Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

“Just what are THEY looking for anyway???” By Loraine Ritchey

As each mother and dad watches intently their dancer on the platform, comments can be heard, “oohh she missed that second, don’t drop the heel, lift! lift! lift!, keep going! Keep going!” and the inevitable sigh of relief when that dreaded sword dance has been completed without the clang of the sword moving. Their dancer no longer the main focus the parents and teachers turn to the others in the group; their vantage point different to those of those all-important judges.

Parents and sometimes teachers who have traveled hours in some cases so one or two judges (in the case of a championship more than two judges) decide how well your dancer performs the dances of Scotland. It matters not which Highland Dancing organization you belong to at the end of the day it is down to a mere few to decide whether the expense, the travel and commitment was worth it on the day. The largest of the dancing organizations, the Scottish Official Board of highland Dancing and under whose rules the prestigious Cowal Championship aka “The Worlds” decides which candidates will be successful in adjudicating their (SOBHD) technique. The SOHDA and VSU and NZ also have examination procedures for deciding who is capable of judging.

How many times have those who pack up the dancing gear at the end of the day (no matter the country) rehashed the adjudication on the day? In the case of small competitions where there is only one judge the phrase “ Judge A never liked me I don’t know why we bother coming when she/he is the only judge” or “ Judge B always bring in dancer so and so as she is friendly with the teacher”, “the studio brings her in for workshops” or “so and so goes to their workshops” or even “Judge C used to be a dancer and went to their teacher’s teacher!”

Blame it on politics, nepotism (once or twice removed), inadequacy, you name it the conversations going to the parking lot, the flurry of emails to the highland dancing lists decrying “poor judging” and the inevitable “parents shouldn’t criticize the judges, they are the professionals “etc. are found all over the highland dancing world.

Can an audience perspective be dismissed so lightly? My theatre background caused me many problems when my daughter was dancing. As any director will tell you to get the full perspective of a performers ability when auditioning you sit in the middle of the theatre, a performer looks over the orchestra pit and to the back row. Feet are usually hidden on a proscenium stage by foot lights so therefore the “body” and mainly the upper body becomes the primary focus. In fact the body becomes almost as important as the “interpretation of lines” and in some case more so. The actor can communicate with his body language a deeper level of character portrayal than just through voice and line phrasing. So my frustration as a dance parent was magnified when I would see the placement of adjudicators three feet or four feet away from the three of four dancers before them,” there was no way” I thought “they are getting the full picture of the performer”.

My dancer who had been told play to the back of the house, was she penalized for not playing to the judges? How could the judges see the traveling, not the side to side but the difficulty from their position of a dancer who traveled up and back but started and ended the fling in the same place. Do adjudicators really only “glance up” to check when arms positions change? My own frustration with an American champion who continually hit herself on the head with her limp tulip hand positions (quite frankly any dance corps mistress in the theatre would’ve cut her audition short), the pumping body of another like a concertina and the grimaces and head positions of yet another used to drive me to distraction. However, since these dancers were regularly in the top spot for the prizes my opinion wasn’t shared by highland judging professionals. . Why I would ask are these dancers continually brought in?

“AH it is how well they perform the technique of the SOBHD steps for that year” I was told, the turn out etc. “Why then didn’t the judges sit at the side of the platform” I thought as that turnout from the front was causing pretzel like contortions from the side and back? Yes! I too would leave the bleachers with many questions and very little answers.

Parents seem to be the last to know, we are continually second guessing what we need to do to please those judges. Judging we are told is subjective, but just what is our child being judged on? Is the lower part of the body from the waist down the basis for at least the SOBHD adjudicating (the one with which I was familiar in the USA)?

Since the SOBHD have declared it a “sport” is it indeed how well those few steps from the SOBHD syllabus are performed. The ranking seems to indicate that is the case, 80% technique, 10 % costume and 10% artistic ability. Is this the reason why there are those discrepancies in judge’s placement when more adjudicators get together to judge a championship? The one judge giving 1st another 2nd and another a 5th for the same dancer, can it be that two adjudicators are adjudicating solely based on the 80% technique of how well the feet and legs are performing the steps and positions, focus on the lower body and yet another is interpreting that technique as a “whole” as to how well the dancer dances!

Colleen at Cowal courtesy of Bruce Campbell

A “true” champion can please them all. Colleen Rintamaki comes to mind, her dancing would please not only the judges who judged the "below the jacket bottom but also those who take in the "whole” dancer and her consistency in marks throughout the years left no doubt and as an audience member she also pleased us. The mark of a true champion whether the hierarchy decreed this Highland a sport or not Colleen could still “dance”.

Still as I enter the dancing venue at the games and hear the thump, thump, thump on the platform and the dancers executing their steps, the proximity of the judges so close, that a dancer can almost smell the perfume or aftershave, or the meat pie they had for lunch, the director in me cries out “Move them back so they can see what WE see and please” and “ jacket bottom judges”, please look UP and how I wish they would move to a side view. If a dancer was judged on the whole body technique you just may find that more attention would be paid to whether that dancer was correctly using the body and just maybe you would see less injuries.

By adjudicating from a position where the whole performance is taken into account would it then become easier for Highland to move from the competitive platform to the “stage”? Dancers who have not been trained in pleasing an “audience” will find it very difficult to make the adjustment to the theatrical performance, one reason that Highland is still not able to garner the attention of a “paying audience” with any great success. Shows that have numerous world champions in their cast still are only one or two steps removed from the competitive platform, their success and expertise only apparent to those audience members who are Highland knowledgeable. Ask yourself, would a director put “ execution of steps” or excitement in dance on the stage, would the footlights shine on a 2nd position or interpretation?

Even more important, at least knowing just how your child was marked, what areas they need to work on might help Highland “keep” its participants. . (Before I get hundreds of e-mails telling me that is what medal tests are for, dancing for a medal test is not the same as when a dancer has to perform in a competitive situation.). In the meantime I will stand at the back of the venue and enjoy those dancers who can reach back that far and draw me into the dance whether they win medals or not!

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

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