBHD found the Chairman Shendl Russell being returned to office. In an interview with this writer she states "It should be remembered that the SOBHD was formed in 1950 through a wish by the major Highland Dance Examining Bodies……" "The main function of the SOBHD has always been to bring about co-operation between recognized associations, organizations individuals and dancers connected with Highland Dancing" (CW note please focus on the word "recognized " in this statement VSU, SOHDA H&NDA etc are not "recognized") and it has done this very successfully."
Shendl who danced from the age of 4, " consider myself very fortunate in having Highland lessons from 3 of the greats Willie Cuthbertson (Bobby's brother) May Falconer and Elspeth Strathern, a teacher at 16, adjudicator at 21 and examiner (SDTA) 23.
"We should note the great male dancers who continue to contribute to Highland Dancing Gregor Bowman, Billy Forsyth, Gareth and Deryck Mitchelson" all Cowal World Champions however the 3 time World champion Victor Wesley is not among her greats.
Victor Wesley, as readers of this publication are well aware" has been an outspoken opponent of the restrictive practices of the SOBHD. He has spent many years working for the opening up of the Highland world. Many of Mr. Wesley's claims have been documented in these pages and others and as recently as May of 2002 formal complaints were made to various government agencies.
In response to the question with regard to the ongoing dispute with Mr. Wesley, Russell stated: "The Board has no ongoing dispute with Mr. Wesley" Mr. Wesley is fully aware that he would always be welcome to join the SOBHD through existing methods e.g. by joining a recognized examining body and Judges panel" (CW note Wesley (apart from his three titles and Director of the Wilmington Ballet and Academy of the Dance, Delaware is a member of SOHDA examining body and Independent adjudicator which are not recognized by the SOBHD). "The SOBHD has not been made aware of any official complaints by Mr. Wesley during this past year"
Contacting Mr. Wesley with this information his response. " How many times do I have to say this? I DO NOT WISH TO JOIN the SOBHD! I have no wish to be a SOBHD adjudicator! My concern and complaints against the SOBHD as an organization is their restrictive policy, which negates me from having students who wish to learn Highland in my studio in the USA from competing and effectively causes loss of income. This perception that I wish to be an SOBHD adjudicator is a myth put out through Billy Forsyth in an article in the Daily Mail 1993. I cannot understand since my attorneys and those of the Board had ongoing correspondence in March/April 2002 and Fusta (Federation of Untied States Teachers and Adjudicators) was contacted by Congressman Castle's aid how they can say that? But as always the answers, in my opinion are never direct and the memories are convenient"
Russell also states " In particular much has been made of statements made by Mr. Victor Wesley who has in my opinion spent so many YEARS saying THESE things THAT he now believes THEM to be true"
Russell's former teacher May Falconer SOBHD was a best friend with Examiner, adjudicator of the SOHDA Daisy McKenzie. Contacted on behalf of Celtic World for her thoughts on the past histories of Highland, Daisy launched herself across the 3,000 miles that separated us!
" I have no axe to grind. I have been involved with Highland dancing since before 1934. My best friend was May Falconer; we were both in the Highland Dancing Specialists Association. She decided to do what was right for her and went with the SOBHD. I could not condone the "thinking" of most of them and the way they were proceeding so I didn't join but May and I remained best friends all her life and I still have not gotten over her death!
However I want to stand and be counted! I will not tolerate deceit and lies! I have known Victor since he was a wee boy and you can rely on the fact that everything he said about his dancing and what has been done to him by that bunch is the TRUTH!
"I know Shendl, I knew her parents. I judged Cowal for many many years. I believe that I am well respected in my abilities. I judged Billy Forsyth when he won his worlds and now he sits across a table from me and says that in order to be a recognized adjudicator I have to sit his exam! Humph!!!, as I said to him well if I am not a qualified judge then YOU should turn in your World Title as I was on the panel that day when you won it! Are you saying that I am not qualified or competent to have given you a title!
"Over the years there has been manipulation of events, but I was there! I have a great many friends that are connected with the SOBHD and some great dancers that I respect but this restriction and not recognizing others in the dancing world is just wrong! It is my sincerest belief that this dancing should be open to everyone! These things should not be happening in dancing we are supposed to be guiding the children and the heritage, the caretakers not the takers!
Russell was asked to comment on the letters from the attorneys to the Board and to clarify one or two points; this information has not reached me before deadline She previously stated:
" Yes, the door is always open and swings both ways. There must be a reason the majority of Highland dancers around the world are dancing SOBHD. No one is holding a gun to our heads! Acceptance of any other organization is always welcome but within the SOBHD rules and regulations. We must always maintain the historical integrity of the past 50 years plus years."
In 1980 the man who helped the fledging find its wings stated " Above all we must fight to keep our Academy and preserve the rights of our teachers, judges and students" I.D. Cameron
To be continued?
As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at
Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.