Celebrating 36 years of life, the Greensboro Scottish Dance Society keeps ancient traditions alive — while “flying” into the future
By Jim Dodson • Photographs by Bert VanderVeen
Fittingly, (as if from the very pages of Robert Louis Stevenson) it was a dark and stormy night.
As wind shrieked and rain swirled outside the warm confines of First Presbyterian’s cozy fellowship hall, the 50 or so members and guests of the Greensboro Scottish Country Dance Society, replete in their finest tweeds and proud clan tartans, performed a country a dance called “The Last of the Lairds” to a lively jig titled “The Stool of Repentance,” the fourth set on the program of their annual Emerald City Ball St Andrews Day Dance.
“It’s a fine night for a Scottish dance,” said Jerry Cecil, coming off the floor with his wife Andrea, a bit winded from a turn that requires both physical and mental fitness. “Then again, any night is perfect for Scottish dancing. Even a cold, rainy night like this won’t stop this crowd.”
Cecil, a retired IRS worker and avid golfer from Forest Oaks, knows what he’s talking about — having been a member of the Greensboro chapter of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society since 1987, a handful of years after the group was formed by Mary McConnell and later joined by her Renaissance husband, Pete Campbell.
This year’s Ball in late November celebrated the organization’s 36th anniversary. The large turnout in the midst of a November Nor’easter spoke volumes about the passion of these hardy Caledonian dancers.
As Campbell’s nimble piano and Mara Shea’s infectious fiddle filled the room for the next dance set — a “Reel for Cosmo John” — Cecil paused to explain that Scottish country dancing — a communal form of folk dancing from the 18th century, when it was done in the barn as well as the ballroom — that got into his bloodstream near the end of his college days in California. But here in the Gate City, his passion found its truest expression among others who share his reverence for the past and a love of country dancing.
“Because each dance is different, with specific steps and patterns of its own, the switching of partners and such, Scottish dancing can seem a bit intimidating. I know I felt that way at first,” Cecil acknowledges, explaining that’s why most folks who do it attend classes to learn the steps and figures to the many different dances. The good news, he goes on to say, is, once you get a few basics down and practice a bit, everything tends to flow. “Scottish dancers aren’t at all judgmental. Everyone is welcome, especially beginners. You’ll never see Scottish dancers looking at their feet, he reflects. “What you’ll see instead is people smiling and laughing as they twirl around the hall. At heart, it’s really about music, fun and friendship.”
His wife of four years, Andrea, nods in agreement. “I’m afraid that I’m still getting the hang of it,” she allows with just such a grin. “But it really is fun.”
Cecil’s description pretty well describes any of the four dozen or so dancers on the fellowship hall floor at any moment, a diverse gathering of local members and visitors from similar clubs, some of whom traveled from as distant as Atlanta and Staunton, Virginia, simply to be on hand. Even the evening’s gifted fiddle-player, Mara Shea, was herself just off a flight from Aberdeen, Scotland, where she made a quick flight to attend her college graduation from Elphistone Institute at the University.
For her part, Mary McConnell got interested in this form of community dance after she learned about it during a Thanksgiving dinner at her sister’s house in Richmond, Virginia, in 1979. Back home in Carrboro, she spotted a notice that a Scottish Dance class had just started in town and went to investigate.
“I was coming down a hallway and heard this magical Scottish music coming from the dance,” she recalls. “I knew this music from my childhood. I knew I’d found home.”
A short time later, Mary attended the first Thistle School in Banner Elk the week before the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. It was there, in 1982, that she met Pete Campbell, a researcher in environmental sciences at UNC- Chapel Hill who’d been a country dancing aficionado since his days at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania.
“Because I used to stay up half the night in the labs, you see, when everyone else was gone, I always listened to Scottish dance music to keep me awake. I was destined to get hooked!” he allows from his piano bench during a break between dance sets. A musical polymath who founded and played in numerous folks bands, Pete helped found the international folk dance group at UNC, now celebrating its 55th anniversary, and did a bit of everything from English contra dance to old-fashioned American square dances until he activated his ancestral genes and gave his heart to Scottish country dance.
At the Thistle School’s Teacher’s candidate class in 1982, Mary met Greensboro resident Karen Becker, who convinced her to start a similar class in the Gate City. The class began at Lewis Recreation Center in September of that year. Mary later went to St Andrews, Scotland, for her Teacher’s Certificate, relocating to Greensboro in 1983 to build the echocardiography laboratory at Moses Cone Hospital. Becker was a weaver at Old Salem with a strong background in early American domestic skills and international folk dancing.
