Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey



His article "Who Would be a Dancing Judge?" caused quite a stir among my readers. I was finally able to contact Mr. Mill and through him I was introduced to other dancing organizations, teachers, dancers and points of view. When I read Charlie's article, I had no idea, being a dancing mum from the USA who had been writing about the Highland Dance scene that there were indeed other organizations worldwide. I thought the SOBHD was "the only one". I certainly had never heard of any other. I have on many occasions tried to get responses to questions from the SOBHD. This has proved a one sided correspondence. Even teachers and judges would "clam-up" "no press". When I read this article, I was amazed that anyone would be so forthright, as that was not a trait that I was used to seeing. AH!!! Turns out that there are other dancing organizations world -wide and the members do tend to speak their minds. I would like very much to introduce you to Mr. Mill through his writings.

The first in the series has to be the one that started it all for me.

"Who would be a Dancing Judge?"

By Charlie Mill

The Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, the Sean Triubhas, the Reel of Tulloch - these are just some of the titles which go to make up the dancing programmes at today's Highland gatherings. The many thousand of spectators watching the dancers perform on the dancing platform will no doubt admire the colour and splendor of an art that has taken the dancer many years of practice, hard work and more practice to achieve the level of perfection maintained by today's exponents.This skill is displayed through the well-known dances which will delight many an audience, but underneath each let's not forget the reason that dancers gather at these many venues- they have assembled to pit their individual skills and techniques against each other in friendly competition, making the job of the dancing adjudicators a very difficult task indeed.

Over the years I have regularly corresponded with diverse dancing associations from all four corners of the globe and it is amazing to note the various methods each body (organization) has regarding different types of steps, arm and head movements, dress and, on some occasions, differing versions of the "lesser known" National dances.

"No Freedom of Choice"

I, as a dancing teacher, adjudicator and examiner, would gladly welcome and "opening-up" of restrictions that occur at some of today's gatherings. To see dancers doing "their own thing" would be a pleasant change from the present "set-up" where dancers are brainwashed as to what steps to perform for each dance, what to wear, and even to the point of stipulating which competition or games to attend and which to avoid, giving the individual no freedom of choice-and, like sheep, many connected with the dancing circuit follow happily along, oblivious of the rut they are allowing themselves to be stuck in.

Over the last few years adjudicators have been confronted on the dancing platforms by replicas-same outfits, same steps, even same hairstyles-clones of one another! No individualism!

I recall stating in a previous article I penned that nowadays there are some brilliant dancers on the scene- but no characters! Let's face it -it's characters who make up every sporting activity, individuals who with their own style, own methods, own ideas, keep an entertaining interest going in their own specific sport. Extinguish these characters and the life of the sport dies!

This is what is happening to Highland Dancing because the participants aren't being allowed to express themselves in their own way! I see many magnificently gifted dancers today having to suppress their obvious talents because they adhere to restrictions, which hold them back and so leave no advancement for their abilities to develop.

In the days when I competed, I was privileged to dance alongside, and become great friends with all the champion dancers of the day- all individuals, all great characters - and all out to enjoy themselves at every gathering - win or lose! This enjoyment spread to every adjudicating panel and it was obvious by the smiles on the faces of the adjudicators that it was a joy to watch these entertainers with their own special brand of individualism and excellence.

I very much doubt if there will be any smiles from any of today's adjudicators, myself included, as if it often a long and arduous task nowadays trying to differentiate the "sameness" of our present-day participants.

"Scottish Faults!"

Let's take the individual dances in turn and I will attempt to point out the movements, positions, etc. that separate the good dancers from the brilliant!

The Highland Fling is a man's solo dance performed on the one spot. A repetitive movement used during this traditional dance is "shedding" (known in the Southern Hemisphere as "flinging") For the non-dancers among us, this just means that the working foot is moved from the back of the supporting leg (3rd rear aerial position- or in the Southern Hemisphere, 5th aerial position) to the front of the supporting leg (3rd aerial position). The working foot should "hug" the calf and the shinbone of the supporting leg- most of today's dancers will do this-but watch out for many of the competitors stopping short in 3rd aerial position. Instead of the foot landing directly vertical against the supporting leg, sometimes it barely passes halfway round! Just a little error, but when the same fault is repeated continuously throughout the dance then the marks start to drop!

Another "favourite fault" repeated during the highland Fling is the turning in of the supporting foot. Perhaps the contestant is so aware of acquiring a good turn-out of the working foot with the knee pushed well back, or the toe pointed in 2nd position in line with the supporting heel, that during the four hops of each bars of music the supporting foot may start being turned out of the 45 degrees from the Line of Direction!

