Scottish country dancing steps lively 'Flirtatious form of social exercise'

October 09, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Marry ancient Scottish barn dancing with the formal French court dances imported by Mary Queen of Scots in the 16th century and you have Scottish country dancing, "the thinking man's square dance."

With light, skipping steps -- toes well pointed -- the dancers follow the peppy, tape-recorded rhythms of reels, jigs and hornpipes or the slower, elegant figures of the traditional Scottish strathspey.

Down the middle and back they go, turn left and right in twos and fours, round and round and back again. The music and the steps afford the dancers ample opportunity to show their grace and agility -- and to "flirt" with their partners.

Some call it "the darling diversion."

The swing and sway of the men's kilts and the women's tartan shawls adds a bright counterpoint of color to the movements as the dancers' feet whisper across the floor in their thin leather slippers. The shoes, called ghillies, resemble ballet shoes and are laced around the ankles.

"There's a feeling of grace and movement that you don't find in square dancing, and it has a really interesting repertoire of music," said Stewart MacLeod, the 35-year-old instructor for the Baltimore Scottish Country Dancers. "And you meet a lot of interesting people and form lasting friendships."

"You're going to turn your partners; there's lots of turning," Mr. MacLeod told his class at the weekly rehearsal at the Catonsville Presbyterian Church. "It's a flirtatious form of nice social exercise."

Despite its name, country dancing embraces many styles and is the ballroom dancing of Scotland, wrote the late Jean Milligan, who helped found the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in Glasgow in 1923.

She warned against describing it as folk dancing because it belongs to every class of society, in the barn and in the ballroom.

The Baltimore group is part of the society, one of nearly 600 such local organizations around the world. The society in Scotland also qualifies instructors, such as Mr. MacLeod, who studied at St. Andrew's. His brother and sister are also certified teachers.

There is no caller as in square dancing. Once the music starts -- with a rousing chord that signals the men to bow and the women to curtsy -- the dancers are on their own. Practice and concentration pay off so that the whole set appears seamless.

Like square dancing, the basic steps can be combined into an infinite number of figures. Moreover, the two styles share many terms, such as allemande and promenade.

"You can go anywhere in the world now and find a group doing the same dances to the same music, and you'll fit right in," said Nannie Koppelman of Roland Park, a charter member of the Baltimore society.

The Baltimore group, launched in 1976 by the St. Andrew's Society, had as many as 80 active members in its heyday in the mid-1980s, said Mrs. Jones, a Howard Street rare books dealer. Membership has declined, and the group is recruiting members, particularly young people, to carry on the traditions, she said.

Eighteen people turned up last week for the season's first practice, including several newcomers.

Although there are scores of standard dances, some dating to the 18th century and with quaint names such as Postie's Jig, Montgomerie's Rant, Petronella, Strip the Willow, the Gay Gordons and the Dashing White Sergeant, country dancing remains an evolving art form.

Local groups choreograph new dances, usually for special events. If a dance takes hold, it may be offered to one of the many country-dance publications and could one day emerge among the standards.

There is confusion about Scottish dancing in the public mind, Mr. MacLeod said. Many think of it as hairy, screaming highlanders or kilted soldiers whirling and leaping over crossed broadswords or little girls in bright kilts doing the Highland Fling, all to the sound of bag- pipes.

Highland dancing is performed on the toes by soloists or a small group, he said. Country dancing is done on the balls of the feet and is a more graceful, social performance by couples, Mr. MacLeod said -- "the thinking man's square dance."

The bagpipes -- Scotland's national instrument -- are little used for country dancing, said Drusilla Jones of Lutherville, another founder of the Baltimore group. Fiddles dominate, accompanied by accordion or concertina, flute and tin whistle, occasionally, a drum, and once in a while, the pipes.

Country dancing is vigorous exercise, said Mrs. Koppelman, 69. "It teaches you footwork, form, grace and proper bearing. I've done aerobics, and this is more fun."

Dancers meeting

The Baltimore Scottish Country Dancers meet at 8 p.m. each Monday at Catonsville Presbyterian Church, 1400 Frederick Road.

For information, contact Nannie Koppelman, 435-2112.

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