By Loraine Ritchey
"The New Lords of the Dance" so reads the title of an article by Steve McGrail in the autumn edition of "Scottish Life". Only one other article has caused my phone to ring and my letterbox to fill, that being the article "Who would be a Dancing Judge" by Charlie Mill. Obviously those involved with highland are well read and become very defensive about their chosen art form.
The article, for the benefit of "Dancer's" readers, who are unaware of the contents, asks the question "Is Highland Dance Dying?" Mr. McGrail states, "Out of all the styles of Scottish Dancing, it is maybe Highland Dancing (the one most commonly seen at Highland Games) which is most art risk. To some in Scotland it may be no bad thing if this goes under. Such dancing they say, bears little resemblance to true Highland Dance, anyway." This is just one of the statements in a four-page article that has caused the increase in my mail and phone calls. "Highland dancing may be it's own worst enemy in other ways as well. It's laden with rules at every turn. These can even extend to clothing so that a competitor can lose points for incorrect dress. Rules about steps are very rigid, and many of them were brought in during the 1950's …"(SOBHD).
The article goes on to state, "Overseeing the rules are several bodies. The main two in Scotland are the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) and the Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association (SOHDA). These two disagree about "what's correct" with actual dance being the loser, in some peoples view. The fear is that Highland is losing many participants to the current phenomenon Irish Dancing and that the standardization in Highland has caused a great many of the lesser known dances and forms of dance to be lost."
Readers of this column in "Dancer" will be aware of the two main groups mentioned in "Scottish Life 's " article the SOBHD and SOHDA. However, as of three years ago a special organization has been set to look at the problems, The Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust, Edinburgh. The past few days I have spoken with many teachers, judges and dancers both here (USA) and in the UK. The USA and Canada are exclusively governed by the SOBHD. The SOBHD, each year sends out to teachers the "competition Championship steps" to be danced for that year in Championship Competition. These steps are taken from their own (SOBHD) own official textbook. Competitions in this country and others are "closed" meaning that only SOBHD may compete at a sanctioned SOBHD competition. This is not the case in other parts of the world Scotland in particular. This is of course where the conflicts come in.
The consensus of opinion from the numerous sources that I have interviewed seem to agree that one group tends to look at Highland as more of a sport, the focus being technical whilst the other group leans more in the direction of artistry. This is of course and oversimplification and the pros and cons would fill all of "Dancer's" pages. A sampling of the discussions being
"I think that some of the standardization is necessary, prior to the 1950's when I danced and east coast (Scotland) could not compete in the west as the style was different"……"without standardization today it would be a free for all!!"….There has to be some base line for a judge to look at. In the past there were complaints of bias from one area to another, real or not there were definite problems for dancers, judges and organizers of competitions.
Ninety five percent of the people I talked to from both Scottish organizations felt some standardization is necessary. It is the degree to which is has been taken that has some people concerned. One of the concerns of course is the fact that dancers are spending their time solely on "this years set steps (SOBHD). Although only required in Championships, dancers tend to be dancing the "set steps" year around in non-championship competitions. The logical reason being of course the more you compete them during the year, the more comfortable the dance becomes with the steps. They are also "previewing" before the big Championship.
Also, competition organizers Are requiring the "same" dances at each competition. (Note "The New Lords of the Dance article pointed out that the Irish Dancers had the audiences clapping and stomping at the "Fair" whereas the Highland dancers audience seemed to be made up of mothers and polite applause. Could it be the reason for the demise is boredom!)?
However one or two competitions are getting a little daring. Windsor, Ontario included this past year "A tribute to J.L. Mackenzie" and very recently "The Cake Walk". The dancers thoroughly enjoyed the "new " dances and different costumes "but" not everyone was pleased. Some teachers felt that learning the dances too up valuable lesson time having to teach a dance that was rarely if ever competed. (SOBHD).
NOTE" You may read the four page article "The New Lords of the Dance" by contacting Scottish Life and requesting the Autumn (Fall) edition for the year 1998.
As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at
Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.