Scottish country dance: All of the fun and none of the kilt

Thursday, November 22, 2012
Melissa Clare

When most Americans hear the term "Scottish dancing," what comes to mind is someone dressed in a kilt, holding one hand above their head and leaping high into the air while bagpipes play.

That is one form of "Scottish dancing," called the Highland Fling, but that's not what Melissa Clare teaches.

To be more precise, she teaches Scottish country dancing, and if you didn't know any better, you'd think it was the square and line dances you probably learned in grade school.

In fact, Scottish country dancing is most likely the ancestor of American square and line dancing.

No kilts, swords or leaping required, unless you want to go on and become part of a demonstration dance troupe. Otherwise, the only necessary attire is comfortable clothing and soft shoes or bare feet.

Scottish country dance is a form of social dance involving groups of couples tracing progressive patterns, depending on the dance. It can occur in squares, lines, couples or triplets moving around the room.

Clare got started at it very young, at the age of 4, when her mother dropped her off on Saturday mornings to take classes with "The Brigadier Macintyre," whom she describes as "well over 70" for as long as she knew him which was about 18 years in the village of Kent, England.

Clare said at first she was "faced with a sea of legs and torsos belonging to older kids, and I had no idea where I was supposed to go. But after awhile I began to get the movements -- the footwork and then the patterns and designs that were being traced out with so much gusto and encouragement from our teacher."

The Brigadier used "enough military discipline to keep the boys in line, tempering it with pure enthusiastic joy to keep us all moving forward by degrees."

Not having met her own grandfathers, Clare "adopted" the Brigadier as her own, and what she learned from him helped her through some difficult times as a child.

Clare kept on with learning the dances, eventually attending regional balls and competing for medals from the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.

After emigrating to America, she taught Scottish country dancing in a private school and also became involved with American Contra dancing. She moved to California and studied with Ron Wallace, of international Scottish Country Dancing renown.

Having finally moved to Arkansas, Clare said she is now of the age where she wants to "give back to my community," and for her, one way to do that is to teach Scottish country dancing.

"I would like to do for others what the Brigadier did for me," she said, "to share Scottish dancing with my new community here -- with children as well as adults. I'd love to find a few musicians who might be inspired to put together a band to play this music."

Photo courtesy of the Seattle Royal Scottish Country Dance Society

Scottish country dances consist of reels, jigs and strathspeys, depending on the music. Dances are done in "sets," usually of four or more couples (any two people dancing together), and the patterns follow the number of bars in the music so that every couple has a chance to dance the full pattern. In some dances, couples change partners.

"Scottish country dancing is the exuberant social dancing that has been performed in the village halls and ballrooms of Scotland for several centuries," Clare said. "Many people of this area are of Celtic descent. I think it is appropriate to offer Scottish dancing, and for the children, particularly, this might be culturally enriching."

She said it takes a little time to catch on to the steps, so she encourages people to try it for a month and see how they like it.

It's an excellent form of aerobic exercise as well, and it connects people in ways that in our hurried society we have forgotten.

"We all have so much going on -- we have our TVs and computers, and the children are busy texting each other," said Clare. "Parents, save them from that technological isolation -- make sure they learn to relate in a joyful and social way. Dancing helps us to improve coordination, keep fit and stimulate the brain. That should appeal to all of us!"

Scottish country dancing meets every Wednesday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Enthios Studio at 215 Greenwood Hollow Road in Eureka Springs. All ages are welcome, but children under 6 should be supervised.

Children under 16 can come for free. The cost for adults is $35 for a set of six classes or $8 per class, with the first session free. Scholarships are also available.

For more information, call Melissa at 479-253-8252.

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