THE HEELAN’ FLING
If the expression “Highland fling” would seem to imply a wild, abandoned kind of dancing, then the term is highly misleading. Highland dancing is an austere, controlled and strictly regimented discipline. Only those who have trained hard can participate in this sport.
The focus is the dance, not the dancer. Cosmetics, jewelry, even simple ear rings, are strictly prohibited. In keeping, no doubt, with the principle of Scottish dourness, smiling is also discouraged. Dancers wear what amounts to a uniform, in which the only allowance for individuality lies in choice of colors. Tartans being as colorful and gaudy as they are, however, that leaves a lot of latitude! Picking a suitable pattern may be as simple as buying a slightly used kilt that another young dancer has outgrown; or it can be a much more agonizing affair for the cognoscenti. Many of the so-called “family” tartans are unsuitable for a little girl’s Highland dancing outfit, which is generally fashioned of a “dress” tartan with a predominantly white background.
Therein lies a problem. A Canadian lass who possesses a Scottish name of her own would be unhappy sporting a kilt that erroneously identified her as a member of some other clan. One solution is the universal acceptance of some tartans that have become so popular that even non-Scots admire and use them. The famous Dress Stuart is one such pattern. Another approach has been the adoption of various “bumbies” -- bright and authentic-looking pseudo-tartans that have no family association. For example, one modern invention is the “Purple Dress Stuart.” The pattern is closely based on the familiar Dress Stuart -- but with purple everywhere the red should be.
Girls wear a kilt, a white blouse with puffy, short sleeves, a velvet vest with gold or silver piping, and diamond pattern Argyle stockings in colors that compliment the kilt. Boys have a kilt and sporran, white shirt and bow tie, a Cummerbund, jacket and Balmoral bonnet. The youngest dancers can get by with a kilt, white shirt and white socks. Parents count this leniency for the little tykes a blessing, because a complete outfit is expensive. Even the fancy stockings cost of more than one hundred dollars a pair, and must be ordered made to measure from a particular factory in Ireland (of all places!) All dancers wear gillies -- soft, leather shoes without a hard sole, held on by a single lace roughly a meter long. Tying up these dancing slippers with the lace crisscrossing around the foot and ankle, then wrapping the excess lace out of harm’s way to one side of the foot, is a diabolical chore for the little ones -- or their parents!
None of the components of this uniform are particularly easy to come by in Canada. Few tailors can create an authentic, Scottish kilt. We are not talking about common “plaid” skirts that are erroneously called “kilts” in a retail clothing store. Depending on the size of the dancer and the pattern, or sett, chosen, kilts are made from a many as nine yards of worsted material for an adult, pleated more or less deeply at the back depending on the width of the sett.
Nowadays girls far outnumber boys in Highland dancing -- quite a change from tradition. Highland dancing was exclusively for men in the olden days. Young laddies were proud of their terpsichorean talents, as suggested in the poem, McAllister Dances Before the King.
Excluding Scottish country dancing, which is more of a social event for adults, there are four kinds of Highland Dance: the Fling, the Seann Triubas (pronounced something like “shawn-trooze”) the Sword Dance or Ghillie Callum, and the Reel. They really must be seen to be understood, but further details about each form are available at another excellent site.
As dancers progress in skill, they will be encouraged to take formal examinations. Students prepare for months for the big day. A small crowd of apprehensive children and their parents assembles at the appointed hour at a community hall, gymnasium, or some other convenient location, so that the girls (and the occasional boy) can face the music. Some wee lassies and laddies really are wee -- five or six years of age. Others are young women in their late teens, by now accomplished dancers all. They come seeking qualification in the highest grades, some with an eye to becoming teachers in their own right.
Advanced pupils assist little ones to adjust their kilts, pull up their socks and fasten their garters, tuck in their shirts and tie up their gillies. Several girls practice pas de Basques and high-cuts in the hallway. In one corner a mother tries to calm one little tike who is already in tears at the prospect of the awful ordeal that surely awaits her. This is serious business. An examiner from the British Royal College of Dance has come all the way from Scotland to administer the tests as an indisputably qualified and unprejudiced outsider. The children emerge one by one from their examinations. Almost invariably the young candidates underestimate their own performances. One girl is crying, sure that she has failed. When the results are available later in the week she will learn that she made the grade after all.
Beyond the rigor of examinations lies the fun of competition. The biggest, most prestigious events in Canada tend to be held during the summer at various Highland Games. However, smaller contests year ‘round keep the dancers in top form. But whether the music is provided by a live piper or a stereo boom box, the competition test pieces are always the same for each type and level of dance. The music gets awfully repetitious -- even for the most die-hard, bagpipe-loving Brigadoonian. It is perhaps just as well that some of these events in Toronto are held at a regional School for the Deaf !
© 1999-2004, Neil Harding McAlister