Thursday, February 21, 2008

My Scottish Dance History (part 1)

I found Scottish Country Dancing at the local Mall, during the Christmas holidays. I was there with my roommate, doing some Christmas shopping. We were walking along on the second level and I saw these people wearing kilts in one of the open areas downstairs. So I stopped to watch. They were playing Scottish music, and one of the men was talking about some kind of dancing. The women were wearing white dresses and there were four men in kilts. Some were my age! The dancing looked really fun! I was just out of college and missing that built-in social circle. I wanted some kind of activity that got me out to meet new people. So when they mentioned where they danced and that a new class would start in January, I resolved to go.

I did my first SCD demonstration in 1981, less than a year after I started dancing in January 1981. Our class, taught by Robb Quint, did a performance for some kind of Celtic event at the local Catholic church. I remember it was spring, and raining. We danced “Wild Geese”. I even wrote a poem about it.

I was really crazy about SCD when I first started. I had lots of romantic ideas about Scotland, and how my friends and I were living in some kind of parallel world, connecting our ancestral past to the present with Scottish dance. I read straight through two or three histories of Scotland, the complete works of Robert Burns and The Scots Quair within the first year. I loved the idea that being partly of Scottish descent, I was following my heritage by doing SCD. I wasn’t the only dancer to feel that way of course. It didn’t take long to find a circle of young dancing friends that I spent nearly all my free time with. We practiced our Scottish brogues, researched historic dress, clan tartans, and Celtic history, wrote poetry, took up drinking tea, and looked everywhere for things with Celtic interlace designs on them. One of my friends, Marty, taught himself to make kilts and play the piano and accordion for dancing. We drove miles to various dance classes all over the greater Los Angeles area. I went to SCD classes four or five nights a week, including a 3-hour ‘advanced’ class on Saturdays, taught by Jimmy Lomath, that was two hours away. Six months after starting SCD, I also started Irish dance. Then about a year later I started learning Highland dance as well. At one point I was going to SCD twice a week, Highland twice a month, Irish dance and western-style fencing class on the same night, and aerobics at the gym once or twice a week. Ah, to be 20-something again.

We went to any Highland Games in California that we could drive to – Santa Rosa (now Pleasanton), Costa Mesa, Monterey, Chico, and others, as well as the Irish Fair in Northridge, which invited Scottish Dancers to demo and had Highland Dance competitions. I saw the Chieftains there once, as well as the Brown Sisters when they were just starting out. I think my last Highland Dance competition was at the Monterey Games. I just couldn’t keep both Irish and Highland at competition level, and when I had to choose, I found Irish more fun.

Sometime in the year or two after that first 1981 demo, the group of dancers I hung out with started a demo group. We called ourselves Flash of Tartan. Marty Morrisey, John Sawyer, Kathleen, Delphine, me, Melissa Fox, and maybe a few others I don’t remember because they didn’t last long. We were young, prided ourselves on good technique, and felt the other local SCD demo teams were pretty stuffy and boring. We wanted to get away from the overwhelming use of RSCDS-only dances for demos, and choreograph our own, more challenging things, with added Highland steps. I remember one local SCD teacher who refused to even cut the dances down to four times through for demos, because that would be altering the dance as written (feel free to roll your eyes here).

We also didn’t like the traditional white dress for women. So we went with the Highland Nationals costume – tartan plaid gathered skirt and arasaid, and a white peasant blouse. We couldn’t quite afford bodices, and no one could agree on the pattern anyway. Marty and John made military-style velveteen jackets, Prince Charlies. Very nice if you have the shape for it. We did a few performances, but it was hard to get the word out on our limited budgets. One I recall best was at the Thousand Oaks Jazz Festival. We even got our picture in the next month’s Sunset magazine. I kept that issue for a while, but I’m not sure I have it anymore after two moves overseas and back.

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