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INFLUENCES ON HIGHLAND DANCING IN AUSTRALIA
True grace in motion comes from Art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learnt to dance. (in MacLennan, 1952)
With grateful thanks to Margaret Paterson – for her assistance and advice (2005).
This paper illustrates some of the influences of the Australian Board of Highland Dancing (now known as the Australian Board of Highland Dancing Incorporated, ABHDI) on Highland Dancing in Australia, with reference to the origins and history of Highland Dancing in Scotland and Australia.
As an explanation, we would like to stress that different opinions on the origins of the Highland dances depend from which source the researcher has based his/her work.
Highland Dancing has developed throughout the ages from a war-like ritual during the Roman invasions of Britain to its present sophisticated form. The metamorphosis that has occurred can be sequenced into distinguishable stages of dance development:
HISTORY AND ORIGINS
There is evidence that the foundations of Highland Dancing (which was originally ritualistic) were being laid as early as 54BC when the Romans noted that the Caledonians were dancing in and out among upturned swords and spears. It has also been recorded that ritual Highland Dancing was being performed in a similar manner to that which is presently used. For example, Maclennan (1950) explains that the Sword Dance is a surviving Pyrrhic dance (dance where the arts of attack and defence are imitated) that originated in 1054 when Calum-a Chin Mor (Malcolm Canmore), a hero of mortal combat against one of MacBeth’s chiefs at a battle near Dunsinane, victorious, took his opponent’s sword and crossed it with his own, placed them on the ground and danced over them in exultation.
In 1057 Malcolm defeated and slew MacBeth at Lumphanan, re-acquiring his father’s kingdom. He later ascended the throne, as King Malcolm III and provoked the displeasure of the Highlanders in the following four ways.
This last action resulted in the heroic Sword Dance Gille Caluim being danced to music accompanied by verses ridiculing the new coin. (1)
(page 18 MacLennan 1952).
No records of dances are to be found in the early centuries AD, and in fact records are obscure until the Sixteenth Century AD.
In the late sixteenth century male dancing proficiency was as much esteemed as male athletic prowess, in Scottish Highland community. This demonstrates a change from dance as ritual to dance as exercise, and a change in the communities’ values in general, as exemplified by mountaineers and warriors dancing the ‘Sword Dance’ and other manly dances to strengthen their legs and improve agility. (2)
Following the defeat of Prince Charles Edward, at Culloden, the government passed the Act of Proscription in 1746, which was to remain in force for many years. This act was designed to suppress all Jacobite influences, and to weaken the national spirit and characteristics of the Highlanders by outlawing the wearing of their National Dress – Tartan, or kilt. Instead grey trews or knee breeches were to be worn.
As a result of this Act, very little Highland Dancing was seen, as the spirit of the people had been subdued. The Seann Triubhas (Gaelic: Old Trews) is said by some to be a dance that was given as a sign of contempt or derision for the clothing enforced upon dancers and Highlanders by this Act. The dance ‘Tullochgorm’ was the earliest form of the Highland Fling, which towards the end of the Eighteenth Century had gained popularity and a frequent place in concerts, theatrical entertainments, throughout Great Britain, the Dominions, and America (after undergoing changes and improvients). The set-steps described by MacLennan (1952) had been already been accepted as standard for over fifty years. (MacLennan, 1952 p26)
Some of the earliest records of solo dancing in Scotland also refer to females dancing to entertain Dukes and other gentry. It is recorded that the Scottish Lilt originated in Perthshire some time after 1746 and is one of the earliest recorded solo women’s dances.
Highland Dancing as entertainment seems to have emerged from Pipe-band Competitions in Scotland. The first modern Piping Competition being held in 1781 in Edinburgh. Dancing was introduced as a form of entertainment, where ‘Several pipers afforded no small entertainment by giving a specimen of their agility or spirit in Highland Dancing’.(3)
Dancing for entertainment paved the way for further development towards competition dancing. Highland Dancing at Piping Competitions has always been (and remains) subordinated by the piping, as a result it was not until 1795 that the competition was extended to include dancing. By which time, other people besides pipers were dancing, mainly for entertainment purposes. Competitive dancing was restricted to males. In 1819, dancing was included in the Highland Games.(4)
females entered Highland Dancing competitions in the early years of the Twentieth Century. The ranks of male dancers were greatly depleted due to the First and Second World Wars, which resulted in the participant proportions changing from male dominance to a predominance of female competitive dancers. However, females were restricted in the competitions they could enter. The Braemar Highland Games and the Oban Highland Games are two examples of the annual Highland Games that did not permit females to compete in dancing competition until recently, however these competitions still provide male-only sections. (5)
Economic hardship forced many families from Scottish rural areas, to migrate to Australia, South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand. Assistance schemes aided this process and provided incentive. Migration was extensive and area were settled such as Van Diian’s Land in the 1820’s – 1830’s, east of Armidale during the 1830’s – 1840’s, and in 1845, Scottish migrants settled around Moreton Bay and the Darling Downs. The Scottish people brought with them their ‘cultural baggage’. Cameron (1971) reports that there was a b community spirit among the Scottish people and that they had to work extremely hard for scanty pay.(6)
The colonials had a negative attitude towards the Scots for several reasons:
Therefore social acceptance for the Scottish settlers came only from within their own Scottish community.