The basic object of the "Sword Dance" is to perform and complete the intricate movements in a circular pattern over and around the crossed blades without touching or dislodging the swords. When the working foot is in action over the sword, could I ask you to keep your eye on the supporting foot- the supporting heel in particular!

As the dance progresses, whether it be through weariness or lack of constant practice, the heel starts to drop lower and lower, and no matter how high and precise the working foot may be, the appearance and stature of the performance is marred by this "unbalanced" footwork.

"Strength and Stamina!"

The most graceful and beautiful of all Highland Dances is the Sean Triubhas (Gaelic for "torn" trews or trousers) an is a man's solo dance requiring strength and stamina from the performer, whose job it is to make the dance appear carefree and effortless! This is why there should be no exaggerated leaps or jerky movements, and the fault I see creeping in is made during the Travel Balance Movement.

I have many excellent books and dance sheets that I have collected over the years and nowhere in any of them does the description of the Travel Balance contain the word "spring" The various wording which explains the movements are - step RF back, or close LF to" or step RF forward". In other words it is actually a "walk back and walk forward" but there are still many of our prominent dancers who insist on bouncing and springing their way through this simple movement!

The Reel be it Hullachan, Strathspey and Highland Reel, or Reel of Tulloch, is a lively dance for two men and two women and the exuberance and gaiety of the foursome can and should be expressed during it's entirety. So how is it nowadays the four competitors go through the various formations and steps with faces that would turn Medusa to stone? So, com on, dancers, let's get it over to your audiences, enjoy yourselves- surely it is not asking too much to show a little expression of delight every now and again!

There is a certain point during the Strathspey movement that really makes me cringe- that is on the eighth bar of this movement. After describing seven progressive Strathspey movements following in the Line of Travel most of our dancers finish with an assemble and leap during the last bar. There are quite a few dancers attempting to execute to exaggerated leaps during the four counts of the bar, and on seeing four dancers "taking off", "leaping" and "landing" all at different times is often reminds me of those "dancing" table tennis balls on jets of water you see at the carnival fairground! I mentioned this to a few of my adjudicating colleagues and all agreed unanimously how awkward and silly the movement appeared and they would also like to see an end to it!

"National Errors!"

If you care to look up a dictionary for the definition of the "Sailor's Hornpipe" it will say something like- "a dance performed by seaman depicting the everyday working duties he would encounter while on board ship, hauling ropes, climbing the rigging, swabbing decks, etc." With this in mind, the adjudicator, as well as evaluating the intricate footwork, should also be looking for a competitor who "looks" like a sailor- and I don't mean just the uniform! I sincerely believe we in Scotland are in a deep rut regarding our Hornpipe armwork- limiting it to the repeating of four or five well-used actions. What a breath of fresh air we are getting from our cousins in the Southern Hemisphere- (VSU and NZ) -not only is their footwork "nautical", their armwork puts our dancers to shame in the way they "look" very much like sailors- watch them and see the difference.

What the adjudicators keep and eagle eye out for in the "Irish Jig" are beats, shuffles and character. This dance, which is meant to represent the rantings and raving of a mad Irishwoman, contains intricate footwork along with "wild" arm movements. The fault I see being repeated over and over again during the second and last steps is the shuffle movement. This consists of a small outward brush followed by a small inward brush- two "sounds". Yet many of our top dancers don't even make contact with the dancing platform when executing this simple movement- the leg is just flicked to the side and the shuffle is done somewhere in mid-air!

It is true to say, but if it weren't for these silly little mistakes then the adjudicator's job would be a much harder task. Although, I have mentioned only a few of the many errors constantly being done, to the eagle-eyed adjudicator these are only the tip of the iceberg. Obviously, if I were to list in detail every little regular mistake that can and does occur, my descriptions would become too technical and boring to the non-dancer.

So I will say, enjoy the dancing you see when spectating at the next Highland Games you attend and leave the difficult task of adjudicating the "differences" to the adjudicators, whose job will be to separate the dancers into prizewinners and non-prizewinners. It is a pity that some competitors will leave the games field empty-handed, but they will depart knowing that they have gained more knowledge and experience in their gradual build-up to reach a higher plane and knowing all competitors will have been adjudicated as individuals whether they be of differing "standards"- a word I try to avoid using, as Highland Dancing, whether it be done by the raw beginner or by today's new young teachers, at the various games it is there to be competed for, but deep down it is there to be enjoyed- let's not forget that!

Charlie Mill is an adjudicator with the SOHDA. He was recently invited to be the first non New Zealander to judge the very prestigious 70th Anniversary, Highland and National Championships, New Zealand. He also judges Royal Braemar. (BIO to follow in a later article) Charlie's writing appears with his permission.

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

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