By Loraine Ritchey
Edinburgh Tattoo takes centre stage in Highland dance dispute
by Bruce Campbell and sources
Over the last two years a storm has been brewing in the somewhat sedate and peaceful world of Highland dancing. Claims of deception and bias are being freely thrown about. The cause? The stance taken by the Edinburgh-based Scottish Official Board of Highland Dance.
The majority of people would not even know that there is any other body, and that is the way the SOBHD like it according to some. CelticWorld's North American correspodent Loraine Ritchey has been a strident advocate for a freedom of choice between the various styles espoused by the SOBHD and its rival, SOHDA - ironically both based in the Lothians.
Even more to the point there is no alternative to SOBHD in Loraine's resident Ohio, but that she points out is the heart of the matter. It seems that dancers, and teachers, are not allowed to make choices. Contests are run to SOBHD rules and dancers learn the steps taught by their teachers - who themselves make up the governing bodies.
In the last few years the existence, and popularity, of the SOHDA style has been brought to the public forefront by a series of heated discussions taking place on the world's cyber traffic lanes and in publications like CelticWorld and the massive readership USA magazine, Dancer. That has seen Cowal Highland Games enter the battlefield as it claims to run the World Highland Dancing Championship.
The only problem is that it (Cowal Gathering) is only open to members of SOBHD, so countless thousands of dancers from organisations in Australia, New Zealand and Scotland cannot take part.
While for their part SOHDA has been unbelievably moribund in promoting its own cause, and it would seem that like boxing there is room for another 'World' championship while Cowal continue their exclusionist policy, it has been largely a problem for Highland dancers to sort out. That the situation has hit the British national mainstream press with a couple of related incidents and stories hasn't done much to alter the fact that it is largely a dance problem.
The new unwitting player on the block is the prestigious Edinburgh Military Tattoo, next year set to honour the Queen.
A correspondent continues with the saga:
"In 2000 the Edinburgh tattoo came to New Zealand for a memorable series of performances. Afterwards an invitation was sent to New Zealand's Piper and Dancer Association to send 15 dancers to the Edinburgh 2002 Tattoo - the 50th anniversary year. This was widely known from the start but no-one was informed as to how the selected few would be picked.
"Rumours began about a couple of months ago that some dancers had received 'special' invitations. Speculation abounded as to what was happening but the official line was that no-one had been asked. Then the NZP&D centres received a letter from Dominion council asking for them to put forward the names of dancers they felt were interested. The criteria was that dancers who danced at the Tattoo when it was in New Zealand would have preference but this was an opportunity for others to have their name put forward.
People seemed happy with this until it hit the fan. Some of New Zealand's top dancers were completely overlooked. It also appeared that the lists were over looked. Among those asked were retired dancers, and dancers only 13-years-old, whereas fit and able 18 and Over dancers were not contacted. It seems that some dancers had been asked months ago as the rumours suggested. There were dancers who had not danced at the New Zealand Tattoo, while top 18 and Over dancers, who did dance at the Tattoo were not even aware that people had been picked.
Three particular examples stood out - Dancer A was a recent past New Zealand champion of champion, 18 years and Over, (still competitive) and had not been asked.
Dancer B was a top dancer from the 18 and Over class, who was going to be in Europe at that time, completely unaware that dancers had been asked.
Dancer C was the 2000 and 2001 Under 16 New Zealand Champion yet was not going. These were just a few.
The official line was dancers were picked on ability and maturity. They needed dancers who could learn the dances fast and perform all the movements. When questioned more deeply, however, the powers at be were unable to really answer the question.
After all, there were dancers going who were only 13 or 14, whereas top 18 and Over dancers, some with university degrees, were overlooked. It is also interesting to note that one of the dancers asked to go was an organiser's 40-something -year-old daughter." The saga has, understandably, caused a major rift amongst New Zealand's dancers.
