ICTM World Conference 2017: Aspects of the Scottish Dance Mosaic

From 13 to 19 July 2017, the Irish World Academy for Music and Dance at the University of Limerick hosted the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) World Conference. The Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland attended with dance scholars Mats Melin, David Francis, Pat Ballantyne and Wendy Timmons. The purpose of our visit – to present a round table session on the Scottish dance tradition, specifically looking at how internal and external influences have shaped the tradition and the attitudes of present-day practitioners.

The ICTM World Conference is the leading international venue for the presentation of new research on music and dance. Many new initiatives emerge at World Conferences, and perhaps even more crucially, discussion at these gatherings help shape ongoing work in the field. TDFS took the initiative to bring the Scottish dance tradition to the attention of the 650+ delegation and wishes to see research on Scottish dance regain significance and exposure.

First to present was Mats Melin, who spoke to the gathered delegation about his time as a Dance Development Officer in Angus in the late 1990s. He observed how some dancing communities would select increasingly difficult and modern dances, making their dances competitive and exclusive in nature, while others made the point of maintaining older and simpler dances to offer a welcoming and inclusive event.

There were four types of dance common at the time: Scottish Country Dance, Old Time, Ceilidh and Reeling, though these categorisations are more to do with context than content as Mats explains it.

As Dance Development Officer, Mats had been tasked with getting more people dancing, including the organisation of a series of public dances. It was in this context that Mats noticed the growing trend for modern and complex country and old time couple dances. Intricate footwork and complex figures meant the dances often excluded the occasional dancer or beginner, and indeed young children. Mats noted that at times there was only one group on the floor while other groups observed. Then each group would return to their home club to learn it before returning to the next dance.

The negative side of it was that these public dances had become a silent competition, enjoyed primarily by local dancing groups, but the dances often excluded the general public.

The positive side was the collective motivation to practice and learn the dances, perfect footwork and find a flow, plus the expanding repertoire of dance material.

In Mats’ view, the issue was the context in which a competitive and exclusive environment was taking hold. The dances were public events intended to be enjoyed by the general public – to get more people dancing.

Mats also observed local ceilidhs, attracting experienced dancers, beginners, families, young people and tourists to the dance floor. The dances were all-together more inclusive occasions. Mats decided to introduce some of these well-known and simpler dances to the public events he was organising, negotiating with the local dance clubs to find a balance between simple & inclusive and difficult & exclusive. It worked!

David Francis was next to present, focusing on the figure and the role of the dance caller. He considered the role itself to be a conscious intervention in a tradition that has re-configured the ceilidh dance tradition in Scotland.

The standard repertoire across Scotland had been a collection of couple dances from the 19th and 20th centuries, mostly of British and European origin, and a number of set dances with origins in Scotland – all danced to Scottish tunes, by and large. In the early 1950s, in England especially, there was a short-lived craze for square dancing, which was imported from the US. This brought with it the idea of the caller. A selection of square dances found their way into the repertoire and the English Folk Dance and Song Society began utilising the figure of the caller for English dances too.

So what does a caller do?

While dancing at the Cambridge Folk Festival in England some years ago, David found himself asking:

“Why was it the case that you could have a whole night of dancing down in England with no repeats, when such a thing wouldn’t happen in Scotland?”

On investigation, David found that an extended repertoire had existed in parts of Scotland – its source the itinerant dancing master or ‘dancie’, and found that country dancers still knew and practised these dances, but they had fallen out of favour in popular dancing, i.e. ceilidh dancing.

The popular ceilidh repertoire in Scotland bares all the hallmarks of a traditional process of collective selection, though it could also be seen to be the rump of a much richer repertoire from an earlier stage in the flow of tradition. It could be said that the introduction of a caller actually limited the repertoire. David concluded that there was dance material latent in cultural memory and it was worth re-animating – he became a dance caller.

In this personal project to re-introduce the dances, David referred to the work of ethnologists Georgina Boise and Lillas O’Leara, who offer both challenge and comfort.

In closing, David noted that the introduction of the dance caller changed the tradition of dance culture in Scotland without changing the underlining nature of the tradition of social dancing, which is rooted in celebration, sharing, collective encounters, communitas and conviviality. The role of the dance caller could be said to serve the function of re-introducing dancing back into the lives of people, urban communities in particular.


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The focus turned to solo dancing as Pat Ballantyne examined the re-introduction of step dance from Cape Breton to Scotland in the early 1990s. Pat specifically looked at how internal and external influences have shaped the attitudes of practitioners and perhaps even the way the dance itself is practised in Scotland.

Step dance is a percussive response to dance music. It’s made-up of short, sharp movements, heel and toe taps, kicks, brushes and shuffles. Pat considered its re-introduction to Scotland to be a reaction to Highland dancing, which had become very technical and competitive – dancers concentrate on perfecting footwork, elevation and achieving high extensions. In this competitive context, the connection with the music was dissipating. Across the water, the music and dance were still connected. The tunes were mostly Scottish too, but Cape Bretoners played with a different ‘swing’, and it worked with the dancing. Visiting musicians from Scotland seen this and thought step dance was the answer to the situation in Scotland – it would get the dancers thinking musically again.