It seems that the majority of persons participating in Highland Dancing in Australia between the 1800’s and early 1900’s, were direct Scottish descendants and their friends. Relatives mainly taught the younger family members the art. There was uniformity in the dance movements taught and produced, even though dancing technique was not standardised. Since the 1900’s there have always been more female Highland Dancers than male, in Australia.
Dancing competitions were conducted mainly by Scottish societies and eisteddfod committees (this later encompassing Ballet, Tap, and possibly singing as well as Highland dancing).(7) Judges for the competitions were narrowed to those who had knowledge of Highland dancing. The earliest evidence of Scottish societies holding dancing competitions was recorded in The Melbourne Herald in 1860. (8) This was a report of the ‘Grand Caledonian Gathering’ – a two-day festival from the 30th November to the 1st December 1860. According to the newspaper report, 20,000 men, women, and children were in attendance. In 1861, this gathering flourished into a three-day festival, held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The Argus, portrayed a disdainful attitude towards this gathering by reporting that there were complaints about the noise of the bagpipes, and that only twenty men appeared in traditional Highland dress, compared to former years where hundreds of males had worn Highland dress. Even though The Argus, in the same issue, also reported news of the tragedy of the Burke and Wills expedition, lengthy reports of the Caledonian Gathering were included. Two days after the gathering, the first international cricket match in Australia was to be held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. This added fuel to the criticisms of the gathering; on tenuous grounds that the cricketers couldn’t practise on the grounds they were to play on. (9)
The authorities encouraged the Scottish immigrants to hold festivals and gatherings, as these allowed for intra-cultural interactions. This may be seen as an attempt to shift the focus away from the hardships of the time.(10)
The Victorian Scottish Union formed in 1905, was the first organisation concerned with Highland Dancing in Australia. Its aims were to unite Scotsmen and their descendants for their mutual improvement, assistance, and social enjoyment. In 1906, the Victorian Scottish Union By-Laws and regulations for National Games and Highland National Dancing came into operation, and in 1948 for Championship Piping and Dancing. These regulations were established to provide and improve the standard of competition Highland Dancing in Victoria, exclusively.(11)
By approximately 1910, except for a few country areas, folk dancing had disappeared from social dancing with two exceptions, the communities of Scottish and Irish descent. These two nationalities have made a conscious effort to retain something of their culture to pass on. This effort is reinforced by the work of special dance schools, teachers, and by holding regular competitions.(12)
The formation of governing bodies such as the Victorian Scottish Union (an organisation that chooses to remain unaligned with the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing, conducting non-board competitions in Victoria), the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD), the Scottish Dancing Association of New South Wales (SDA), the National Dancing Association of Australia (NDAA), and the Victorian Scottish Dancers Members Association (VSDMA), have as their aim the preserving of Scottish traditions in the form of Highland Dancing.
THE SCOTTISH OFFICIAL BOARD OF HIGHLAND DANCING
As early as 1925, there were moves in Scotland, to standardise Highland Dancing, and to provide guidelines for judges, competitors and teachers. This is exemplified when MacLennan was requested to formulate rules for judges of Highland Dancing, and the subsequent submission of these to a conference of qualified Highland Dancing representatives in Edinburgh, where these were discussed and adopted (MacLennan, 1952 p11).
The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing was established in 1950, in response to chaos in the competitions, which had evolved over the years. With new innovations in Highland Dancing appearing, different versions of traditional dances and technique were being performed by individuals. The East coast and West coast of Scotland and even each district danced its own interpretations of the dances. When a dancer wished to dance in another district the technique of that district had to be learnt. There was also a problem with adjudication at competitions:
Subsequently, it was advocated and decided by the Scottish Dance Teacher’s Alliance in 1949, that Highland Dancing in Scotland needed a recognised board of control to stabilise the technique of Highland Dancing, to enforce laws concerning all aspects of the art, and to encourage participation in the art form. The Examining bodies, being the British Association Teachers of Dancing, United Kingdom Alliance of Professional Teachers of Dancing (nowadays often referred to as the United Kingdom Alliance Limited), Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing and the Scottish Dance Teacher’s Alliance, arranged a meeting and this eventuated in the formation of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing.(43) This body is representative of all organisations and individuals interested in Highland Dancing. All affiliated, or represented associations and individuals adopt Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing rules and technique. It’s main present–day functions are to bring about co-operation between recognised associations, organisations, individuals, and dancers connected with Highland Dancing, and to set quality standards for all areas of Highland Dancing. Affiliated organisations are located in, Australia, Canada, South Africa, United States of America, and the United Kingdom. (42)
In order to standardise the technique and competition form, the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing published the Scottish Official Board of Highland
Dancing Text Book, in 1955.(13) Prior to these texts being published, other books were written detailing
Highland Dancing technique and traditional dances. Often the sources of this material were diaries and memories, promoting variations in the recordings of the
dances and techniques.