It is no secret that at the current time SOBHD is woo-ing the NZP&D. Previously they imposed lifetime bans on New Zealand's dancers who returned to NZP&D after competing in Scotland. Further to the New Zealand situation we were told by Mark Forshaw: "It is my understanding that New Zealand Highland dancers intending to participate at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 2002 will be required to register with the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing and will be required to abide by the rules of the Scottish Official Board. "This is to inform people concerned that registration forms will be available shortly from ScotDance New Zealand. "
ScotDance New Zealand is a new body set up under the auspices of the Edinburgh-based SOBHD. Already there is a body in Scotland called ScotDance, which is run by , the same man who not only choreographed the New Zealand Tattoo but also the Edinburgh Tattoo - and ultimately who selects dancers for the Edinburgh Tattoo.
Billy, a past world champion and dancer of high repute, also assisted in the formation of a Canadian off-shoot, ScotDance Canada.
Alan Smith, the Marketing Manager of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, was contacted.
"Dancers are selected for the show on the basis of achieving a good technical standard together with meeting the specific needs of a particular dance component and not through membership of an official governing body," he said. "Our long-serving and successful Dance Director, Billy Forsyth, who is currently preparing for the 2002 Tattoo, chooses the United Kingdom participants each year by means of audition. "Overseas dance groups are invited to appear from time to time by the Tattoo Producer. "The Edinburgh Tattoo is not affiliated to any Highland dance organisation.
OK, so when and where are the auditions? Are they 'open' to both Board and Academy?
Billy Forsyth was contacted to further clarify what has fast become a very murky plot.
"I have been the Director of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo Highland Dancers for the last ten years," he replied. "I can confirm that I will be responsible for the Highland Dance component of the 2002 Edinburgh Military Tattoo. "To the best of my knowledge neither Mark Forshaw nor Scotdance NZ has any connection with the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and therefore is unable to speak on behalf of the Tattoo. "The SOBHD has no involvement in the selection of dancers for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
"(SOBHD) is the organisation which the majority of people turn to in the Highland Dance world for advice and information, represents the vast majority of those involved in Highland Dancing around the world, and is accepted by them as the de-facto World Governing Body."
Billy Forsyth later added: "The only Highland dancers individually invited to perform at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo were soloists who joined the Highland dance group for specific performances, all other dancers taking part were selected from open auditions.
"However all items taking part in the Edinburgh Military Tattoo do so at the invitation of the Producer of the Tattoo. "Once again I advise that the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing has no input to the selection of dancers for the Tattoo."
So, where were the 'Open' auditions - and how was the dance world told of their existence?
A series of calls made to prominent persons within the Highland dance world revealed that they knew nothing of this open process.
"As yet no arrangements have been made to select dancers for my group for the 2002 Tattoo," Billy Forsyth added later in a letter to Loraine Ritchey.
"I am not aware of any substantial circulation of your column (referring to Loraine's vast readership) in Scotland and I am not involved in the personnel of groups from overseas who have been invited directly by the Tattoo Producer, so I can't see a benefit to me from the probable publishing of information after the event."
Calls have been put in to the Tattoo Producer but at the time of going to press no contact had been made. But it would seem clear that at least some individuals are using the bait of appearing in the 2002 Edinburgh Tattoo as a means of securing the future of ScotDance New Zealand.
An official tattoo release states that: "The 2002 Edinburgh Military Tattoo will run over the period 2 - 24 August 2002 and will commemorate Her Majesty The Queen's Golden Jubilee. "With the largest Pipes & Drums from Scotland and the Commonwealth ever to grace the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle; pomp & ceremony from the Tri-Service Bands of the Royal Marines, the Army and Royal Air Force; the Bands from 'Down Under'; Commonwealth Highland Dancers along with acts from across the globe and the haunting sound of the Lone Piper."
The majestic backdrop of Edinburgh Castle may yet prove a suitable tapestry for the continuing and escalating war between Highland dancing's rival factions.
Bruce Campbell (Editor and coffee boy)
Celtic World (incorporating Highland Gathering, established 1986). The best selling Celtic cultural monthly.
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