Mother, daughter bond over Scottish Highland dancing

NEIGHBORS

July 09, 2004|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HEIDI RHODES says she doesn't have an ounce of Scottish blood in her. But mention the words "Highland fling," and she easily shows off her knowledge of Scottish Highland dancing, the Celtic art form that captured her heart 14 years ago.

Rhodes' passion took on a new meaning six years ago when her daughter, Jessica Schmitz, now 13, decided to follow in her footsteps.

Rhodes and her daughter are members of the Columbia School of Highland Dance, started in 1976 by Bonnie Wylie. The school, now in Elkridge, teaches Scottish Highland dancing, an energetic blending of balletic movements with precise jumps based on the regimented training of British seamen.

"It requires a lot of strength, balance and poise; timing is vital," Rhodes said at a recent Monday night practice, where she and Jessica joined other dancers on the school's homemade dance floor in Wylie's basement.

The dancers perfected "shuffling over the buckle," one of the intricate patterns of steps in the Hornpipe, a dance that mimics the actions of sailors working aboard ship. Counting is everything, as a step often involves a specific number of repetitions on one foot. The plywood floor bounced with each hop. After one dance, all were breathless.

Dancers practice to recorded bagpipe music on Wylie's boom box. But at competitions - called Highland games - they perform with a live piper.

In competition, Highland dancers are judged on technique, turnout, point and elevation. Judging is based on individual performance, even during group dances.

Some competitive dances call for championship steps, which are changed and set annually by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dance.

"It's a young person's competitive game, but it's still fun if you're older," said Rhodes, who is in her early 40s.

Children ages 3 to 6 are grouped into a primary category. But starting at 7, competitive dancers are ranked based on skill, progressing through beginners, novice, intermediate and premier levels. To reach intermediate, a dancer must receive a first, second or third place in six competitions at beginner level and six at novice. Dancers remain in intermediate for a year before automatically advancing to premier. Prize money can be won when dancers turn 18.

For premier dancers, judging includes appropriate attire.

"I've seen points taken off for the diamonds on your socks not being perfectly aligned," said Rhodes, who holds a premier ranking.

Dances like the Highland fling and the Seann Truibhas - which celebrates the lifting of a century-long ban on kilts by Queen Victoria, Rhodes said - are performed in tartan kilts, ruffled white blouses and velvet vests trimmed with gold or silver braid. Matching tartan hose and laced black dance shoes, called "ghillies," complete the outfit.

For most national dances, a performer wears a white dress with a tartan plaid draped over the shoulder and pinned at the waist, or a blouse, vest and skirt, draped with a plaid. An exception is the Hornpipe, which requires a navy or white sailor suit with a traditional box-like British seaman's hat strapped under the chin.

Scottish Highland dancing also has its own version of an Irish jig, which Rhodes describes as a Scotsman's gentle spoof on the Irish. It is danced in a red or green full-skirted dress with matching-heeled "jig" shoes, resembling tap shoes.

Costumes can be expensive, running several hundred dollars for a kilt and vest. Dance shoes can cost $60 to $80 - and two pairs are needed, one for practice and one for competition. Since Jessica is still growing, Rhodes usually buys her costumes secondhand at games or from other members of the school, where dancers often pass along costumes and share chaperone duties and rides to festivals or games.

A dancer since childhood, Rhodes said she fell in love with Highland dancing during a two-year stay in Scotland, where her former husband was stationed in the military.

She continued to dance after her daughter was born, and while they were transferred to England and back to the United States in the mid-1990s. A petite, athletic woman who described her background as Eastern European Jewish, Rhodes competed in Highland games until last year. Now, she dances several times a year at exhibitions.

At first it was hard to give up competing, Rhodes said, but now she enjoys traveling with Jessica to games and festivals. She limits their trips to a comfortable three-hour drive from their home in Savage.

"It's kind of fun having a mother-daughter thing," Jessica said. "Now that she's not competing, she can just be a dance mom."

Members of the Columbia School of Highland Dance will perform at the Scottish celebration at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville on Sept. 18 and 19, and will compete Oct. 9 in the Anne Arundel Scottish Highland Games at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds.

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