Guest article by Fiona McLean, Fèis Spè
What happens when a group of young traditional musicians spend a week learning step dance? 'Sheer magic' said one audience member; 'just wonderful' from another. The eight young people from the Fèis Spè Cairngorms Cèilidh Trail stunned audiences with their live step dance performances accompanied by fellow band members instrumentally and through puirt a' beul Gaelic song.
Fèis Spè is local to Badenoch and Strathspey in the Cairngorms National Park, promoting traditional music and Gaelic culture to young people from the ages of 5 to 22. There is a packed programme of activities, including weekly classes; Fèis Week for school age children where they can learn traditional music, song and dance; a cèilidh band for teenage musicians; and the Cairngorms Cèilidh Trail for 16 to 22 year olds, which goes on tour during the summer, playing to audiences throughout the Cairngorms National Park.
Apart from the opportunity to learn step dance at Fèis Week, there had been no previous attempt to mainstream step dance in the musical tradition taught to the young people. We were keen to rectify this, recognising that the rhythm of step dance was integral to the music and song tradition of Gaelic culture. Although there has been a concerted effort over the past 25 years to reintroduce step dance to Scotland, it has not yet reintegrated into the social fabric of the Scottish traditional music scene in the way it exists in Cape Breton. And we realised that this is because of its separation from the tradition of accompaniment by live music and Gaelic song. Or to turn it on its head, traditional music and Gaelic song had lost a significant dimension by not incorporating the beat, rhythm and spectacle of step dance.
We were on a mission. Not just to reinvigorate the step dance revival but to help sustain it, to augment our own musical tradition, by reintegrating it in to our musical and song repertoire. Pat Ballantyne wrote in a blog on her PhD thesis on the attitudes of Scottish traditional musicians towards dance, that 'It appears that a problem for step dancers in Scotland is that not many musicians are aware of the rhythmic emphasis and impetus that the dance style demands'. As step dancer Màiri Britton kept emphasising to us, many Scottish musicians do not have the 'lift' that is required for step dance.
Our goal is for step dance to become mainstream to all Fèis Spè activities, with our bands including step dance as a feature of their performances, similar to the popular traditional band, Breabach. Our ambition is for step dance to become a feature of cèilidh dances, where participants dance a square dance alongside the strip the willow and dashing white sergeant.
We decided to start our programme with the eight youngsters from the Cairngorms Cèilidh Trail, who could share the dances with other young people who participate in Fèis Spè activities and with the audiences on their tour. We received funding from our parent body Fèisean nan Gàidheal to match funding we had received from the Robertson Trust, Gannochy Trust and Hugh Fraser Foundation, while from Bòrd na Gàidhlig we were awarded funding for the puirt a' beul workshops.
We were incredibly lucky in attracting some of the best dancers and musicians in the traditional music and dance scene. Màiri Britton had literally stepped off the plane from a year's sojourn in Cape Breton immersing herself in the step dance tradition; Caroline Reagh from the step dance group Dannsa was also going to be working with the youngsters throughout their tour; Ewen Henderson, a Gaelic singer who is also a step dancer, worked with the band members on puirt a' beul accompaniment; and the multi talented Mairi Campbell ensured that the music, song and dance were fully integrated.
The project took place over five days between the band's initial training programme and their tour of the Cairngorms National Park. Only one band member had danced to any extent before, the rest being musicians and singers. By the end of the week almost every member was sufficiently proficient at step dance to entertain an audience, to such an extent that the loudest applause was reserved for the step dance performances. Every band member thoroughly enjoyed the week, with a number of them intending to continue their step dance in order to include it in future musical performances. Even the band members who were not keen dancers felt they had benefitted significantly from the week, and all were huge advocates for including step dance in a traditional music performance repertoire.
So what next for Fèis Spè? Well, we will continue to offer step dance tuition at our Fèis Week, and also ensure that all the children attending learn some basic steps and include them in a square dance at the week's cèilidh dance. We are hoping to offer weekly classes in step dance for school age young people, and we will continue to include step dance in the training schedule for our two bands, the teenage band, the Fèis Spè Cèilidh Band, and of course, the Cairngorms Cèilidh Trail. We are ambitious in our aims and one day in the not too distant future we hope that step dance is re-integrated in to the traditional music scene in Scotland for all to enjoy.