This article first appeared in Highland Highlights by Loraine Ritchey
"The True Highland Dancer"
By Charlie Mill
The world of Highland dancing gives its followers and excellent chance to travel worldwide in a competing, adjudicating, examining, lecturing, and etc. capacity. It also gives its exponents rare opportunities to touch shoulders with dancing greats from all facets of the dancing world.One such "great" I was fortunate to meet and chat to in my very early dancing days was Robert Helpmann C.B.E., the Australian-born ballet dancer, movie actor and choreographer, who was the principal dancer with Sadler Wells Ballet and artistic director of Australian Ballet.
When I raised the subject of the dancing scene in Scotland, he emphatically stated that in his opinion there were three types of dancing whose rudiments must be faithfully mastered and continually practiced over and over until perfection was achieved.
He listed them as Russian Dancing, Spanish Dancing, and Scottish Highland Dancing, adding that each type required a very high level of skill that wasn't inherent in most country's national dances and which could not be accomplished if the dancer hadn't prepared and drilled himself from early childhood. He underlined this by stating the fact that to be born and brought up in a country whose environment oozed dancing as traditional art added enormously to the dancer's pride and passion in every performance.
So in the case of Highland Dancing, there surely can't be a better platform to display these traditions in all their beauty than at the many Highland Gatherings held during the summer months throughout Scotland, where the top exponents vie with each other for personal satisfaction and pride. The actual prize itself is of secondary thought to the entrant as long as each dancer knows he or she has performed to the best of their ability in the homeland of Highland Dancing.
I can vouch for the fact that dancing amid some of the world's finest backdrops of hills and heather help provide the dancer with an added stimulus that inspires them to a higher execution in their performance.
Impossible to Standardize
But, just where did our Highland Dancing spring from? It is true to say, without contradiction, that Scotland has always been a dancing nation, whose people are always prepared at the drop of a hat (or a dram!) to celebrate any particular occasion in the happy manner of the dance. Solo dances like the "Highland Fling" and "Sword Dance" seem to have been with the Scots since time immorial and, like the heather-clad hills, are hidden among the mists.
The art of Highland Dancing has been handed down over the centuries from one generation to another. It is an art that is impossible to standardize, and like music, is very difficult to write down. How can one transmit the deep feeling and basic sensation of tradition that is encountered, when attempting to be "taught" by instructions from a textbook?
True the raw beginner will learn the foot and arm movements of each dance, but like the dancer of today, I fear they will end up like clones of each other, all being fed the same basic information- and at the end of the production line we have "robots" performing in a mechanical way! I admit, you do come across the odd excellent dancer now and then, but again you can spot the signs-the performer, a replica of the dancer next to them! A good performance - but with no feeling!
True Highland dancing can only be mastered in it's most "artistic "style from those who have studied under the old dance-masters, combined with faithful practice and uninterrupted endeavor.
For over three decades I have watched in anticipation in the adjudicators seat, young male and female dancers with all the expectations of attaining a top slot in the dancing scene, but in many instances their natural ability to express themselves as an individual is being stifled. Again, this "sameness" one encounters on today's dancing platforms is the reason why so many oh-so talented dancers appear to perform in a blinkered, restricted manner!
Following the Deer
A high standard of technique can be a special ability in a dancer, but I also suggest that imagination should be taken into consideration. I often wonder if today's teachers would benefit by reflecting on the methods used by the dance-masters of old! One aspect of their training included taking their young students out into the nearby countryside, where "classes" were held in the true atmosphere and environment of the land. The young aspirants would then apply their minds in observing and comparing the graceful agility of the nearby wildlife- the elevation of the bounding hare, the agility of the leaping salmon, and the gracefulness of the stately deer.
A "speculation" exists that Highland Dances are founded on the movements of these animals, especially that of the male deer. In suggesting to a young mind that to imitate the movements and rhythms of the animal and incorporate them when performing a dance is to capture the imagination. Youngsters are born mimics and can rapidly respond to this sort of suggestion. Only a small few of the top dancers in Scotland cast this picture - elegance of their arm and handwork augments grandeur and grace to the dance that can entrance those viewing Highland Dancing for the first time.
The difference between the "ordinary" dancer and the true artiste will cause even the most simple of steps to appear that bit special to the spectator - and especially to the trained eye of the adjudicator. There should be a high degree of excellence in every movement, and not, as we in Scotland continually see today, most competitors reacting to regimental instructions from textbooks, which restrict their talents to a level of monotony, whereas those with ambition are boldly breaking free and achieving the status of individuality. Only then can the deep-set feeling of the true Highland Dance artisan be nurtured and developed into becoming a Highland Dancer par excellence!
This Article was taken with permission from Loraine Ritchey's website, the article was also published in Dancer Magazine, Celtic World and Celtic Cafe this and other articles can be viewed from Loraine's website - Highland Highlights