DANCE AND TECHNIQUE
The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing Text Book (1955) describes the five basic feet positions in a similar manner to that used in Some Traditional Scottish Dances, written in 1929 by Douglas Taylor, for the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. However, this earlier work describes the feet positions with the heels flat on the floor, similar to Ballet technique. Taylor (1929) emphasises that the feet make only a 45-degree angle at the heels. Seven arm positions are described, as well as basic movements and steps, for both Highland Dancing and Scottish Country Dancing. The dances described are still danced today but not strictly in the same way as notated in this book. For example, there is no exact body position mentioned for particular counts of music, and no specific aerial positions are stated, in this book, where as dancers today have a specific feet, arm, head, body position for almost every count of the music. Aerial (off the ground) feet, and leg positions have now been specified. Taylor describes specific lady’s steps for two dances only, and shows the group dances being danced with a mixture of male and female dancers. A description of the male costume is given and the female wears almost exactly the same as the male.(14)
In 1950, Highland and Traditional Scottish Dances, was written by MacLellan in which more dances are described. (15) Again, it may be realised that the technique is significantly different to that now stressed by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. For example, MacLellan’s feet and arm positions are distinctly of the French Ballet method, and a 90-degree angle at the heels of the feet is encouraged, whilst other feet positions have the heels off the floor and the instep of the foot is arched. The descriptions of the dances are much more precise and more clearly set out than in Taylor’s work. MacLellan also lists a number of exercises to be done, such as plies and frappes, which are all Ballet exercises. The dance, Blue Bonnets is described in entirety in Ballet terms.
Isobel Cramb (1953) has scripted in detail four of the Lessor Known Highland Dances - Flora MacDonald’s Fancy, The King of Sweden (both originally female dances, and now performed by both male and female dancers), the Earl of Errol, and Scotch Measure (originally danced as a solo or duet, but is now only permitted to be contested as a solo dance). Cramb’s descriptions, clearly demonstrate the b influence of Ballet on Highland Dancing, both in terms of Dance composition, and language used to describe the movements.(35) This book may be one of the earliest publications devoted exclusively to the Lessor Known Dances, and may be considered as the forerunner to later publications such as those scripted by the Scottish examining bodies. Two books have been released in Australia in an attempt to preserve the knowledge of some of the little known non-competitive dances. The first, written by the Brisbane Highland Dancing teachers and enthusiasts, in the early 1970’s, and more recently a book produced by a group in New South Wales.
The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing Text of 1955, defines four types of feet positions – open (feet apart), closed (feet touching in some way), rear (one foot behind the other), and aerial (foot off the ground) positions. Described here are also specific feet placements – (foot can be placed on the floor on the toe, half point, ball or heel). Three head positions are also described. Only five arm positions are listed and the number of basic movements has increased dramatically. The text describes six dances with no separate dances or steps for females. Each step in each dance is named and numbered, with each count of the music having a specific foot, arm and head position. The book describes the male and female dress. The latter is now significantly different to that of the male – no sporran, no belt, no plaid, no skean dhu, no garter flashes, or bows are worn, whilst a coat or vest is worn. Music fundamentals are given, as well as rules of competition dances, and notes for judges are listed. Definitions of amateur and professional dancers are described. Later editions of this text haven’t shown dramatic changes in technique or steps, although more alternatives to some steps have been given, some alternatives deleted, and more specific notes and rules for judges regarding penalties and marks awarded to competitors. (16)
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF EXAMINING BODIES AND THE AUSTRALIAN BOARD OF HIGHLAND DANCING (ABHD)
Information regarding Highland Dancing technique was almost unobtainable in Australia before the Australian Board of Highland Dancing was formed. As a result, it was increasingly difficult for Australian teachers to pass on traditional technique. Similar problem that occurred earlier in Scotland were now occurring in Australia. Dancers adding their own personal touches to the dances, and increasing competition and showmanship were a major concern. The more intricate and difficult the movements executed on the stage, the higher the chance of winning. The original dances began to be lost. These problem were occurring in New Zealand as well. (17)
Individuals in Australia began to see the need for a controlling body of Highland Dancing to guide the production of uniform technique in Scottish Dancing, increase public interest in the history and traditional Scottish Dancing through competitions, concerts, and lectures. (18)
The Scottish Dancing Association of Australia (NSW)
Schools of Highland Dancing sprang up in the cities in New South Wales and in many small and large country towns. Highland Dancers performed at most of the important functions held throughout the State encouraging more interest from a wider circle into this dance form. Dancing competitions and Highland Games were revived and proved a most popular outlet for the large number of dancers who were now involved in the art.
