Eadarainn: A Sophabulous Steps and RoughCoastAudio collaboration, featuring Naomi Harvey (vocals), Lauren MacColl (violin/viola), Ewan MacPherson (tenor banjo/mandolin/guitar/ programming) and Sophie Stephenson (step dance). Nominated for Best Music Video, Filmg Alba Awards (2014).
Today, puirt-à-beul (Gaelic mouth music) is most often sung for listening to rather than dancing to, despite its deep routed connection with dance traditions. Eadarainn re-instates mouth music within the context of dance by setting an old port-à-beul to modern dance beats along with traditional step-dancing. The music, produced by RoughCoastAudio and strongly influenced by the music of Martyn Bennett, uses technology to push the boundaries of traditional sound.
The fusion of old and new is further expressed in the video which tells the story of a girl who reconnects with her Gaelic heritage; reconciling the differences between the past and the present; through dance and imagination. The music incorporates samples, including a recording of my great-grand-uncle, Angus MacLellan from Mallaig Bheag, made by The School of Scottish Studies in 1972. This accompanies shots of the girl as she find herself gazing out across a graveyard in a Highland glen and suggests how the language and heritage of the Gael is quite literally embodied in the land where the generations who have come before are laid to rest. The video resolves on the dance floor, where the Gaelic traditions of music and dance are very much alive. On a wider scale the film reflects the relevance of the past, and of our vibrant and thriving culture, to our sense of identity in Scotland today. As Martyn Bennett said in preface to the album 'Hardland':
"Try and find those things that make us Scottish. They are not necessarily Tartan, but are no less colourful. They are in the sound of the kick drum, the bass line, the distortion, the punk guitar, the break-beat. Try and see the old ways in new surroundings. The folk tune of long ago can be heard above the constant traffic of urban life: hear it in the roughness of the fiddle, hear it in the sweetness of the chanter. They are just as valid now as any of our technology, nae, they are more valid than any of it”.
“Let me open the gates and let you into my fiddle world...”
Last week, I caught up with Alasdair for a chat about the relationship between dancer and musician and his top tips for keeping dancers on their feet. We discussed how jigs, strathspeys, reels, waltzes, which make up a big part of the repertoire of Scottish fiddle music, are essentially dance tunes, or tunes for dancing to, and how important is it that musicians have an awareness of the dance traditions in Scotland when they are learning the tunes. We also discussed his own journey in the world of Scottish fiddle music and he reflected of the sense of oneness which can be created as the bow of the fiddler engages with the feet of dancers and they resonate together. You can listen to the interview below.
“When I look at our music – any music – one of the first things I think about is 'how would people move to this?' […] When you get into jigs, reels, the hornpipe, strathspeys, the scottiche, the Highland fling – and all the different ways that we dance in Scotland – those movements have evolved along with the style of the music and they inform the fiddler's bow arm. So, to play a dance tune without ever having seen how people are supposed to move to it, is to cut off a major artery into your music […] To answer that question 'how do I bow this?' I go to the dance floor. And there, right there, are many answers - the dancers are telling you how to bow it. They are telling you that they will respond in a certain way if you give them what they need. And, in order to give them what they need, you need to start bowing in a certain way […] In many cases there is a one to one correspondence between the fiddler's bow arm and the dancers' feet, so you almost feel like a choreographer. If you are bowing and the whole ballroom is moving to your bow, it is one of the great highs of playing traditional music” - Alasdair Fraser (2013).
I am very excited to announce that Sophabulous Steps will be teaming up with Ben Miller to put on a DANCE EVENT in aid of Highland Hospice on Saturday 15th June in Fort Augustus Village Hall.
The Highland Hospice is an extremely important local charity. They provide support for the physical, psychological and social needs of adults suffering incurable, life limiting diseases across the Highlands. The hands on care they provide, heavily relies on the support of donations.
In the effort of fundraising for this important and indispensable charity, Sophabulous Steps is hosting an afternoon of step-dance with Sophie Stephenson accompanied by Ben Miller on Border pipes. The afternoon will comprise a demonstration of Scottish Step-Dance along with workshops for all ages and levels of experience. Whether you are new to step-dance and are giving it a go for the first time or have experience in step-dance or other dance forms, this event encourages everyone to come along, join in, and get involved in raising money for this worthy cause.
Dance Workshops, Saturday 15th June 2013
2pm-2.30pm: Age 5-10
2.30pm-3.15pm: Age 10-15
3.30-4.30: Adults (age 16+)
Step Dance is a fun, active and social activity for all ages. Accompanied by a LIVE MUSICIAN, the workshops will give people the opportunity to actively engage with our traditional music and learn percussive style dance steps to strathspeys, jigs and reels. For wee ones, it helps them to learn rhythm and improve their co-ordination whilst, for adults, it is a gentle way to improve stamina and strengthen muscles. The workshops will be an introduction to step-dance for people who have never tried it before, and also welcome intermediate to advanced level step-dancers.
Advised to wear hard soled shoes and bring a bottle of water!
Please contact Sophie on 07783433807 or email email@example.com to book a place at the workshop!
