By Loraine Ritchey
The following is part of a series which appears in Celtic World, written by Bruce Campbell, and appears with his permission
VICTOR WESLEY: TRIPLE WORLD CHAMPION, Parts One, Two and Three THE EARLY YEARS
Photo of a young Victor performing the Highland Laddie
THREE times World Highland Dancing champion Victor Wesley remains one of the most colourful characters in the field of Scottish traditional performing arts. Celtic World's Bruce Campbell interviewed him earlier this year for this exclusive series of stories about his life and times.
DANCERS NOTE: VICTOR WESLEY WHO ATTENDED THIS YEARS COWAL GATHERING(2002) WILL BE DOING ARTICLES FOR BOTH CELTIC WORLD ON THE COMPETITION AS WELL AS AN OVERVIEW OF THE DANCING STRENGTHS AND PROBLEMS FOR DANCER
THERE WAS a time in history when Highland Dancers could dance freely anywhere. I danced at Cowal against SOBHD dancers and other dancers from the SOHDA. Then there were other dancers who weren't members of any of those organisations and seemed to just come out of the woodwork. It was incredible.
In some cases the quality of the dancing was very inferior but in most cases it had great style which you don't have nowadays under the Official Board dominance. We had dancers doing different steps, with different timings, and with different methods of rising and starting or ending the step. Dancing at Official Board competitions later became standardised to make it simpler for the judges.
I was originally a member of the Highland Dance Specialists Association and took their test before I was nineteen. I would love to see the World Highland Dancing Championship being open and being judged by people who were themselves great champions, not just any ordinary person. I just love Highland Dancing so much that I just want to see it all (the various different organisations) unified and the current problems resolved. Let's move on and see the world unite.
When I was a boy growing up in Springburn in Glasgow all of my friends disappeared on a Saturday and I had no-one to play with. They all went to a local dancing school and so I suppose it was that. But I had a strange family situation and before I was eight I had a nervous breakdown. I love my mother dearly although I hardly knew my father. The government took me away from my family situation and put me in a home in Colintraive (Cowal). I used to look out of the window at the boats and I though that one day I wanted to go to America on that boat. I didn't know where America was but I just knew that I wanted to go there on that boat.
One of my teachers saw that while I wasn't that scholastically bright I was able to do all of the artistic things better than anyone. I was a better footballer than anyone else and if they put me in goal no-one would ever get the ball past me. When I was seven that teacher took me to Cowal Highland Games and he ran in the foot races and won. I couldn't believe it all. I sat there all day with my sandwiches and flask of tea and had a great day. I realise now that in those days I was witnessing the great names of Highland Games history who I would later be competing against- but I didn't realise it then.
As the years went on I wanted to be something but I didn't realise that I wanted to be a Highland Dancer. I probably thought that Highland was Ballet. From the age of eight I went to a local dancing school and they taught Highland. My mother had been in Highland dancing for quite some time and her teacher, Gladys Bruce, was a world champion at Cowal ( 1932 Juvenile). My mother went to another teacher in Glasgow but I can't recall her name. Although she was never a champion my mother had hundreds and hundreds of medals so it was there. But she never pushed me. So I went to this Highland dance teacher. I suppose most kids would learn one or two steps a time but I was there (my first lesson) from 8am until 6pm and when I went home I showed my mother the whole Highland Fling. My mother said it was impossible, she had taken three years to learn it, but I had memorised it in a day. So, that's how it all came about.
I don't know how it came to me, if it was natural talent, inherited or what. Maybe it was just that I had found my thing. It wasn't that I was a bad student at school, rather that I just wasn't interested. When I put my hand up I was told to stop asking questions so I just stopped. In lessons I would know the answer long before the teacher got to the end and I just wanted to do more because I was bored.
Maureen Davy, Jean Mackie, Mrs Cameron and Sidney Black were my early teachers but it was Mrs Cameron from Glasgow and Sidney Black from Edinburgh who really taught me how to dance. Jean Mackie was in the SDTA and was great at Tap, she made me great at Tap, and the other one was in the BATD and I don't think she was great at anything, just making money. I sold all the tickets for her shows. I would sell 1,500 tickets just by going around the neighbourhood and telling everybody that they had to buy a ticket and come and see the show because I was in it. So out of sheer intimidation they came. But, hey, it was good promotion for her shows.