With the growth of so many schools of Highland Dancing, some large, some small, different styles of Highland Dancing soon became evident. This caused concern at some competitions where certain steps, styles and dress were popular with the different judges and the dancer had to dance to that particular adjudicator on the day to be in the winning circle.
Teachers and Adjudicators were not qualified although dancers were graded by a method of “Restricted” and “Open” Sections. Each competition organiser had his own interpretation of “Restricted.” There was no conformity.
Travel and the means of travel in Australia in the late forties usually restricted one to one’s own State with not many venturing past the borders of that State to compete.
By the late 1940’s it became evident that there had to be a change to try and standardise the dancing in some way. A meeting of known Teachers, Adjudicators, Dancers and interested persons was called by Mr John Cousins (a respected Adjudicator and Teacher who was a Scot having danced and competed in Scotland prior to his taking up residence in Australia), Mrs Doris Stokes (a Teacher and respected Adjudicator) and by Maree Allen-(nee Fairfield) Dancer and Competitor and an Assistant Teacher, later Teacher with Mr John Cousins.
The response was overwhelming. The first meetings were held at the Railways Institute at Central Station with Mr Cousins chairing the first meetings and Maree Allen (nee Fairfield) as Secretary taking the minutes. The need to establish a standard of dance was of paramount importance in all minds. A constitution had to be drawn up. This took a great deal of time and discussion and many meetings. The meeting that finally approved the constitution of the Scottish Dancing Association of New South Wales was held on 5 August 1953.
The “Preamble” to our first constitution is as follows and best describes the reasons and the emotions behind the formation of the Scottish Dancing
Association of New South Wales later to become known as “The Scottish Dancing Association of Australia.”
We were fortunate that in Scotland in 1949 the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing had been established with objects similar to those of this newly formed New South Wales body. It was decided - quoting the Constitution under the heading of Standard Technique -“That the technique of Highland Dancing in NSW shall conform in all respects with the standard laid down by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. The Association recognises the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing as the supreme body in the International control of Highland Dancing.”
Examinations were set up in the form of Medal Tests for dancers, Teachers Examinations, Adjudicators and Examiners Examinations.
There are so many names of Teachers, Adjudicators, Dancers parents and interested people that could be listed here of those who were instrumental in the formation of the SDAA and responsible for its continuance throughout the last 50 years as an association dedicated solely to the art of Highland Dancing (Maree Allen, 2003).(37)
In 1953 the constitution was accepted and the Scottish Dancing Association of New South Wales was formed maintaining the technique of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing, with the aims of producing uniform technique in Scottish Dancing, increasing public interest in the history and traditional Scottish Dancing through competitions, concerts, and lectures. This group has offered Highland Dancing examinations based on SOBHD technique throughout New South Wales, and continues to do so.(18)
The establishment of a number of Australian examining bodies currently operating in Australia predates the ABHDI, and these bodies along with other interested people in the community were instrumental in the formation of the ABHD with its inaugural meeting held at National Dancing Association headquarters, in 1958. Australia accepted SOBHD technique as early as the 1950’s.
In the 1950’s, there was no alternative but to form Australian based examining bodies, as the overseas examining bodies showed no interest in coming to Australia, nor was the SOBHD interested in conducting Judges’ examinations in Australia.
National Dancing Association of Australia
BBAO Bulletin 1958 –
BBAO Bulletin 1966 –
This organisation still operates in Australia and offers Highland Dancing examinations to candidates in most States of Australia, as well as in remote areas where the expense of providing this service to members far outweighs any income derived from examination fees.(36)
Victorian Scottish Dancing Association
The Queensland Scottish Dancing Association and the Yarra Valley Highland Dancing Association are the other two examining bodies operating in Australia, making a total of five Australian examining bodies that are progressing the Scottish traditions in the form of Highland Dancing.
