John Clark once swore he’d never wear a kilt, not even when his dad brought home a bolt of the family tartan from Scotland.
And when his wife Susan signed them up for Scottish country dancing class at Fallingbrook Presbyterian, John grumbled.
“I used to dance all the time. I had a great time doing it,” says the former army reserve officer, smiling. In bars or in ballrooms, dancing was something “young and foolish people do.”
“But I had no interest doing something called ‘Scottish Country Dancing,’” he said.
Much has changed since John got swept into that beginner’s class at Fallingbrook back in 1999.
Today, he dances quick-footed Scottish reels and jigs, stately Strathspeys, and open-floor ceilidhs every chance he gets.
“I can go dancing – and people do – five nights a week,” said Clark.
Even outside the halls, dancing keeps Clark on his toes. As chair of the Toronto-area chapter of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, he volunteers to help out 26 dance groups stretching from Streetsville to Port Perry, Birch Cliff to Alliston.
As for wearing a kilt, Clark has already told his daughter what he will wear to his daughter’s wedding next year – his father’s kilt, of course, which he had tailored years ago.
“Guys in my regiment who knew me way back when just laughed,” he said.
So how exactly did Clark find his Scottish country dancing feet?
A Beach Metro News reporter who asked that question got a very involved sort of answer – an introductory class on the springy wood floor at Eastminster United Church.
Guided by instructor Maureen Richardson and a few brave partners, this flat-footed reporter saw how Scottish country dance involves all the other pairs of dancers on the floor as well as the person who brought you.
“It’s a lot different than ballroom,” Clark said. “With ballroom, you’re a couple dancing alone –you’re always holding.”
But in Scottish country dancing, the holds tend to be as light as the footsteps – partners rarely hold hands for long, and they’re liable to wheel off course if they do, Richardson warned. Most dances involve three or four couples who dance in a set, where one couple’s move spurs a move in another and partners may switch and switch back again.
The result, said Clark, is that you’re always meeting or dancing with other people.
“It’s one of the friendliest communities I’ve ever been with,” he said. “I basically have about 300 new friends since I started dancing.”
So far as anyone can tell, Clark said there are about 13,000 Scottish country dances written down, and some date back as far as the 1600s.
Many of the steps, such as the pas de basque (step of the Basques) or the poussette (a step to switch places) come from French and other mainland European traditions.
“If you look back in history, some of the royalty of Scotland lived in Italy, Spain, and France after they were exiled,” he said.
From its headquarters in Edinburgh, the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society has published 48 books of dances. Starting in the 1920s as a way to preserve the tradition, which had its first heyday in the 18th century, the books include new ones, too.
One dance in Book 13, the “Victory Book” published after the Second World War, includes a dance called the Reel of the 51st Highlanders. Written by a Scottish lieutenant who was being held as a prisoner of war, its steps draw Saint Andrew’s Cross, which is featured on the Scottish flag.
“They tried to send the instructions back to Scotland, and the Germans wouldn’t let them through,” Clark said. “They thought it was some kind of plan to escape, or they were sending information about troop movements or something.”
When the Queen finally saw the dance performed, she requested that it go into the next Society book.
Clark said Scottish country dancing has spread well outside of Scotland – two of the world’s largest RCDS branches are in New Zealand and Japan.
“Anywhere the Scots went, there’s dancing,” Clark said. “Even in Moscow.”
And here in Toronto, Clark called Scottish country dance the city’s “best kept secret.”
For one thing, Toronto dancers often get to enjoy live music by the likes of Scotch Mist or Don Bartlett and The Scottish Heirs, he said. The city also hosts a grand Tartan Ball at the Royal York that is now entering its 52nd year.
Dancing at the 50th Tartan Ball was the goal that propelled Clark through a knee surgery two years ago – almost a little too quickly.
“One day my physio came up and said, ‘What are you listening to? Because you’re working too hard,” he said, laughing.
Clark played her the up-tempo jigs and reels he was listening to as he exercised, and explained his goal. She made him promise to send a video of him on the dance floor, and he did – the floor was still full of couples well after midnight.
Clark said anyone interested in Scottish country dance should give it a try, even if you don’t bring a partner.
“If hubby doesn’t want to come, he eventually will because you’re always going out somewhere with other people,” he said, laughing.
“All you need are soft shoes and the willingness to have a good time.”