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Royal Scottish Dancers Cut A Rug
by Allan Appel | Aug 23, 2013 12:10 pm
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Dance, The Heights
Theresa Forbes deliberately “mushed,” or scuffed, her slippers so they wouldn’t, well, slip. Bob Cole tightened his ghillies. Leader Peter Price called out “Rights and lefts, figure eight, right hands cross above!”
Then he punched the music on his laptop and six couples commenced to dance the elegant “Jane LaTaille.”
Welcome to the New Haven branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.
Every Tuesday night in August the society turns the wooden floor of the Friends Society at the summit of East Grand Avenue in Fair Haven Heights into a fun practice classroom that keeps the 18th century reels, and strathspeys alive and well and jigging along for another generation.
On Tuesday night six couples came for the class; during the year, when the group practices at the Whitney Arts Center, many more show up to hone the dances in which couples move down what are called “long-wise sets.” They dance with others as they step, whirl, skip, join and release hands in various prescribed postures and positions.
“I have no Scottish heritage. I’m an adopted child. I choose my own nationality. On the days I dance, I’m Scottish,” said Price, who discovered Scottish country dancing one night in 1976 when he was just out looking for something to do and wandered into a session on Yale’s campus.
A self-described “academic brat,” Price went on to a career overhauling jet engines, but his passion has remained Scottish country dancing, which he has been practicing and teaching since 1979.
“When I first heard it, it felt like I came home. I never remember being a beginner. I seem always to be remembering it,” he said.
Now 60, with powerful legs, a light step, and an easy manner, Price called the thespian art “a living tradition.” It originated in the minuet-like steps that royals did in their courts beginning in the late Renaissance. He said there are about 40 written, choreographed “building blocks,” out of which there are currently 18,000 separate and distinct dances, and growing.
When the dances moved across the sea to the Americas, the steps altered because the dances were not being done in large ballrooms but rather in a farmer’s kitchen.
Leslie Kearney, one of the regular teachers at the Whitney Center, said Scottish dance is indeed related to New England contra dancing. This particular form has more precise footwork and turn-outs reminiscent of ballet; there are as many as five or six different positions taken in succession during the course of a dance.
Kearney, who’s been dancing 35 years and teaching 25, called it “great exercise. It’s kind of like a family.”
Another of the dancers, Susan Leff, sent in this video of the group’s 2010 ball. That’s the annual event, held in March, in which women wear gowns and men kilts.
“That’s what all the practice leads to,” said Price.
Then he called out the next dance, “On the Quarterdeck. One: Set and crossover. Two: Set and turn with right hand.”
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It’s not a “thespian art.” “Thespian” relates to dramatic arts. It’s a terpsichorean art—after Terpsichore, the Muse of dancing.
I don’t know how anyone can listen to that music and not want to dance!
As for New England contradancing, it’s a lot simpler than the Scottish kind—no fancy footwork to learn. If you can walk, you can dance contras. Check out the New Haven Country Dancers for more information!