I started the other stuff at that time, a mish mash of Highland and a mish mash of other stuff-I don't know what it was but it sure as hell wasn't Highland. I would create my own steps and my mother would say to me; "You can't do that." When we did the shows the teacher would put me in front because I would tell her that the steps didn't look right and say: "Shouldn't it be done like this?" The teacher would say that it should be but the others can't do it so you'll just have to do what they do. That was my first introduction to the Official Board without realising it! I asked her what would happen if I forgot to do those steps so she said bugger it, and in the end she would put me in the front because I was putting the other kids off. That was basically my introduction to competitive dancing at the same time.
I STARTED competing around the Highland Games when I was eleven or twelve. I danced at Braemar and my first success at a Games was at Cowal, I got a fourth. I got into a third here and there and I got put up for a final. But I never won a championship when I was a juvenile because I was too busy trying to tone down, master the steps and grow into it. There were some great names going around the Games at that time and there were hundreds and hundreds of dancers waiting in line. When I went to America someone gave me a tray and I was on that tray. But there must have been a hundred dancers in front of me waiting to get up onto the platform. When I look back at those dancers you can pinpoint certain people who went on to become great names. Gradually I would finish higher up the level of the Games. I would go to Braemar and get a third. I thought that was pretty good because I had to dance in the 12-16 age group.
In those days I was competing against Billy Forsyth and he was a lot older than me. Then when I danced in the Under 21s I was still competing against him. I discovered a few weeks ago that he has retired so that must make him an awful lot older than what he should have been to dance in those groups. Today, they have a different system and have groups like Beginners, Novice and such like rather than the age groups we had. I think that that is good for training but not for open competition.
I did two groups as an Intermediate. The first was at Greenock and May Falconer was judging. After I had danced she said: "Come over here you". I didn't win anything at all and I said to my mother that "I must be doing something wrong because the other dancers were good. Someone said I had a lot of potential but a little old lady told me that I was going to the wrong teacher. I picked up my bag and I said that I was going to ask the judge what was wrong with me and I was a bit teary-eyed.
My mother said: "Come here, you wee bugger. "Don't show weakness." But I told her that it wasn't weakness, that I wanted to know so I went over and said 'excuse me Mrs Falconer.' She answered very crassly: "It isn't Mrs Falconer, its May Falconer and what do you want?" I asked her if she could tell me what was wrong with my dancing and she replied: "Aye I can tell you what is wrong, you were bloody rotten." I told her that my teacher said I had potential and then she asked me who my teacher was. I said Jean Mackie and May answered: "Och, she's no a dancer, she's one o' these fancy dancers. "Tell me, how many positions are there in dancing?" When I said hundreds, I fell into it, and she replied: "Aye, and you hit every bloody one of them in one count."
So realised how bad I was and I changed teachers. I was taken right back to the basics of Highland Dancing, showing how to stand on two feet, finding my balance, was it forward or back, where should your head be in relation to the bottom of the spine, and so on. So I learned the anatomy of the body first of all and I learned where the balance should be on the foot.
I also had to learn to listen to music. At that time I had what you could call 'mouth music'. There were no tape recorders or CDs and the teachers would instead go 'heedrum hodrum'. One of them would pull out a little chanter and play and I would have to explain what the concept was of dancing to that particular tune or what was this tune.
So it wasn't just getting up and learning how to do a shedding, for instance. I had been just getting up and learning the steps with no enthusiasm and this was like getting a blood transfusion and I attached to that so much that I was absorbing every little nuance that I could. I was certainly becoming attached to my teachers and when I went to the Games now people would notice me which was a good feeling. I was starting to get firsts which was good.
I think the first contest I got a first was in Edinburgh at Clark's competition and there were all these Cowal champions there. I decided that day to go up against one of them and I got the first in the Highland Fling. I was not the best Fling dancer but there were some dancers who were good only in the Fling or good in the Swords and I was trained to be good all round. But I had the hardest time with the Highland Fling for some reason. All my other dances were strong but I was told that even if I got a second or a third in the Fling that the judges had noticed me and that they might find you stronger in the other dances.
So I got the Fling at this competition in Edinburgh and there was a gasp from the audience because I had beaten all of these Cowal champions and SOB champions. So when I went up for the Sword Dance I thought that I probably wouldn't get it but I got a whole string of firsts that day. I got the confidence then that I could do anything, I had come from nothing to everything.