Whilst studying towards a degree in Scottish Ethnology, I did research into the step-dance tradition in Scotland and in Cape Breton as part of an Emigrant Traditions course at the School of Scottish Studies. As part of the research I sent out questionnaires to many step-dancers, to explore the evolution of the tradition and the similarities/differences between the transmission and performance of step-dance in these two places. My informants included Dawn Beaton, Mary Janet MacDonald, David Rankin, Tara Rankin, Mats Melin, Nic Gareiss, Michelle Greenwell, Abbie MacQuarrie, Seonag Buxton and Deirdre Graham. The most striking, yet inevitable, difference between the traditions in these two contexts was that in Cape Breton, for the most part, step-dance is still learned and passed on in family and community setting. Whereas, in Scotland, step-dance exists in a revivalist context with learning and teaching environments which are, in most cases, formalised classes or workshops.
As I'm a step-dancer myself, I of course would have my own responses to these questions and I thought it would be interesting for me to share them with you here...
1. How were you first introduced to step dance? Where/from whom did you learn to dance?How were you first introduced to step dance? Where/from whom did you learn to dance?
I was first introduced to step-dance aged 10 when I saw a performance by Harvey Beaton and Buddy MacMaster in Inverness (Scotland). After taking some classes at my local Fèis, the following year I attended a course with Harvey Beaton (Cape Breton) and Donal Brown (Scotland) at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye. Following that I attended Fèisean where I learnt from Frank McConnell, Deirdre Graham and Jane MacNeil. and laterly Margie Beaton at Ceolas.
2. Do you have a background in dance or any other cultural forms (music, song)? If so then what style of dance and did you have any formal training?
3. On what occasions/ in what contexts do you usually perform? Do you usually perform as a solo dancer or with other dancers?
4. Is there a particular type of footwear which you chose to wear for dancing?
When I was younger I would always wear my school shoes for dancing. This would be my pre-requisite for buying new school shoes and I would end up dancing in the shop to try them out! A few years ago, I did tap dancing in a production of the musical 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' and, after buying tap shoes for the show, I started wearing tap-shoes for step-dancing. This is good for concerts because the taps amplify the steps and give a crisp, clear sound. However, I am always on the look out for a good pair of leather-soled shoes for more intimate settings and accompanying puirt-a-beul for example. Also, leather-soled shoes give me a better sense of contact with the floor and a range of percussive sounds and tone which you don't get with taps.
5. What, in your opinion, are the signs of a ‘good dancer’?
6. How important is music to the performance? Are there any tunes in particular which you prefer or would select to dance to?
Music is very important. It is the rhythmic relationship between the musician and the dancer which makes dancing so enjoyable for me. Although there are some tunes which are typical for step-dancing I enjoy dancing to most tunes. The older tunes with a strong pulse seem to fit best with some of the traditional steps but I also quite like trying out new steps to fit modern, “quirky” fiddle and pipe tunes. With strathspeys, however, I find that when the tunes are played slow and pointed (in a style more suited to country dance or Highland dancing) the steps have to be altered in a way that they loose their drive and punchy rhythm.
7. When you perform do you usually follow a certain routine or pattern/combination of steps?
8. Would you say that you had a ‘repertoire’ of dance steps? Would you be able to put a number to how many steps that includes? How do you remember steps and identify individual steps?
Since I started teaching step-dance I have become more aware of a repertoire of steps, but even still I make steps up on the spot sometimes to teach my pupils and demonstrate how the essential movements (shuffle, hop, tap, heel click ect.) may be put together and combined in a multitude of different ways giving you endless possibilities for rhythmic combinations. I don't really have names for most of the steps but normally as long as I can remember the rhythm then I will remember the step.
9. Do you make up your own steps? How much space, do you feel, is there for variation and improvisation within the tradition? Have you ever tried/performed/considered combing ‘traditional’ step dance with other forms/styles of dance?
10. Why do you dance?
Because I love it! There is something about the physical interaction with music which gives me a buzz, it quite literally gets the heart bumping. I love listening to traditional music in all it's various forms – at concerts, on the radio, on my ipod – but often the tunes are calling out for us to move, dance, join in, engage with the music and with each other. Even just watching dance puts a smile on my face, if I'm not already on the dance floor myself!
Oban bay in the sun
When the fabulous Debbie Mackay (drama tutor) pulled up in her nippy, wee MG to give me a lift up to Oban, the Easter Fèis was off an exciting start! This was to be my first year of teaching at Fèis Latharna. I was added to the tutor list (comprising some 20 tutors) just a couple of months ago when Ewen MacPherson (Fèis organiser) received a call from the Gergel School in Kiev who wished to send five pupils to the Fèis in Oban on the request that there was a step-dance tutor. Scottish step-dancing in Ukraine – an unlikely combination one would think – however, you only need to type in a quick search into youtube to discover the many talented, young step-dancers over in Ukraine. And so, strengthening the dance element of Oban's five day festival of traditional arts for 8-18 year olds, step-dance was added to the choice of tuition alongside highland dance, song, fiddle, clarsach, accordion, whistle, chanter, piping, pipe-band drumming, percussion, guitar, art, drama, football and shinty! Phwah!
