Folk, Jazz etc: The next step to reviving an art overshadowed by 'proper' dancing

ISLE of Skye, summer of 1996, and I found myself looking on as, at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the misty isle's Gaelic college, a common room floor pounded with massed step-dancers, gathered on the last day of the college's music summer school, whipped into a heel-and-toe frenzy by their tutor, Harvey Beaton from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Outside, strathspey-playing ranks of fiddlers were advancing inexorably on that same room, bows driven by the imprecations of their own teachers, the US-based Scot Alastair Fraser and Buddy McMaster, grand old man of Cape Breton fiddling.

The two seemingly irresistible forces managed to accommodate each other without the kind of potentially catastrophic collision that particle physicists dream about, but it was a scene not easily forgotten, and also my first encounter with the kind of step-dance that had virtually died out in Scotland but was flourishing amid the Gaelic diaspora of Nova Scotia.

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Also at that heady Skye gathering was Caroline Reagh, then a Highland dancer but now - along with fellow-dancer Sandra Robertson and piper and dancer Fin Moore - a core member of Dannsa the Kingussie-based group which has done much over the past few years to promote the energetically revived art of Scottish step-dancing.

On Saturday Dannsa, joined by some other musicians, took the art to new heights, dare I say, by launching their DVD, Learn to Scottish Step-Dance with Dannsa, at the Ptarmigan top station on Cairn Gorm, some 3,540ft (1,079m) above sea level. "We held a ceilidh at the bottom of the hill then went up on the funicular and held step dance demonstrations at the top," says Sandra Robertson. It must have been an eye-opener for skiers and snowboarders arriving to catch the first snow of the season and finding the funicular rattling with syncopated feet.

Originally from Barra but now living in Kingussie, Robertson experienced her own step-dancing epiphany during the 1990s, after encountering a step-dancing Cape Breton Islander on Uist. Much has been made over the past couple of years of Cape Breton having preserved the art which the Old Country had lost through clearance, cultural indifference and Scottish country dance zealots introducing the only "correct" way to dance into teacher training colleges.

Dancing feet die hard, however, and the vigorous rattle of step dancing didn't entirely vanish from these shores. The folklorist Margaret Bennett describes a one-time Highland dance champion who was researching Scottish dancing and discovered, almost incidentally, that her own mother, who hailed from Stirlingshire, had a whole repertoire of step-dances which she had never revealed to her daughter until she saw a film of similar dancing in Canada."Till then," writes Bennett, "the older lady had thought her daughter, who 'had been trained to dance properly', might ridicule her."

Also party to Scotland's forgotten dance steps was Jamie MacDonald Reid, with whose often overlooked Drumalban group Robertson was involved in research into older dance styles. And Robertson recalls in her native Barra, the late Fearchar MacNeil, a Hebridean dance revivalist, telling her of his aunts lifting their long skirts to break into step-dancing.

However, the steps used by Dannsa and demonstrated on their DVD, she explains, are drawn largely from practitioners of the still vigorous Cape Breton tradition, who regard these steps as being as Scottish as the fiddle and pipe tunes to which they dance them. For musicians, too, playing for such dancing has its rewards, as Fin Moore observes on the DVD: "Getting to play all these old Scottish tunes and having people dance in that percussive way, adding rhythm to the tunes, almost like another instrument … It's really exciting."

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Who knows, following Saturday's Cairngorm capers, we may see the emergence of a whole new generation of step-dancing snowboarders. The mind boggles.

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