Scottish step dancing is very percussive. Pat suggests that’s what attracted the dancers in Scotland. Often heavy shoes are worn. The standard for women being police uniform shoes! In Cape Breton, the percussive aspect isn’t as pronounced. It’s light-footed. Cape Bretoners also make a point of being “close to the floor”. Scottish dancers have little exposure to the Cape Breton style of dancing and appear to have taken this statement very literally. There is less elevation in the footwork. Again, it could be a reaction to Highland dancing. Either way, it also makes the Scottish style appear heavier. All this, the style of playing included, has influenced the style of step dance in Scotland. It has evolved over twenty years and Pat proposes that a distinctive Scottish style has developed.

Pat also highlighted one other major difference and that is access to dancing. There are weekly classes and dances in Cape Breton. In Scotland, there is a smaller pool of step dance teachers. There may be occasional workshops in rural areas and weekly classes in some of the more populated, urban areas, but on top of that, there’s little opportunity for dancing together socially. The social context is still missing.

Cape Breton step dance was introduced to Scotland with the purpose of re-connecting the dance and the music. But has it worked? Pat questioned whether the style was sustainable in the current circumstances, even in spite of the fact that a Scottish style seems to have developed.

Wendy Timmons was next to speak on the social and educational value of traditional dance and its current role in the Scottish educational curriculum.

The itinerant dancing master was the source of formal dance education in Scotland. His teaching reached the elite classes, and so a measure of credibility was required. This led to the formalisation of dance teaching. It was a significant development and it continues to impact the way dance is disseminated in Scotland.

In the early 20th century, dance was introduced to the curriculum through the syllabus of physical education. The type of dance recommended was traditional folk dance. Physical education was part of the expressive arts at the time, and traditional dance was preferred because of the physical fitness aspect as well as its contribution to cultural awareness. This shifted to modern dance in the 1970s, which was imported from the US. In 1996, national dance standards were devised, yet the governance, and to a great extent the delivery, of dance education remained the responsibility of the physical educators. The teaching of dance instruction to the physical educators, those charged with disseminating dance to young people, is currently confined to 2.9 hours of teaching per semester. This is not sufficient in Wendy’s opinion.

Alongside developments in formal dance education, charitable organisations were also established to promote and preserve traditional dance in Scotland. The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society was founded in the early 1920s, for example. It could be said that this often led to the formalisation and standardisation of the tradition. Nonetheless, it was the defining and setting of standards which gave traditional dance ‘credibility’ and access to the national curriculum.

In 2010, the devolved government for Scotland developed the Curriculum for Excellence. Dance education is still core across the curriculum for 3-18 year olds and it is still governed by physical educators, however physical education is now part of the curriculum for health and well-being. So, it started in expressive arts and it’s now in health and well-being. Wendy highlighted that traditional dance is still the most frequently taught form of dance in schools and noted the potential of dance to deliver across two curriculum areas, i.e. expressive arts and health and well-being. The issue is that physical educators often don’t understand the connection to the expressive arts and lack the knowledge and confidence to deliver dance in this context.

So, can traditional Scottish dance deliver across both the expressive arts and health and wellbeing?

Wendy described the range of professional development courses and traditional dance resources available to school teachers. Professional development courses tend to be devised and delivered by individuals who understand the curriculum, but lack an understanding of the dance tradition. Resources provide the content, but can only ever be as good as the teacher who teaches it. In Wendy’s experience, what tends to happen when the physical educator doesn’t understand the dance forms, or the tradition, is the out-sourcing of dance education to freelance dance specialists. These are dancers who understand the artistic expression of dance, performance and the contextual knowledge, but lack pedagogical rigor – they don’t understand the theory and practice of teaching dance. All this can have a detrimental impact on enthusiastic young learners, who often turn to more accessible, commercial forms of dance outside of the school setting.

So, how can we bring traditional dance back to the core of the curriculum? Wendy concludes that we need 1) teachers with the skill and contextual knowledge to teach traditional dance, 2) curricular space in the physical education initial teacher education programmes, 3) more confident teachers with an understanding of what traditional means.

Report by Michelle Kelly, TDFS Co-ordinator, August 2017.

Mats Melin is a traditional dancer, choreographer and researcher. He has worked professionally with dance in Scotland since 1995 and in Ireland since 2005. He currently lectures in Dance at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance.

David Francis is a musician and dance caller. He is currently the Associate Director of Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland (TRACS) and Executive Officer of the Traditional Music Forum, and is studying for an MLitt in Folklore at Aberdeen University.

Pat Ballantyne is a dance scholar at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, researching traditional Scottish music and dance. She has been dancing, teaching and playing in a ceilidh band for years and has taught step dance in schools, at feisean and at community workshops.

Wendy Timmons is the Director of the MSc Dance Science and Education programme at the University of Edinburgh and has significant experience teaching professional dancers and dance teachers. Wendy is also a member of the editorial board for the Research in Dance Education Journal and the Scottish Journal for Performance.

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