Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

"Mothers and Others" so was the title of the questionnaire. The previous article talked about a mother's role and also the role of the teacher. Life goes on and in the few short weeks since I sat down and wrote article No.1 life changed. My mentor, friend and anchor, Jean Schaeffer, passed away. She was not a teacher of dance, she was however a teacher of drama, and life. The newspapers have been full of tributes, flowers spilled out into adjoining rooms of the funeral home. The famous and not so famous honored her memory. Jean had a blessed life and she in turn blessed so many. Throughout her time on life's stage she touched the lives of thousands.

Jean did so much more than take a young actress, teaching her how to walk, to speak, to communicate with the whole being, how to phrase within the lines she taught me through our many years together to develop not only as an actress but as a person. When my children arrived she shared the laughter and the tears, the trials and tribulations. I only wish that she could now teach me how to deal with the terrible emptiness she has left. Previous articles have shown how a great teacher can touch us not only in the "art form" of choice but our whole being. That is, to me, the definition of a "great teacher".

Ah! But just as there are "not so great mothers" there are "not so great teachers". My mail on the subject of teachers has run the gambit. "Do you honestly think that a teacher would penalize a student because of the dislike for a mother?" Well, I think that before a couple of weeks ago I would've been in two minds. Of course to hear some mothers tell it that particular situation definitely happened. Some felt that their dancers were penalized in the judging because of a judge's personal dislike. But, you can never prove that was the case, can you? After all a judge or a teacher doesn't come right out and say " I don't like you or your mother so I am marking you down" just doesn't happen. Well, not in my experience, not until recently. I must preface by saying that this particular situation is "NOT" dance related. A mother recently wrote to a teacher informing the "gentlemen" that he was in error in one of two circumstances. I have been given permission to share with readers this "teachers" response (in part). "I told the entire class from the very beginning that I am a busy man, and that I will not accept unneeded irritation, or to quote myself "don't. (Expletive) me off" Your son's final grade along with his final exam, has not been recorded yet, and I hope that you have not jeopardized it more than he has already." And later "my class is under my arbitrary rule as a teacher, my class is a tyranny and I am the tyrant".

Well, can you imagine the mother and the student's reaction? Since they do not have a choice such as changing teachers or changing studios they have to go through the "administration" to get the issue resolved. However, if not for the, in my opinion, the arrogance of the teacher in question in putting his thoughts in writing, can you imagine the poor mother trying to explain "Well I believe one of your staff has it in for my son and I believe he is grading him unfairly because he doesn't care for me or my son." I think she would probably be put down as one of those "pushy mothers" who thinks her little Johnny deserves so much more. I wait with bated breath to see how this one turns out.

So back to our "questionnaire" As mentioned previously the number of responses were overwhelming. There isn't enough space to go into everyone's answers and details. So for the sake of the readership I will try and generalize.

The question "What made you decide on Highland dance as opposed to other forms?

Eighty percent of the respondents definitely have an "ancestry" connection, furthering the heritage. Also there seems to be a lot of 2nd and 3rd generation dancers. Mum or Grandma is or was a teacher, judge etc. The small percentage who "discovered" Highland did so through seeing shows or having friends who were involved. Jessie from Canada writes, "I thought for the first few weeks that I had signed up for Irish dance lessons. By the time I discovered my mistake I was hooked. I had had quite a lot of ballet and tap training so I was able to keep up. My friend was a complete novice and dropped out as she felt it was just too difficult for an older beginner".

How did you find your teacher?

Most respondents "knew" their teacher either from being connected through "relatives" or pipe bands. Other mothers just called area studios, yellow pages or someone they knew danced to find a teacher. "Kathleen from BC writes " I called the closest dance school that offered Highland and enrolled her. It didn't occur to me to check out credentials or anything because I wasn't sure my daughter would stay in." Kathleen was very lucky as there are a lot of highland teachers in her part of the world. Other areas of Canada and the USA aren't so lucky. Unfortunately there are "clusters" of teachers in some areas and absolutely none for miles in other areas. I believe the same goes for S. Africa and Australia. This then explains the answers to the question. How far do you drive to a teacher? The time was from 2 minutes to 5 hours. It also seems the closer the teacher the more lessons a student has and ultimately the more involved the dancer in competition. The number of lesson per week also followed the same pattern, obviously the closer the teacher the more lessons. Laurie from Ontario wrote: " Luckily there are any number of teachers within an hours drive for us. I was able to interview a number. We finally were able to decide on a teacher that my daughter and I felt comfortable with. My sister who lives in another province has to drive nearly two hours to her closest teacher and although they aren't really happy that teacher is the only one within a reasonable distance." Very few "new to Highland" parents knew of the Scotdance and Fusta organizations in N. America or counterparts in Australia and New Zealand. Once again the length of lessons depended on just how far the parent had to drive. The closer parents seem to average three to four lessons a week, the farther away longer lesson time but less frequency.