Australian Board of Highland Dancing
The Australian Board of Highland Dancing was formed for a number of reasons:
The ABHD conducted its first Adjudicators’ Panel Examination in 1966. It was in 1996 that the ABHDI judges’ examination was replaced with the SOBHD judges’ examination, as part of a compromise for the recognition of ABHDI judges worldwide. (36)
During its formation, the Australian Board of Highland Dancing has had to face several problems. The first, one was overcoming the negative attitude towards this organisation being formed. There was a relatively widespread reaction against this group of people taking over control of Highland Dancing in Australia, especially from the eisteddfod committees. These committees felt that Scotland had no jurisdiction on how they should dance or organise competitions. Many Caledonian Societies seied to think that the formation of an Australian board was a daft idea. Established organisations, such as the Victorian Scottish Union, were disgruntled that a nationwide body was being formed. Correspondence from the Australian Board of Highland Dancing was frequently ignored or acted against by these kinds of organisations.
However, there were those who welcomed the formation of the Australian Board of Highland Dancing, such as those in Tasmania, who found it very difficult to find information detailing correct Highland Dancing technique. Other groups also welcomed its formation, as now adjudicators would be conversant with correct technique, standardised correct technique could now be disseminated, dancers would dance traditional technique, and could no longer add extra flounces to catch the judges’ eye. There could no longer be disparages over what was accepted or correct, judging and technique would be consistent. (20)
Another problem that soon became prevalent was one of two-way communication between the ABHDI and affiliated groups. There were the issues of time as well as the expense and distance to be covered. During the formation years, the National Dance Association of Australia covered expenses, however, it was necessary for the Australian Board of Highland Dancing to become self-sufficient.
Subsequently, it was decided to organise individual State Committees and Regional Committees to administer Highland Dancing in their area of jurisdiction, under the auspices of the Australian Board of Highland Dancing. At the formatemo, three delegates and three votes were allocated per State to equalize the power of authority on the ABHDI. The expense and time involved in sending delegates inter-state for meetings, resulted in proxies being used, and the State committees loosing opportunity to voice opinions, and hear first hand what was being discussed.
In order to alleviate this problem, the ABHDI Minute, 19th June, 1976 states,
Communication between the ABHDI and the SOBHD is vital, as this ensures that the Australian teachers and Judges are promoting and teaching correct technique and the proper organisation of competitions. It often took months for this information to pass between the two Boards. In Australia, during these formative and establishment years, confusion existed regarding technique and competition organisation. As there was only the textbook acting as a guide, this text was subjected to different interpretations and misinterpretations. In 1979 Miss Wilma Tolmie, a well-known and highly respected Judge, dance Teacher from Monifieth, Scotland and a former World Champion, was sponsored by the Thistle Highland Dancing Studio in Brisbane to align the Australian dancers with Scottish technique. This would have been one of the earliest visits of an authority on Highland Dancing, brought to Australia for the purpose of judging and teaching. During her six-week visit, Miss Tolmie was invited to meet with the Australian Board of Highland Dancing Executive in Victoria, and attend an ABHDI meeting as a guest.
Since that initial visit, the ABHDI has in the main, brought biennially to Australia, several notable technical experts as official representatives of the SOBHD, for the purpose of clarifying the text, technique, and to pass on relevant information to dancers, teachers, and judges. Since 1998 the Examiners who have come to Australia to examine the SOBHD Judges Test have also consented to conduct an official workshop on SOBHD technique for the ABHDI.
Adapting Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing regulations to Australian conditions, and situations often caused problem for the ABHDI and its State/Regional Committees. Australian conditions that vary greatly from those in Scotland include:
Competitions prior to the instigation of the Australian Board of Highland Dancing were open to all persons of any age or ability.
INTRODUCTION OF REGISTRATION/CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM
The first of July 1978 saw the introduction of a registration system, where dancers progressed through a level system categorising similar ability groups. This system was not without problems. In the country areas, through relative isolation, and limited competition, dancers tended to progress through the sections and reach the highest level without reaching a corresponding high standard of performance.(23) Each State/Regional Committee organised its own “Level” system and competition organisers changed the established and accepted format and put into place age groupings, separating dancers into ability sections, in order to comply with new regulations.
This system didn’t work effectively in Tasmania and Mt Gambier, as in these localities, there were not sufficient dancers to fill four levels in each age group, and organisers could not afford to hold as many events. Mt Gambier adapted, and automatically made all of its dancers ‘Open/Premier’ (ie. The highest level). The level system, however, was successful in area with a large population of dancers, as it effectively separated age groups and abilities. This made the competitions easier to judge, whilst at the same time providing each dancer with an increased opportunity to win.
