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.
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