Keeping Tradition Alive
Scottish Country Dancing lives on in Bellingham, Washington
Written by Sam Chanen
It’s 7 p.m. on a Wednesday and the once empty Fairhaven Library auditorium fills with 20 people. Creaks are heard throughout the wooden floor, as dancers make their way to the white chairs set up along the wall. In the midst of putting on their ghillie shoes, the instructor announces that class has started. The music begins and blocks the sound of the floor’s creaks. The dancers gather in a circle for warmups.
The Bellingham Scottish Country Dancers club was founded in 1983. Scottish Country Dancing features dancers who face each other in lines and dance a set of formations. The style first took place in barns and homes throughout Scotland and has roots that trace back to the English Court of Elizabeth I, according to the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.
The mission of the Bellingham Scottish Country Dancers is to spread the history of Scottish Country Dancing through the practice and celebration of the royal dance. Heather Graham, the instructor for this class, says it has been hard to carry on the dance’s tradition.
“It’s been tough, because it’s not something that grabs a lot of young people. Our age is getting older and older,” Graham says. “It used to be that you went to a [Scottish country dancing] workshop and were put on a waiting list to get in.”
Western once offered Scottish country dancing as a physical education course, but the school has since discontinued it.
The lack of youth in the auditorium is evident, but the passion of the Bellingham Scottish Country Dancers is as vibrant as the music that booms throughout the auditorium.
The music blasts through the speaker as smiles break out on the dancer’s faces. Two tempos play, the quick time and slow time. The quick time is broken into reels and jigs, while the slow time is called the strathspey. These tempos, along with Graham’s instruction, control the pace of the class.
Graham, with her dark hair and matching black glasses, stands outside of the dancer’s circle as the class taps their feet on the floor and dances on their tiptoes. She proceeds to instruct them to break out of the circle and gather in a set of four rows, where they dance figure eights around each other.
“We have your warmups, step practice and then the formation practice,” Graham says. “That’s really what our dances are; all these different formations that we put together in different combinations.”
Marion Heath joined the club 30 years ago and says the joy of dancing keeps her coming back. Her gray hair and red plaid skirt are seen as she glides across the floor, while her ghillies make little noise. Graham, who watches Heath with a smile on her face, continues to voice directions to the class.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, go,” she says. The dancers respond to Graham’s instruction and perform an almost flawless set.
“When you get on the dance floor with a really good set and everybody knows where they’re supposed to be, there is nothing like it,” Graham says. “You don’t even feel like your feet touch the floor.”
Graham began Scottish country dancing 16 years ago and became hooked from the moment she stepped on the floor. The dance provides her with a connection to her childhood and father, whose family immigrated to Canada from Scotland.
“I had grown up with music and dance my entire life and this seemed like a way of expressing it again,” Graham says. “Walking up the stairs to the [Fairhaven] library, I heard music playing and I thought I was back in my dad’s workshop. It had a very emotional connection for me.”
Scottish country dancing involves music, dance and comradery. Graham believes that in our daily life we lose sight of those basic elements that allow us to connect with other people.
The club welcomes everyone who wishes to join. There is a bit of a learning curve, but Graham insists that once you learn the formations, it’s just a matter of putting them together.
Two hours after they begin, Graham announces that practice has finished. The auditorium, once booming with the sound of music, falls quiet. Only the sound of chairs being put away and people saying goodbye can be heard. Graham and Heath are the last dancers to leave. They walk out, turn off the lights and the auditorium is empty once again.