The ABHDI then brought into line the “Level System Australia wide, which in turn changed to the SOBHD classification system which is now accepted uniformly all over the world where SOBHD dancing is contested. “This scheme has been drawn up to bring under SOBHD control the Pre-Premier sections in dancing competitions to ensure that every child has the opportunity to compete with other dancers of comparative ability, whether they be Primary, Beginners, Novice or Intermediate standards. This will ensure conformity of rules between different organisers who hold Pre-Premier sections at their competitions and assure all Pre-Premier dancers of fair play between dancers, and from competition to competition.” (SOBHD Constitution and Rules 2003)
This system also introduced an Advanced Intermediate section, which slowed the advancement of the competitor to the Open level. Here the dancer remained for a period of twelve months after which he/she would automatically be classified as an Open dancer. These new recommendations were used to ensure two things:
The introduction of the classification system dramatically increased the work load and expense involved for a competition – instead of one group of dancers competing in each dance, for each age group there is now four separate groups, requiring four separate groups of prizes, and results sheets for each dance. (22) However, it does provide for fairer competition, and higher standards to strive for.
Another concern relating to the overall classification system is that of dancers pre-maturely retiring from competition. Often the dancers were progressing so quickly through the sections that they became Open dancers at a young age. When these dancers are of an average standard, they are continually beaten by championship-standard dancers. Thus, there is little motivation or reason for the average dancer to continue competing or dancing.
On the other hand, when a championship standard is attained at a young age, these dancers have accomplished most goals available to them, so that they too, have little reason or motivation to continue competing. The New Zealand organisation solved this dilemma by establishing an eighteen years and over championship, which has attracted married females and males in their twenties and thirties.(26)
HIGHLAND DANCING AS A SPORT
Competitive Highland Dancing is a physical activity requiring extreme athleticism, frequent training, a high skill and performance level, knowledge of basic human anatomy and sports medicine and also injury prevention measures and nutritional balance. It has been noted that competing in one dance can be likened to running an 800m sprint with your arms being held in the air, whilst leaping, turning, smiling, and wearing eight yards of heavy woollen material around your waist. In one day of competition, a dancer can compete in up to ten dances over a period of several hours, seriously testing that dancer’s fitness, endurance, strength and focus.
Competition duration can be over a period of five hours or often a whole day, where the dancer performs for a couple of minutes, has to re-group, warm up repeatedly, re-motivate the self, change costume and maintain an overall focus for the next dance. (40)
Highland Dancing, over the past 2-3 decades, has not only become increasingly standardised, but also has adopted a foundation of sports science. For example, in class, teachers, realising the benefits and indeed the necessity of warming up and cooling down in prevention of injury, mental and body preparation, increasing training performance, assigned class time devoted to these particular activities. With increased knowledge of anatomy and physical training principles, the warm-ups and cool -downs became more specific to the sport of Highland Dancing. Particular attention began to be paid to specificity and periodisation of training, nutrition, sports medicine, sports psychology, use of weight training, etc. Highland Dancing movements began to be broken down into their components for more effective teaching and learning of the skills thus moving away from teacher demonstration, and student imitation. This skill breakdown provides the dancer with isolated movements to perfect gain strength in, etc.
There is a high risk of injury for participants in competitive Highland Dancing due to repetitive movements and high impact borne by the body, particularly the knees and feet with minimal shock absorption from the shoes. Although, it must be noted that great effort and precautions are taken by competition organisers to provide venues and dancing surfaces that minimise the risk of injury to the dancers. The ABHDI and committees provide guidelines to minimise the risk of injury for the dancers.
Technological advances have contributed to the sport-like characteristics of Highland Dancing, and its technical advancement. For example, the use of video cameras at competition and lessons, allows the dancer and teacher to analyse the dancers’ performance for strengths, weaknesses and improvements that are achieved. Sports such as athletics have employed precise methods of recording and analysing technique/performance for many years prior to this, progressing the use of video cameras, and computers.
Equipment used for Highland Dancing has also undergone a sports directed metamorphosis. This can be seen in the invention of the split-soled pump, where the sole is attached in two sections – one section that exclusively covers the ball of the foot, and the second section covers the heel. The instep is left in soft leather or suede. This kind of sole accentuates the dancer’s pointed foot – giving the appearance of a ‘super-point’ - equipment designed to aide the athletes’ performance.
Another technological equipment advancement has come in response to chronic injuries such as stress fractures in the shins and feet of the dancers – the padded pump. This specially designed pump is designed to protect the feet and joints of the dancer. A heavy pad is fitted into the sole of the ball of the foot absorbing up to 85% of the impact borne by the dancer’s foot upon landing. A variation on this is a dancing pump with a cushioned insole material that dissipates approximately 97% of the energy when the foot contacts the ground, reducing impact stress flowing through the joints, as well as increases the rebound effect, giving extra bounce to the dancer. The competition version of the padded-type pump, features a thinner pad, which still affords the dancer with shock absorption, whilst accentuating the dancer’s pointed foot. In this way chronic injury risk is minimised and performance is enhanced. ( www.ohda.ca/)
The standardisation of equipment used in competition also exemplifies how Highland Dancing can be regarded as a sport, as well as an art form.
