Dancing down the centuries
Highland dance competitions are a popular event at the Highland Games.
Updated: June 12, 2012 8:30PM
For a glimpse of the exuberant color of Scots history and tradition, take some time to watch the Highland dance competition at the Scottish Festival and Highland Games on Saturday, June 16.
“It goes way back, to B.C.,” says Frances Gillan, of Northbrook, a Scottish dance teacher who arranges the annual dance competition for the Highland Games.
“It’s very, very old,” she said, noting that the dances’ roots lie in the tradition of Scots warriors who defended the highlands long before Julius Caesar set foot in Britain.
Over the centuries, the precise, stylized dancing became part of the military skill set — it’s done around crossed swords — and was the province solely of men. “It wasn’t until the late 19th, early 20th centuries that women were allowed to do it,” says Gillan.
But women took to it with a passion. Today, Highland dancers are predominantly female. Though, notes Gillan, “We do have one young man coming all the way from Canada. He’s a world champion.”
Highland dance is done to bagpipe music, the same dances are done by boys and girls. The girls wear plaid skirts, knee socks and solid color jackets, as do the boys. Everyone dances in the black, lightweight, multi-strapped shoes called ghillies.
Performed mainly on the balls of the feet, it requires immense stamina, discipline, and for competitors, a strong drive to succeed. “It’s very, very athletic,” explains Gillan.
Despite its rigors, Highland dance has practitioners around the world — China, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, South Africa as well as Canada and the U.S., and of course in Scotland.
The events at the
Itasca games will be part of the national and international competitive network that leads to the world championships held in Scotland each August at the Cowal Highland Gathering.
Gillan knows of two teachers in the Chicago area. “One on the North Side, one on the South Side,” she says. She herself for many years has taught Scottish Country Dancing, “an entirely different thing,” that’s as much for socializing as it is for dancing, at the Winnetka Community House.
Gillan added that Scottish country is the ancestor of American square dance, and can be just as lively. “We have a lot of fun,” she says.