Five students from the Gergel School (Kiev)
It was a fantastic opportunity to work with the Ukrainian students. They already had a lot of steps so I was able to focus on precision of footwork and rhythm as well as introduce them to a few more intricate steps. They were accompanied by their dance tutor from Ukraine, Vera Gergel. Like myself, Vera initially learned step-dance by attending summer schools at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye. She now passes her steps on to her pupils, at the Gergel language school. In addition to this, the Gergel School also invite musicians and dance tutors from Scotland over to Ukraine to teach workshops and the students partake in céilidhs and Burns suppers as part of their cultural experience.
It is said that when Highland emigrants were clearing the forests in Cape Breton they would step-dance on the stumps of the cut down trees. Well, this was certainly my opportunity to practise my neat steps, close to the floor and within tight boundaries! The evening kicked off with big Donald MacPhee giving us a blast of the Highland Pipes after which each tutor took it in turn to give a short demonstration. With only a couple of near ankle breaks I made it through a strathspey/reel set, accompanied by Adam on fiddle.
A highlight of the week was the family céilidh, held in the Argyllshire Gathering Hall. The array of talented tutors performed throughout the evening in a rotating céilidh band as boys, girls, toddlers, teenagers, mothers with sons and fathers with daughters all took to the the dance floor. It was so delightful to see so many young people dancing with such enthusiasm and with such good knowledge of the dances! I was impressed that, considering the average age would have been about 10, the dance flowed more smoothly than any dance I had witnessed during my four years at University and reminded of me of school céilidhs in Fort Augustus. From dancing feet to smiling faces, the dance floor was brimming with fun and enjoyment. In between dances the gathering were treated to Gaelic songs from Darren MacLean, a Sailor's Hornpipe and a Seann Triubhas from Eilidh MacInnes and I did a spot of steps-dancing (this time with slightly more floor space!). Eilidh Munro also played a beautiful set of tunes on the clarsach for which the children huddled around the stage to listen.
When I was growing up in Fort Augustus, every Easter holiday, my mother would make the 4 hour round trip daily to take my brother, sister and I through to Fort William for Fèis Lochaber. I can still remember the excitement each morning as we queued up for our name badge in anticipation of the jam packed day of music, dance and drama ahead. We had the same excitement at the end of the day as we got in the car and would spend the entire ride home telling my mother all we had done that day. It was here that I picked up many of my steps from Jane MacNeil and Frank McConnell and also had my first opportunities to try out new instruments and participate in Gaelic language and song. Gaelic wasn't offered at my local school and therefore exposure to the language at the Fèis was a rare opportunity when growing up. The Fèis was hugely important in my dance development as well as my great passion for our musical and cultural heritage. Since those years of attending Fèis Lochaber as well as my local fèis, Fèis Gleann Albainn, which was set up later, my passion has continued to grow and influence the paths I have taken. Whether as a profession or simply as a hobby, music and dance is a love which I will always have and treasure. Thanks to the Fèisean movement, and all it brought with it, there is now a cultural climate in which Gaelic culture thrives. The biggest gratitude on this part must go to all the communities and committee members of localised Fèisean who work so hard to ensure that they continue each year.
Last weekend I took the Highland Dancer in me out of retirement and went along to my first Highland Dance class in nearly eight years! It was good to feel myself invigorated by the exercise and know that I had not forgotten the steps that I had spend so many evenings practicing in my younger years. It was a stamina test for sure... my calf muscles have only just recovered! Being among very young, extremely agile, Highland dancers re-opened my eyes to the world of Highland Dancing and made me realise some of the striking differences between modern, competition dancing and the step-dancing tradition. I was in awe of the tremendous proficiency and ability of the dancers at so young and age but then it struck me that this was really a young persons activity, with those in their teens probably being at their peek as dancers. Secondly, the ultimate goal in perfecting the steps was towards competing in front of a judge which contrasted with the spirit of partaking which largely characterises step-dance when part of social dancing.
What’s your experience of Highland Dancing? MacTV are researching competition dancing and would like to hear your insight from within the world of the Highland Dancer.
MacTV are currently carrying out research about Highland Dancing. We are looking for Highland Dancers competing at championship level to see if there is a good story to tell about the competing world of a Highland Dancer. We’d like to hear from Gaelic speaking dancers in particular, but we would welcome comments from anybody interested or involved in the world of Highland dance. If you are a competing Highland dancer, if you can suggest potential contributors or you think you can help us in anyway, please get in contact on 01851 70 5638 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
‘...the allegiance of dancers and spectators to one music and dance sensibility or another serves as a specific means of representing, and even reconstructing, their cultural identity in relation to, or even as resistance to, the dominant cultural formation. Moreover, this struggle against presumed cultural intrusion by perceived “outside” influences has profound and disturbing socio-political effects […] this project has caused me to consider further the implications of tradition versus innovation and of authenticity in the context of spaces of affects and becomings.'
This blog is for all things dance related... I post videos, articles information and news, making it a great way to keep up with what's going on the the step-dancing world! If you have any news to share, or would like to contribute something to this blog, then feel free to send your blog post to email@example.com and I will put them up on the website!