Then I went to competitions which were distinctly Scottish Official Board and I would be lucky if I got a fifth or sixth certificate and yet I would win at all the major Highland Games. I found that hard and there are even today a lot of people that think that in the beginning there was always SOB which isn't the case. There have been SOBs in the world since the beginning but I use that loosely
AFTER I had started to win prizes regularly I stopped going to a lot of the smaller competitions and instead went to the ones where all the big guns of the time would be dancing. People would say to me 'you shouldn't go there because so and so always wins there' and that would intrigue me even more. But I thought that there are so and so's all over so I wanted to beat one group of so and so's one week and the next group of so and so's the next.
There was one week of the year when everyone would disappear and I always wondered why there was nothing happening in Scotland that week. I found out that all the dancers would travel to England for a big competition. It was called the London Scottish Festival and there were ten dances and fifteen judges. It was a huge contest with hundreds of dancers. I think I was the last to enter the year that I went down and my number was 1,666. I only had enough money to get there, I didn't have enough to get back and my mother told me that if I got stranded that I should just go into a police station and they would help me.
The prize money was major and at a time when other contests were giving 2/6d London was giving £25 for a first in each dance. Other contests were giving teaspoons or dishes and even at Cowal they were still giving teaspoons then. But this was a big prize and I remember that there were four judges on the bench for each dance. My first dance was the Irish Jig and I got the first prize. Because I was the last to enter I was the first to dance and it seemed that it took an hour just to get through that first event.
The event went from early morning into the evening and I had never known an outside competition to go that long just in the adult competition. I got through the Hornpipe and I went up and got a first and then we did the Highland Fling. I now had the confidence because I now had £50 and I could get home!!!
I also discovered that people were betting on the dancers that day like you do on racehorses. There was a fellow who came over to me and said: "When I saw you do that first dance I couldn't believe you were so good so I bet on you and I have won this already." I told him that I was going to do my weakest dance next, the Highland Fling, but if I had two firsts already then they must like me so you never know. Well, there were ten dances and I got ten firsts.
I went for three years in a row and I was the most hated dancer about. I made enough money that first year to put a deposit down on a small car. That was 1966 and when I came home and told my mother I had won £250 she thought I had robbed a bank!! At that time people were earning £10 for a week's wages. My mother called me the "devil's own boy and asked me what I had done to get that sort of money and I just told her I had danced.
Well, I went for the next two years and I competed against Marjory Rowan and Billy Forsyth. When it came to Flora MacDonald's Fancy, Marjory Rowan told me in front of all the other dancers and the judges that "that was a woman's dance!! and I quickly retorted by saying: "And what the hell are you doing by entering it." To her surprise I came back and demonstrated that Highland is a man's dance so again it still applied, what the hell are you doing here?
I always thought that I was a gentleman when I was growing up but was a bit outspoken and probably a bit obnoxious. But there are times when you have to stand up and face things and I have never backed down from a challenge.
London was a big competition but even then I was winning the major Highland Games like Crieff and the Argyllshire Gathering and at the age of 16 had already won the men's dancing at the Mod. 1966 was also the year I got third in the Adults at Cowal and I was very happy to do that. At that time Aboyne, Braemar and Cowal were the biggest of all the dancing competitions. Braemar was always the biggest, the most prestigious and you would probably rank them in the order of Braemar, Aboyne and Cowal. Aberdeen was quite a big one as was the London contest.
So too was the Edinburgh Festival contest which was run under the control of the Official Board. But at that time you didn't have to register with SOBHD to dance, there was no registration fee then. I also did all the dances in the Glasgow Fair week which was a whole week long of just dancing nearly every day. I would start at Inveraray Highland Games, then go to Luss on the Wednesday and then up to Oban and over to Tobermory and then I would come back over to the mainland. From there I would do another Games and then tour the whole western seaboard doing Arisaig and Mallaig and all the way up.
In those days if you had an Official Board judge whom you didn't really know too much about or if they didn't have much background or credibility in dancing there was always a non-Board judge who had been a champion Highland dancer. So you always thought that you would take the good with the bad whichever way the results came out.
In those days the judges were able to talk to each other so I think that the not so good judges benefited from being with them because they could talk to them and help them. There were a number of other 'non' dancing judges like Sheriff Bell of Glasgow and people of that calibre and there was something good about those judges. I was always told that if I was good enough then I'd be in the prize list because they would find me. And they did, all of them.
So it proved the teaching methodology that if you were good enough you would win no matter the colour of your skin, the colour of your kilt or whatever and inevitably they would find me and I would come in the prize list.
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As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at
Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.