By Loraine Ritchey
"What Was I Thinking?" By Loraine Ritchey
Have we gone too far? What makes the competitive parent tick? The following was a letter on one of the many messages boards that relate to dance and in this case Highland Dance. "It has been interesting to read all the discussions about the intensity of competition but it has left me wondering if maybe it has gotten too intense. I can remember when my daughter started to dance it was rare to dance outside your home area, certainly no further than a few hours drive and now it seems that very young children are being encouraged to travel further and further to compete and "be seen". Is it getting out of hand? We all know that highland is more about individual accomplishment than other sports as there is little monetary incentive and certainly little scholarship potential so how has it come to be that children aren't considered "serious" about their dancing if their parents aren't willing for financial, personal or other reasons to travel extensively for competition I really struggle with this dilemma, because like every parent I want my child to reach her full potential but it is hard to justify the expense and time commitment required to compete at a higher level."
Over the Christmas holidays my family and I went to a resort in Michigan, most of the "crew" were moaning and groaning as to the length of the drive. However, to me it was "just another dance lesson". My daughter and I made that drive, all but the last 89 miles, to go to dance lessons on a Sunday. 256 miles one way a two to three hour lesson and back in the car for the 4 and ½ hour drive home again. As our drive progressed and the hours and miles ticked by I asked myself "What was I thinking to have spent 10 hours on the road for a dance lesson?" Yes, I told myself I was giving my daughter the best opportunity by going to a teacher that was knowledgeable not only in Highland but also more importantly to me in the mechanics of the body. I had seen too many injuries and too many hobbling dance teachers with knee and back problems caused through poor training. Still in hindsight I asked myself why would I have spent a small fortune yearly on travel and competitions and outfits and I am certainly not alone, mothers and fathers were giving up time and money that may have been put to better use so their dancer could come home with a trophy! Would it not have been easier instead of asking my child's body to adapt to the art form, which demanded a pointed foot and arch when her feet were apparently not suited for it to find another dance form or sport. And why did none of the previous teachers ever mention that her arch was a problem, I would assume because of their limited knowledge of the body they just got annoyed when she was unable to point that foot to the judges liking. Why did I not say " enough!" after taking her to a specialist because of the shin splints? Instead I looked for a knowledgeable teacher and drove 10 hours when it would have been easier to just stop dancing. What did I think would happen if I didn't sacrifice for my child's interest? Was the world going to stop, would she have been seen as imperfect, a loser, would I?
Our child doesn't beg to sit for hours in a car, to be woken up change into the outfit, warm up to dance in front of a few judges and a usually unappreciative audience? Is there great notoriety, fame, and money? No! We parents are initially the ones who decide to put our children into an art form or sport. Do we decide on Highland, as "we want them to experience the culture, share the memories Yes, there is that aspect but in all honesty it would have been cheaper to take the whole family to Scotland every year for a holiday and experience the culture first hand.
Dance books will say it is for the culture, lifelong friendships not necessarily the trophies (which usually end up in a box in an attic). However you can form lifelong friendships without Highland in the equation. Lets face it is the "competitive parent" that enables the competitor, that finances, chauffeurs and decides how much effort the family will expend on an art form or sport. So why do we do it? Yes of course there is small group who have had mothers and grandmothers who have been Highland dancers and teachers so it has become a family business. The Scots who immigrated to North America, whose life revolves around "Scottish life" maybe it eases the homesickness and gives one a sense of belonging.
Culture? Well it seems the ex-pats (no matter how many generations they are removed from the "old country" at least in North America take more of an ownership than do the native Scots. The local Highland games were in full swing when I was entertaining guests from the other side of the pond at the local hotel. The lobby doors swung open and bubbling and frothing through the lobby like a stream falling over itself on the best Highland hillside entered the "clans". Forty or so individuals, all of the "plus size" and over 50 ilk dressed from head to toe in various tartans lay siege to the front desk. "How embarrassing " said the native Scot to my left "what are these people dressed that way for?" I explained that the Highland Games were in the area and usually the "clan members" stayed at this hotel. "But why are they dressed like that? do they think we in Scotland run around in fancy dress, that is for the tourists."
I thought of the thousands of dollars I had spent and the time and effort writing a column promoting at least one part of that culture and quietly had another drink, heeding the old English saying of "when in doubt say nowt!" and quickly changed the flow of the conversation to the weather!
A fellow-dancing mum told me once "Highland is addictive!" She too was bound and determined that her children would get the proper training and every advantage. I think of her and the others often; the mums who drove through all sorts of weather vans packed with gear, lugging the stuff into hotel rooms, making sure every pleat was pressed and the jackets fitted like a glove. The watching and taping and looking for the "edge". I wonder what happened to the mum who couldn't afford to stay in hotels very often; she and her daughter would pull off to the side of the road in the rest areas to sleep for a couple of hours before traveling on. Not forgetting all important trophies and medals, the competition results, who kicked the sword unnoticed by what judge and what were they looking for anyway being discussed over and over on the drives home.Culture? No I am not sure the vast majority is doing this for the "culture".
Life lessons? Well that was a possibility because you can certainly learn a lot about "politics" "fair play or not" "being a good sport" and yes the kids do learn that practice makes perfect. But why are we parents putting all this effort into something like a dance or sport when very few will reap the rewards. In Highland, of course, even the top dancers fare badly when compared to other "world class athletes" or professions. We risk injuring our children by going to teachers that in the majority receive no training from the Highland hierarchy and their "dancing bodies such as the BATD UKA etc. We sit quietly by letting decisions that affect our children be "proclaimed" and say nothing. The most outspoken of us keeping quiet for the sake of not drawing attention to our offspring in case they suffer the wrath of the judge or dancing body for being a "bad parent". Is it ignorance well I can at least say for my excuse it was. I trusted that the "professionals" knew what they were doing however even after I woke up and smelled the coffee I still drove those miles and paid those dollars. "Why? What was I thinking?"
Still the mothers and fathers take their kids to the competitions all over the country and the world getting up at dawn to "be seen" by those that can make a difference in their child's dancing career, one that usually ends early or late teens for most. We will worry about the costumes, how much practice; can we afford an extra private this month? We will rationalize our behavior as normal and for the sake of culture and friendship and one day when you put the Christmas decorations away in the attic and move that heavy box of trophies and medals maybe you too will wonder "what was I thinking?"
As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at
Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.