Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

Cowal and Co "It is about children! Vera Patterson"
It has been over a year since I stopped writing about Highland for various publications. Things were left unfinished. I have struggled with writing about my friend and teacher of Highland Vera ( Miller) Patterson after her untimely death last year. Many times I have sat at the computer writing, deleting, writing deleting. The words did not flow easily.

How could I with mere words communicate the feelings of loss and also her multifaceted personality? “Controversial” her words not mine, “oh dear , I am very controversial, when I retire from Highland for good I am going to write a book. ”. In fact the month prior to her death she and I had indeed started on the outline. Like Vera it was going to be multifaceted from dance technique to politics. The fact that she was taken before she could realize her wish was indeed sad for the Highland Dance Community. The stories alone throughout her dancing , teaching and judging career would have made great reading; now just bits and snippets sit in my Pandora’s Box from her many letters to me over the years. Sadly for Highland her knowledge of dance was also lost when she died.

It is true she had passed on a great deal of knowledge to her loyal students through her teaching . Hugh Bigney, the last Adult Native born American World Champion 1973 stated in an article http://www.lritch7.tripod.com

“Vera Miller. Mrs. Miller or V.P., as she is affectionately known was at that time teaching in a small city on the shores of Lake Erie, Lorain, Ohio. "Vera, has had the greatest effect on my work as a dancer, more than just the Highland, she taught me proper alignment and how to tap into the physical strength that I have as a male dancer. When I saw John Schlesinger’s film Madam Sousatska, I thought immediately of my relationship with Vera. She taught me to be an artist in everything that I do, not just when I was performing, and yes! I was that young impatient boy!! A few weeks ago I was speaking with my parents, who summed it up, "you went to Vera because she was the best Highland Teacher in North America!" Vera unlocked my potential. There is no quick fix in achieving excellence. I recall spending one solid week on the first step of the Sailor's (Hornpipe) trying to get it right. I would work more than eight hours a day in Vera's kitchen. She would come and go, teaching between the activities of her day. Vera would say "is where you are supposed to be, on the count, but make it look effortless". This is how I became a champion, and like most dancers I had other activities. I was the star of my track team in school, team captain, and vice-president of my class. I was a good student and attended church daily! To find time to practice I would get up before 6 each morning and work. I still do this!" At the age of 18 (the youngest to do so) Hugh won the Adult World Championship at Cowal. "Having accomplished my goal, becoming a World Champion like Mr. James L Mackenzie my career as a Highland Dancer was complete."

Vera, in her last conversation to me she simply said “ I have so much I want to say and teach the world about Highland, and I want to write it down, will you help me. I want to make it a package with the CD and a book and I want it done properly” I said I would and that was our last conversation a week before she left us. Ironically I received a last letter the weekend of her passing.

Memories come flooding back, I remember the first time I saw Vera. My daughter was 8 we had had trouble finding out any information about Highland and teaching. Vera, who had lived in Lorain at one time, was requested to return by a former student to give a workshop. I remember the flurry of activity , how our teacher at the time , rushed to paint , make sure there was a “proper platform”- we mothers and the children were lectured as to how to behave . “My god I thought are we getting a Madam Sousatska for these three days” It seems Hugh Bigney and I share more than a birthday .

Mothers were rushed off and the children deposited into the basement studio. Time came for the end of workshop day, it had fallen to me to take Mrs. Patterson or VP out to supper. I waited with trepidation as to what would greet me , my imagination running wild -when a cap of shining auburn hair and a smile that lit up a room on the a diminutive little lady who held out a graceful hand for introduction came into my view. “This can’t be the Highland Dance teacher who caused so much flurry for weeks since her announced arrival” I expected , well I am not sure what -a harridan of some sort, certainly not the person who stood before me.
We bonded that weekend and it was a friendship that lasted for 22 years. She was an artist in the truest sense of the word and I loved her.

So what has happened that finally 15 months after her death I can at last put something down, although the tears still are making my glasses wet and the words blur? COWAL!!! Happened this past weekend, Hugh Bigney on his Birthday August 24th 33 years ago had won Cowal. Cowal is and was the ultimate achievement. Vera was once more in my thoughts big time. Things have changed and things have stayed the same.

Cowal is now the World championship for the SOBHD technique of Highland Dance. The SOBHD test their judges in the ability to judge SOBHD technique, They are the governing body of the SOBHD technique . Teachers are taught and tested in SOBHD technique. Dancers who dance at Cowal are taught SOBHD technique ONLY. It is textbook dancing and the judges adjudicate on the textbook so why are placements all over the board. http://www.toeandheel.com What is the reasoning?

Dancers and parents etc. on the message boards are questioning http://www.danceart.com the apparent discrepancies. Subjective ness and style of dance cannot be used as an argument when it is the SOBHD TECHNIQUE that is being judged, for "if judges were adjudicating on style and dance" then it would follow that dancers outwith the SOBHD technique would be allowed to compete.

No Cowal is 100% SOBHD and 80% of the mark is SOBHD technique leaving 10% of a dancers “style” to the argument of subjective ness. Is there politics involved? Of Course there is , when a body is not held accountable on any level, including the judges it is inevitable , just read the comments on the forums “ if you complain you end up being blackballed” etc. Is it true? Doesn’t matter, SOBHD aficionados the perception is there and therefore perception becomes reality and is reality. The arguments of “sour grapes” thrown like so much confetti!

Dancers, teachers, parents are all bringing into your coffers and the surrounding district - money , they are spending thousands to reach this “Judging Place known as Cowal. The dancers and your supporters deserve a level playing field and I for one don’t believe the discrepancy in the judges placements over the years and this year that the playing field is level. Past years have seen the Chairman of SOBHD at the time trying to remove a judge from a panel (Russell vs. Mitchelson) accusation in writing. So it follows that even the Chairman at the time had a problem with politics??? WHY what would make her think it was a possibility?

The argument "you weren’t there" - well to me makes no never mind. I don’t have to be there to see the anomaly , "you’re not a judge etc." No I am not but I can read and I can tell, as others can, when things don’t add up. Time for Cowal to step up to the platform and change the perception!!! Do the Math and the linkage! I wonder if the solution will be to no longer post the judges results, that has been a solution used before.

The one thing that Vera repeated over and over again was “They have to remember it is about the children!” It is something the SOBHD and the political posers would do well to remember. Vera , my friend the phone call I would've received from you after this years "Judgement at Cowal" is missed just as you are , I can hear your words as if you were here . You were special and wonderful and loved your dances of Scotland above all else. I am sorry that I haven't the talent to do you justice.

As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at

Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.