“We started with a small group of about eight or nine dancers,” Becker remembers. “In Scottish dancing, we dance with a partner but it is the whole group, or set, that dances as a team.” Adds Mary: “Everyone dances with everyone else and has their part in the dance. There is no need to come with a partner. It’s a very egalitarian dance form.” Scottish dance steps, she explains, are somewhat challenging and energetic. The figures are complex, and unlike contra or traditional American square dancing, there is no one calling out the moves. The steps, holds and patterns must be learned, something that requires both physical exertion and mental focus. “These factors set Scottish dance apart, and those of us who love it are forever young,” she adds with a laugh.
“It’s really not as hard as it seems to someone watching it for the first time,” echoes Becker, today a semiretired costume and living history coordinator at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia. “When it’s done well, with the springs and setting steps done in quick time, Scottish country dancing is like watching people take flight, barely tethered to the floor. The energy is quite striking and irresistible.”
Another misconception, says member Patty Lindsay Kinkade, a former American history teacher at Southeast Guilford High School who joined the dance group in 1985, is that participants are obliged to have Scottish heritage and a family tartan. “I happen to wear a Lindsay tartan but other members wear whatever tartan appeals to them,” she says. “Some have Scottish heritage. But many others don’t. “It’s the enjoyment of sharing the dance tradition and dressing up to celebrate this tradition that appeals to everyone.”
For her part, longtime member and textile designer Sarah Vincent points out that a Scottish dancer could go anywhere in the world and feel “right at home joining a dance that goes back hundreds of years.” She got hooked on bagpipe music in college in Michigan and soon found her way to the Greensboro group in 1985, a year after the local club became an official sponsored club of Greensboro Parks and Recreation.
Early on, the Greensboro Society became affioliated with the Royal Scottish Dance Society (RSCDS), based in Edinburgh, which promotes and develops Scottish country dance and music worldwide for the benefit of future generationa. They are now members of the Carolina Branch.
The local chapter found a new home and a boost in membership at The Guilford Grange Hall, which is also the home to the robust Fiddle & Bow Country Dancers. “The wooden floor there is perfect for country dancing — and much kinder to aging bodies,” notes Pete Campbell, inspiringly spry at 79 years and counting. “A good number of our regulars are older folks who find dancing like this a great way to stay in shape — and mentally sharp. It’s also the warm social aspect that appeals to everyone.”
No small amount of socializing goes on between dance sets, when some dancers inevitably “pause to take a rest and catch up on news and gossip,” quips Karen Becker.
“It’s really like a great big family,” agrees Sarah Vincent. “A social dance in which you change partners often and make friends easily doing it. Nobody really cares if you screw up. The fun and friendships are the important parts. Would you believe, weddings have come out of these dances?! We also attend each other’s anniversaries, births and even funerals.”
Over the years, the Greensboro group has performed at Celtic festivals around the state, including the annual one at Bethabara. Last autumn, the Greensboro dancers were featured performers at Hillsborough’s inaugural Outlandish Scottish Festival, with Pete Campbell introducing scores of festivalgoers to traditional Cèilidh dancing that had whole families and young couples enthusiastically joining the dance.
“Scottish country dance is really for everyone, young and old, from any walk of life,” says Mary McConnell. “For many of us, it is a joyful thing to dress up and dance the way others have done for centuries.” She adds that her hope is to attract younger dancers from around the Gate City. In the meantime, the society’s regular dance class series, which began in September, is on Tuesday nights Tuesday night at The Grange. The first class is free of charge and open to all.
A highlight of the Scottish year comes this month with the annual Burns Night supper — a worldwide observance that typically celebrates the life and poetry of Ayrshire bard Robert Burns with music, poetry, dance and a famous “Address to the Haggis” on or about his birthday January 25.
This year, as in years past, Karen Becker will make the traditional haggis — best not to ask for the ingredient list — to be served with “neeps and tatties” along with traditional cock-a-leekie soup.
Piper David Thomas will lead the procession for the meal, followed by an evening of toasts, poetry and song, with Pete Campbell reciting the poet’s famous address from memory.
“It should be a wee fine time for all,” Campbell allows with his usual spry twinkle. OH
When Jimmy McDodson is toasting Rabbie Burns wi’ a wee dram, don’t inquire too closely what he’s wearing ’neath his kilt.