Cost and Opportunity: these also seemed to be deciding competitive success of a dancer. Obviously the areas with a great many schools in easy driving distance held a great many more competitions. Dancers in those areas have more opportunity to compete. The cost was less due to the fact those dancers didn't have to budget for travel expenses, meals and hotels and gas. For those parents who responded to How much of the yearly budget we have parents spending from $1,500 a year on fees and lessons (not counting the initial outlay of the kilts) to a mum spending nearly $14,000 (Canadian a year) (a note here this mum included all travel from Canada's west coast to Scotland etc) After answering the question I received a number of responses from mums who were amazed at just how much of the yearly budget was being spent.

Again this was mainly being eaten up with travel to away competitions, new kilts, jackets (as their child grew). Lessons seem to be the least expensive aspect of Highland dance all across the board. US, Canada, Australia, seem to be the countries with the greatest amount of travel expense for Highland, Scotland the least. Scotland like parts of Canada and the US (mainly the parts where Scottish immigrants landed) had a great deal of choice when it came to teachers. Of course Scotland also has other choices, as there is no monopoly with regard to organizations. Cost definitely has to come into the equation for the competitive Highland dancer. Can you and your family afford to compete at a higher level? Travel to National and International competitions, especially the dancers of the SOBHD. SOBHD World Championship is held annually in Scotland. To compete means airfare and lodging at the height of the travel season. It isn't cheap. For most families it would be a once in a lifetime occasion. However, for those dancers whose pockets are lined a little more deeply they are able to gain the experience and compete more frequently. This has to be an advantage.

"What is the most frustrating aspect of the dancing?"

In answer to this question both mums and teachers were unanimous " getting the dancer to practice" " Practice- trying to fit it in, trying to get them to do it without turning into a fight, and because I am not a dancer it is hard to know that they are doing things the proper way. I have learned some thing in 7 or 8 years, but I would never presume to know all the dances and proper positions. I also find it hard when they have practiced and given soooooo much and then attend a competition and they don't really dance their best or they strike a judge who doesn't like their style. This can be very disheartening and make the next practice that much more difficult"

Teacher A: New Zealand: Practice. Having a child come back to lessons and you know although they said they have practiced that they haven't had their shoes on all week. I usually give my beginning students especially, one thing that they should try and accomplish in that week. These are usually the same students that get frustrated and upset when they don't do well in competition."

However, practicing wasn't the only frustration "what the judges are looking for, and lack of respect for Highland. Costume book, illustrated with all rules and regulations printed clearly was in the mix as well.

One or two examples: "My limited experience of Highland games has given me the feeling that we need to invest in a set of bagpipes. If you don't have them, you may feel like a second-class citizen. The color and quality of the dance performance draws many a spectators eye but it is the pipers who get the ultimate glory. Dance platforms have often been open sided coverings in the middle of the pipers practice field. Highland dancers are put on the back of the bus when Highland Games events are organized" (Note: comments such as the previous were made by lots of parents and teachers alike. Pipers getting close parking spaces. Dance pipers being drowned out as the bands marched around in the space behind the platform. Venues that have the piping in the shade and the dancers in the open unrelenting sun all cause for complaints.

And from Mary in USA " Please, please can't one of the organizations put out an informative parent booklet. Pictures of what the National costumes should look like, the variations. Where patterns are available. I have spent weeks agonizing over a blouse. Costuming, kilts shoes socks.

Pictures please and where, how to information spelled out for the lay highland mother. Answers to frequently asked questions. They could send this out for a fee when we have to register our dancers each year (SOBHD). To be continued ....

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

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