Dance teacher's devotion more than a Fling Instructor: During the 1980s, Cheryl Kirby was one of the best Scottish dancers in the world. Now she coaches others on the fine points.

July 02, 1998|By Becky Slade Yoshitani | Becky Slade Yoshitani,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

By the time she was 15, Cheryl Fisher was a national champion. She traveled -- by herself -- to Scotland for the 1981 world championships.

Crushed to finish only fifth, she returned to her home in Philadelphia and rededicated herself to her art. By 1985, she was judged the third-best Scottish dancer in the world.

Now 32, Cheryl Fisher Kirby is hoping the next North American champion comes out of the basement of her home in Clarksville. This summer, 18-year-old Marla Moffet is traveling weekly from Virginia for two-hour private lessons with Kirby.

Next month, Moffet will return for the sixth time to the U.S. championships and then to the North American championships.

Scottish Highland dancing is one of the oldest forms of folk dance, dating to the 1500s. Bearing colorful names like Flora McDougal's Fancy and the Highland Fling, the dances are characterized by two to three minutes of rapid footwork and perpetual hopping.

The dancers are usually winded by the end of the short routine.

"It's exceptionally aerobic," says Kirby.

To dance at the highest level requires commitment and sacrifice. Serious competitors practice at least two hours every day, with additional time spent on weight training.

Kirby says she practiced for up to three hours a day during her competitive years. "I had no life," she acknowledges.

Top competitors travel around the country, and even internationally, for competitions. Moffet has competed as far away Seattle and San Diego.

Injuries, such as shin splints and stress fractures, are common. Last year, a stress fracture in her foot held Moffet to second place in regional championships. She was forced out of competition and restricted from all exercise for four months.

The sport can also damage the wallet. Though the family of a beginning child can get away with spending $200 -- plus shoes -- on costumes for a season, the cost of a complete adult uniform -- authentic kilt, matching socks, blouse, and vest or jacket -- starts $600 and can easily run beyond $800.

Additional costumes for specific dances add another $100. The Scottish-made shoes cost $40 a pair. National-level competitors go through two pairs a summer.

Competitions are held almost weekly during the summer, usually as part of local Scottish festivals and Highlands games. Amid log tossing, pipe-band competitions, sheep dog demonstrations and whiskey tastings, dancers from age 5 to adults compete in various categories.

The dances are very tightly scripted series of steps -- and each step contains 10 to 20 moves, all described down to the angle of the head. While the ability to spring vigorously above the dance platform counts heavily, the dancer can never win without proper positioning as well. No matter how breathless the dance, the dancer must display supple, effortless movement.

At least an hour of Moffet's two-hour private lesson with Kirby is devoted to positioning.

"I break down the steps in the individual positions and work on that, before putting the whole dance together," Kirby explains.

Most dances share colorful stories. The Sword Dance, the ancient war dance of the Scottish Gael, comes from the legend of Ghillie Callum, a Celtic prince who defeated one of Macbeth's chiefs at the battle of Dunsinane. Callum took the sword from his conquest, crossed it over his own and danced over them.

Touching a sword during the dance is considered extremely bad luck. Such a fauxpas is even worse during competition -- it can lead to disqualification.

There are similar stories behind the other three highland dances NTC used in competition -- the Highland Fling, The Seann Triubhas, and Reels.

The Fling is believed to have originated as a dance on a shield with a sharp steel spike protruding 6 inches above its center. The dance requires the dancer to snap to exact position in midair.

The Seann Triubhas -- pronounced "shawn trews" and meaning "old trousers" in Gaelic -- celebrates the overthrow of the British when Scottish clansmen shed their pants in favor of outlawed kilts. It is characterized by split leaps. And the reels were supposedly created by villagers keeping warm while waiting for their pastor outside the church.

The Scottish version of the Irish jig includes a shillelagh -- a stylized club -- for the boy. Spinning and twirling, the shillelagh of an experienced jig dancer is fascinating to behold. In inexperienced hands, it can be dangerous.

"I used to be afraid of dancing next to the boys during the jig," says Kirby. "My mother was hit on the head with one once."

Taught by her mother, Kirby began competing when she was 5, winning seven national championship titles before the age of 25. With the birth of her four sons (now ages 7, 5, 2 and 1) she turned to judging and teaching.

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