In this series of regular articles, our Melbourne-based correspondent meets the Positively Scottish Humans of Oz
A flurry of lively steps and swirling kilts, Highland dancing is almost as colourful as the legends surrounding its origins. Though historical accounts vary wildly, the most commonly told tale involves warriors performing sword dances as part of rumbustious rituals imitating epic deeds from Scottish folklore. Clan chiefs, so the story goes, would handpick their men at the earliest Highland games, including those who could demonstrate their strength, stamina and agility as dancers. Competitive Highland dancing flourished after the Act of Proscription was repealed in 1782 and dancing became an integral part of the modern revival of the Highland games—albeit, only for men. Until the late 19th century, that is, when a young girl called Lorna Mitchell reportedly defied tradition and entered a Highland dance competition. She paved the way for a pastime that is now dominated by women, including Christine Shields-Jones, treasurer of the Victorian Scottish Union, who’s followed in the dance steps of her Scottish ancestors to shimmy out a successful career as a Highland dancer and teacher.
Like all young girls I wanted to do ballet but my mum didn’t drive. When I was about seven, an opportunity came up to learn Highland dancing through school with a teacher in the area. I could walk from school to dance class, so I learned Highland dancing instead.
My first kilt was a MacBeth tartan and it was made by a lady in Melbourne. My second kilt was an ancient Anderson because my mother’s maiden name is Anderson. My third kilt was British Columbia.
I’ve always been successful. My great aunt did Highland dancing and I feel an affinity for Scottish culture. It’s a part of my life that I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve danced in New Zealand and at Highland gatherings in Scotland at Fort William and Pitlochry. I was the first dancer ever to win this Paterson Shield for under-12s, the Victorian Scottish Union Medal for under-16s and the Jean Schrank Cup for adults. I first won the Paterson Shield in 1974 and, exactly 40 years later, my daughter also won it. I’m hoping she’ll continue dancing but I’ve never forced my children—it’s been always up to them.
I started teaching when I was 16. I’ve now been teaching 36 years and I still keep in touch with a lot of children I’ve taught over the years. Some of them now have families of their own and I’ve had children that have gone on to become teachers themselves. Seeing what they achieved is really fulfilling.
We have male and female dancers but it’s mostly female. They dance the same style but have slightly different uniforms. The boys wear kilts and a sporran and they often wear a different hat. The girls wear a Balmoral hat and the boys wear a Glengarry or a Balmoral hat.
The steps have changed a bit over the years but primarily it’s still the same. We have set steps in some of our dances, but we have the opportunity to jazz it up or do things a little bit different when we choreograph dances for displays. We’ve come a long way in that respect.
Unfortunately, pipers are a little bit in short supply at the moment. When I first started, there would be pipers for competitions. While I was teaching, I had a piper who played for us for 20 years, but we don’t have a piper at the moment. We recorded the music of our pipers and now we use CDs and iPods.
Our numbers have lightened every year. There’s so much more children can do these days and Highland dancing isn’t one of those things that a lot of people are taking up.
As a teacher, I want the children to do their best and have a good time. There’s no ridicule if you don’t do well. Aside from the dance moves and deportment, Highland dancing teaches them sportsmanship and that just doing your best is good enough. It teaches them that you don’t have to be a winner to be a great dancer, that not all champion dancers become teachers, and that just because you’re not a champion dancer it doesn’t mean you can’t be a great teacher.
If you have a love for Highland dancing, you can achieve whatever you wish.