Technique advancements that can be frequently observed include:
The advantages of these advancements include:
These advantages must be weighed up against possible disadvantages, including:
DISCUSSION OF THE INFLUENCES ON HIGHLAND DANCING IN AUSTRALIA
Highland Dancing in Australia, unlike that in Scotland has always had female and male participation, with fairly equal proportions in the early years, moving towards female predominance.
One reason for this may have been the Scots settling in rural areas, where much hard physical labour was required to clear the land, make a living and indeed to pioneer Australia. As a result males in particular had very little time and energy to devote to Highland Dancing.
The social attitudes prevalent in early Australia concerning what kinds of activities are considered manly, may also have negatively affected male participation in Highland Dancing in Australia. Dancing in general still has limited manly status in Australia. Changing social attitudes in the Scottish communities themselves resulted in Highland Dancing no longer being considered to be a manly activity.
As the number of Scottish immigrants increased, despite time constraints, and lack of energy, and scanty wages, the number of Highland Gatherings and traditional Scottish celebrations increased. These gatherings and celebrations featured Highland Dancing and were almost exclusively patronised by Scottish people. The English and colonials frequently regarded the Scottish as ethnic, by association, Highland Dancing was also regarded as an ethnic activity, and therefore not very important, and often was looked down upon. Prior to the formation of the ABHDI, Highland dancing was mainly a social pastime, oriented towards displays. There were few competitions and technique was not a major concern.
The appeal of Highland Dancing in more modern times is to people of all nationalities, and cultures, as it encompasses healthy exercise, the challenge of competition, and colourful costumes. (27) This implies that the ABHDI has decreased the ethnicity of Highland Dancing in Australia, perhaps by its dissemination of knowledge, and encouraging more groups to hold competitions. Highland Dancing has begun to take on the qualities of a sport, rather than remaining an ethnic recreational activity, this has been achieved by the SOBHD/ABHDI’s enforcement of strict technique and by ensuring that teachers and adjudicators are properly qualified and conversant with SOBHD technique. This can be seen from the emphasis on competition, and the emerging importance of knowledge of anatomy, and training strategies in examinations (since the 1970’s anatomy theory has been a part of the National Dance Association Teachers’ Examination). Research programmes investigating fitness training, and dance injuries, have also been instigated by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. (29)
With the formation of the ABHDI, more associations began to hold competitions, and correct technique became a major issue. The competitiveness and standard of Highland Dancing tended to increase. More people became aware of Highland Dancing, were exposed to this dance form in non- ethnic situations, and began to appreciate it as an art form.
The second generation of teachers was now emerging which meant that the groups of dancers were larger and more numerous, catering for established displays. Thereby, each group of dancers had less opportunity to participate at performance level, and therefore concentrated on competition instead. This led to Highland Dancing progressing from the Dance as Entertainment Phase, into the Competition Phase, where competition, and standardised, technical excellence are emphasised.
Besides passing through three stages of emphasis, to reach the fourth, Highland Dancing had also to pass through three stages of technique.
Although the technique danced today is not significantly different to that danced in earlier Australian Board times, there has been much re-definition of terms and technique which would suggest that the technique may still be moving away from the original. However this re-definition is bridging the gap between Australian Highland Dancing, and that danced in Scotland. After reading Mats Melin(41), and Margaret Bennett (24), it could be suggested that the re-definition of terms and technique is standardising the art of Highland Dancing for competition purposes, and for the purposes of preservation of the dances and cultural traditions. The historical accounts of the origins of some of the dances, and the dances themselves, in some instances vary greatly, and in others there is consistency. It should be noted that originally many of the dances were choreographed, recorded mentally, and passed from the dance teacher or dancer to family members generation to generation. Eventually, the dances were written, however there were difficulties in finding language to describe the movements. This resulted in difficulty and probably inaccuracies in translations. When some of the dance Masters/dancers travelled to France or were trained in Ballet, many Highland movements and steps were described more effectively by using ballet terminology.
The dancing technique from the pre-Scottish Official Board periods seems to have gradually increased in sophistication, with constant re-interpretation of
movements, and scripition. For example, Maclennan (1952) described the ‘Old Highland Fling’ (that version danced prior to 1885), Second step in the
following manner (which is representative of the detail and movements used in this version of the dance):
Compared with the more modern version (accepted as standard since approximately 1925, as described in MacLennan, 1952, p42), which shows an increase in the sophistication and understanding of Highland Dancing with the inclusion of specified positions/movements for each count of music, and the labelling of foot positions, and frequently used movements.
