[This is an excerpt from the Highland dance chapter of my book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada.]
Even though I’m an adult, I must go back to the basics if I want to learn Highland dance properly. Jasmin gathers me and a group of six people and leads us into a yellow and white striped tent set up for dance workshops [during the New Brunswick Highland Games in Fredericton]. There are two wobbly pieces of plywood set down on the grass, acting as a stage, a plastic table covered in sample costumes that Jasmin has brought in, and fold up chairs set out in eight rows for those who don’t want to dance themselves but are interested in learning about it.
“So, only two of you want to join me?” asks Jasmin playfully, after noticing that only one other young woman plus myself have stepped onto the plywood stage.
“Don’t be scared, I’m starting you right from the beginning!” But no one moves in their seats except for the occasional squirm and self-conscious smile.
The first thing we’re taught is called a pas de basque, which is a main step in the Sword Dance. It is also one of the first steps youngsters as little as two years old learn in their first Highland dance classes. I guess we are starting right from the beginning.
With pointed toes, we move back and forth from one foot to the other with two steps on the spot in between, the first step on the ball of the foot. It’s almost like a waltz but instead of whirling around the room, we move from side to side with turned out legs.
“And now high cuts!” Jasmin shouts over the pre-recorded pipe music, which mingles with the live pipers warming up on the other side of the field. Here we switch to quick slicing movements, continuing to jump from one foot to the other but pointing the back foot up to the back of our other calf. We start alternating between pas de basque and high cuts, doing six pas de basque and four quick high cuts to complete a phrase of the music. After a few repetitions, Jasmin stops the music and we stand there panting like dogs that have been chasing their tails in the desert, our calves about to burst into flames.
“Now, we learn the arms,” Jasmin continues, barely winded. You’ll often see Highland dancers with their arms slightly rounded up in the air like a fifth position in ballet. Their fingers differ completely, though: instead of lengthened, evenly spaced fingers, they must place their thumbs in contact with the first joint of their middle fingers, their pointers sticking straight out; the next finger points a little bit higher than the middle fingers but below the pointers, and their pinkies stick straight up in the air like they’re drinking English tea.
This position is said to replicate that of the stag, the upraised arms and fingers acting as antlers. It was the most common theory I was given by dancers for the reasoning behind the position, but historical books also point out that the hands could have been lifted for help with balance and the stag imitation added as a more modern stylization. Regardless, dancers nowadays hold fast to the stag interpretation and are required to use this placement in competition.
The pas de basque and high cuts make up part of the Sword Dance, or Gille Callum. Jasmin tells us that in competition, swords are laid down on the ground and you can’t touch any part of them while dancing. It is the only Highland dance where you are allowed to look down at your feet while competing, but if you touch a sword, you are disqualified immediately.
I chat with Jasmin’s mother this weekend, too, and she recounts that when her daughter was a child, she would watch her do the sword dance with concern. “It’s the only dance where you’re allowed to look at your feet – but she didn’t. The first few times she did it, I would hold my breath because I didn’t know how she did that without tripping. And I nearly passed out from holding my breath! She’d be going around the swords and she wouldn’t look down. And I was like, ‘Honey, that’s the one you can look down.’ So we had to train her to look down for the Sword Dance.”
If Jasmin had done this out on the war field in the distant past, not looking down could have been a fatal mistake…
This is an excerpt from the book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada by Lori Henry.