In an era when family values, morals, tradition and culture are questioned daily by popular media and outside exposure, it is shocking to see yet another important event for the youth of our community being cut. The annual Gaelic College Highland Dance Competition is one of the longest standing Highland Dance competitions in Canada. For this reason alone, it is a very important part of the history of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and Canada. It is also important to our Cape Breton dancers as an event for these locals to perform for their families and their community without, once again, having to leave the Island. This competition attracts dancers from all over Canada, many of which have relatives in Cape Breton, and plan their summer vacations around the competition.
This past Fall, the Gaelic College elected a new administration which included a new Executive Director and Director of Education. Under this administration, there will be a change in focus at the College, moving more towards the Gaelic language and only ‘non’ competitive studies. There will no longer be study in the Great Highland Bagpipe (only Cape Breton style piping), no Pipeband Drumming, etc. Eventually, they hope to fade out one of the College’s longest standing areas of study, Highland Dance.
The Gaelic College began in 1938 as a Gaelic institution, at a time when Gaelic was a central part of Cape Breton communities–spoken at home and in school. Years later, Highland Dance and Bagpiping were added to the curriculum due to their ties with the language, culture and music, and they have continued through its history. Step Dance and Fiddle were not added to the program until many years later–the early ’80s. I have no issue with a Gaelic focus, I think it’s wonderful. My Dad’s family is from Inverness and spoke Gaelic in their home, and my daughter is studying Gaelic Song at the Gaelic College. My issue is with the disregard for other longstanding areas of study. If, back in the day, Gaelic College administration felt Highland Dance had strong enough ties to be one of the first evolving areas of study, why does the new administration feel it cannot be part of this tradition? Yes, the fiddle and step dance have been a large part of this culture, especially renewed in the past 20+ years, however, they were not original disciplines of study at the Gaelic College back when the Gaelic was center stage, yet Highland Dance was.
In early days, they also ran an annual Gaelic Mod that hosted competitions in Gaelic Song and Story, Highland Dance, and Pipebands. Through the years, the Mod has sadly become extinct, following along with so many events that have been lost to our Island. The Highland Dance Competition, however, has continued to run successfully since its inception. Due to the dedication and loyalty I have felt towards this event, the College’s traditions, and the local dancers, I have continued to organize this for the past 20 years with the support of the previous administrations and community volunteers. I run this purely on a volunteer basis, with no association as is the norm with other competitions.
So why would the Gaelic College pull this event? Their answer, aside from their new non-competitive view, is they don’t feel Highland Dance is connected in any way to the Gaelic Culture!!! I asked where they are getting their history and beliefs, and it was simply stated they just knew these things from being around the Gaelic lifestyle. This is very interesting. Certainly the dancing has changed over time, but it should still have a place in the culture, so it doesn’t get completely lost. Quoting a friend who has his Masters in Ethnochoreology (Traditional Dance Studies): “Both strands of the dance tradition (Highland & Step) should co-habit as they support and inform each other. Highland Flings have been danced to puirt a beul (mouth music) in Scotland for the past 50-60 years”…as have they been danced at the Gaelic College through mouth music in my younger years, and currently with my own students.
Healthy competition for youth has been a reason why many of these Celtic traditions have lasted through a time where media promotes a much more elaborate sense of living for youth. Competition allows young people to set goals, strive for improvement and share their skills with others. Isn’t this what our Gaelic/Cape Breton culture is about: families actually spending time together at community events full of tradition, culture and values? Not to mention the money that goes back in to our community’s economy when 100-200 dancers and their families spend the weekend dancing in Cape Breton (staying at our hotels, buying our gas, eating at our restaurants, shopping at our stores). I think maybe the administration may want to consider attending such an event before deciding its fate.
This is a disappointing loss to Highland Dance, which is a unique art form in many areas around the world. It is a great loss to our history and culture on the Island and within the Province, where Highland Dance competitions and Highland Games have been decreasing annually due to monetary reasons. Why can’t the Gaelic College pursue its ideals with the Gaelic Language, while still allowing the school portion of the institution to teach other just as relevant sectors of the culture? How is it that suddenly a few people get to decide what is a relevant part of tradition at the Gaelic College? If Highland Dance was relevant enough to be a starting new discipline way back in early Gaelic College days, why is it suddenly “not part of the culture”?
If our own Island, an Island that survives on our Celtic culture through tourism, and the Gaelic College, an institution promising to promote the local culture within our community, does not support Highland Dance… then who exactly will?
The Gaelic College is run overall by a Board of Governors. This Board makes all final decisions regarding the Gaelic College. If you would like to support the continuation of Highland Dance and the Dance Competition at the Gaelic College, please send any letters of support along to the Board Chairperson: Maureen Carroll firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kelly MacArthur is the Director of the MacArthur School of Dance. She has been teaching Highland & Step Dance at the Gaelic College for the past 23 years. Kelly is the organizer of the GC Highland Dance Competition.