Further compared to Taylor’s (1929, p22) description, that is prefaced with arm positions, includes more detail of beats and bars, and labels for feet and arm positions, and frequently used movements.
Compared to the script in The Official Textbook of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing , Sixth Edition 1993.
The ABHDI (under the auspices of the SOBHD), in its twenty-six years (1960 - 1986) of operation, had accomplished many positive outcomes, including the standardisation and increased specificity and clarity of technique and technique recording; provision of examinations that demand a high standard of knowledge; performance and application from dancers, teachers, and adjudicators; regulating the performance, teaching and promotion of the standardised Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing technique. The examinations help minimise adjudications based upon subjective appraisal, instead train judges to make decisions founded on keen, systematic observations, the quality of the performance, and adherence to the correct technique. The exams also provide more goals for the dancers to work towards, thus giving more interest and knowledge to the dancers.
Some examinations are devoted to the scripted Lesser Known Dances, some of which were only included in competition schedules in the early 1960’s. Flora Macdonald’s Fancy, Village Maid are two of these dances. Other scripted Lessor Known Dances, such as King of Sweden, were incorporated into the examination syllabus but were excluded from competition schedules. The examinations have served a vital role in preserving the Lessor Known Dances.
Another positive accomplishment of the Australian Board was increasing the numbers of participants in Highland Dancing in Australia. The 1986 statistics show approximately 2300 registered dancers in Australia.(32) It seems there was a peak in Highland Dancing in Australia during the 1970’s, when the large second generation of dancers began to teach and open Highland Dancing studios (33). There was a big influx of teachers in metropolitan areas and large numbers of people learning. This resulted in high levels of competitiveness between teachers, as each strived to produce champion dancers, gain pupils, and produce high quality concerts. In 2005 there are less than 1600 registered ABHDI dancers in Australia, with the numbers decreasing annually.(36)
Bringing a Scottish representative out to Australia was another positive movement of the ABHDI. This increased Australian understanding of the official Scottish technique, simultaneously increasing understanding of the Australian conditions and issues back in Scotland. The gap in standard and technique between the Scottish and Australian dancers lessened, as well as the Australian feeling of isolation and non-involvement in the decision-making processes. The fact that many Australian dancers are able to dance in Scotland, and be placed in championships, shows that Australian Highland Dancing is of a comparable Scottish standard.
The ABHDI has also made some decisions (probably under the direction of the SOBHD) which may be classified as having a major change on Highland Dancing in Australia. For example, in its endeavour to reproduce Scottish Official Board technique, the ABHDI has maintained an emphasis on dancing strictly by the book. The Australian teachers have had to delve into the minute details in the text, in attempts to produce exact Scottish technique. Whilst accomplishing the aim of standardised technique being danced, much personal style was forgone, in this regimentation of dance and dancer.
Another decision enforced by the SOBHD was the ban of the Lessor Known Dance competitions held in Australia, (such as that held annually at the Garden City Shopping Centre (Queensland) from 1977, and similarly in Sydney and maybe other areas). At these events, dances not scripted by the SOBHD were used in competition, and as these dances had not as yet been scripted by the Scottish Official Board (34), the dances, competition organisers, and dancers fell outside the SOBHD rules. This action seems on the surface to contradict the aim of the ABHDI (SOBHD) to preserve Scottish traditional dances, and to promote Highland Dancing to the public.
However, the ban is consistent with other aims such as standardising and preserving SOBHD technique. Later, it was decided by the SOBHD that eight of these dances would be scripted and available for competition dancing, in order to preserve these Lessor Known Dances. These dances, and those scripted but not accepted by the SOBHD for competition are available for teachers to teach and dancers to perform for entertainment and enjoyment. In this way the Lessor Known Dances can be preserved, without adding the extra burden on the dancer and teacher of perfecting/performing more dances for competition, and on the competition organisers the time and financial burden of adding extra dances to the competition schedules which are already at capacitance. Many dances remain unscripted, and will eventually, be forgotten.
The Australian Board of Highland Dancing progressively became more organised and confident in its implementations and dealing with issues. For example:
It appears in light of the information presented in this paper, that Highland Dancing in Australia has prospered under the influence of the Australian Board of Highland Dancing (under the umbrella of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing). However, as Australian Dancing is the same as that performed in Scotland, (due to decreased confusion about technique and regulations, and decreased new technique coming to the fore) Highland Dancing in Australia may face petrification. This may be implied from the fact that seminars held in the mid-1980’s concerning technique, seem to be going over points already clarified. It is possible that these seminars and Highland Dancing in general could focus more on the sports science aspect of dancing, increasing participant numbers, and the professional/semi-professional performance of Highland dancing.
FOOTNOTES AND REFERENCES