I remember a Peanuts poster where Charlie Brown says, "The more I learn, the more I learn how much I have to learn!" Thus it is with a diversion I have been practicing for a little more than a year: Scottish Country Dancing.
Once a week, I put on a kilt, an 18th Century weskit and dancing ghillies and prance about like a merry Scotsman -- or try. This isn't the Highland dancing you may be thinking about -- hands above the head, prancing in place. It's more like the English dancing you see in Pride And Prejudice: organized sets of people cavorting about, but not all at the same time. "SCD" speeds things up and adds fancier steps.
"In English dance we glide," one instructor once told me. "In Scottish, we fly!"
And when I land, it's sometimes in the middle of confusion. Scottish dance adds more complicated figures, many of them diagonal in nature or counter-intuitive to what I learned from the English. Dancers can fly in and out of the set, twirl among each other or their partners and still make it back to place. Timing is crucial. The key to making the complex figures work is hitting the right mark on the right beat, because everybody else is using your position as a guide. Get there too early or too late and chaos blooms from the garden of precision. One more thing: the steps in these dances aren't called. You have to know them, just like those Colonials did.
I'm glad I know "Mairi's Wedding" without help:
I first toyed with learning Scottish dance a few years ago after attending a Scottish ball in Tucson with Madame Sherri. We ended up dragged all over the place, into reels and diagonals and figures I'd never heard of, much less walked through. The dreaded mirror reel (that's a "hey" for you English dancers) nearly plunged the two of us into irrecoverable frustration. But we danced on. My work hours at the time made learning Scottish dance impossible. But when those changed, I finally decided to broaden my horizons.
Since March of last year, I have been learning the ways of the Scottish Dancing Force through the Tucson branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society, a network of highly-organized, highly-enthusiastic, and, compared to your humble servant on a challenging night, highly skilled. Might I also add they are a highly encouraging group?
Let's start with the steps. In English, you need only walk. In Scottish, three steps are the basis of everything else: the skip-change, the strathspey, and the (elusive) pas-de-basque. If one needs to crawl before one can walk, one must skip-change before moving on to the strathspey. It took many weeks for me to figure out the skip-change, that elusive foundation step which involves skipping on alternate feet. I cracked it by surprise one evening before practice where I just began doing it out of the blue, without putting much effort into it. I'd even tried skip-changing at work when I could keep it hidden from others, perhaps during a quick trip to the water fountain. But I still got caught sometimes.
"Were you just skipping?"
The strathspey is best visualized as a skip-change slowed down to a more elegant pace, but my Colonial English instincts keep wanting to kick in so that I offer a bit too much of a hop, as if I'm dancing a minuet with the Queen of Versailles at a fancy ball in 1754. Fantasy plays a huge role in my tackling the learning curve. Many people will come to practice in shorts or slacks, but I have to have the kilt, puffy shirt and weskit, living vicariously through the 1700's if it will improve my technique. It's also more French, like so much of Scottish Country Dancing. That's what many don't realize. The French influenced Scottish dancing because the Scottish royalty spent many years exiled in France. They brought more than the crown back with them.
And then there's the pas-de-basque. The dreaded pas-de-basque. The step people work on for years before nailing. The step that looks like it's two beats or four beats, when it's really three beats. One-two-three, two-two-three. Where's the four? I hear a four in the music. I see it in the figure. It is hidden, elusive and taunting.
One of my beloved instructors recommends learning this step to the opening bars of Queen's "We Will Rock You." The stomp-stomp-clap has the perfect cadence needed for instructional purposes at a beginner-friendly tempo. I can do it at that tempo, just not at twice the speed in the heat of the dance. "Just focus on getting the three beats," my Scottish dancing Jedi masters coaxed. I'm still working on it.
After the first few months of dancing, I met with a bit of reality: even though my enthusiasm was there, I just wasn't ready to take on for the advanced dances yet. The RSCDS has quality-control standards, and I had to remember that with humility.
"Part of it is your shoes," one instructor mentioned, indicating the dress shoes that got me around so well at work. "They're just too heavy."
I needed dancing ghillies. I needed them badly. But as I asked around for the best places and practices for acquiring a pair, a friend in the dance offered a gift and a miracle: a pair of ghillies, used, but still very much wearable. They lightened my load, and I was soon prancing about with the ballast gone.
A week later, out of nowhere, a lady offered her observation: "I haven't seen you dance for several months and you've come a long way!"
The complement stunned me. "Thank you My Lady! But I can't get my pas-de-basques."
"Well, you heard [the instructor]. It took her a heck of a long time to learn it, too!”
"GOD Bless You, My Lady!" I replied with a courtly bow.
One year after I began my latest dance journey, I attended a ball in Phoenix with their RSCDS branch. I had a couple of meltdowns when a figure threw me, but we kept going.
And I managed to pull off the Reel of the 51st Highland Division with few, if any, errors. Watch closely and you can see me counting the phrases: