“You did say this is for beginners, right?”
The query, only half-joking, was paired with a nervous laugh. It came from one of eight women taking the floor Tuesday night to try Scottish country dance. The class in the fellowship hall of Starkville’s Trinity Presbyterian Church was casual. Free, too, sponsored by the Golden Triangle Celts. This was the first of three weeks of sessions designed as an introduction to the world of Scottish, English and Irish social dancing.
The Celts, established in 2003, is a “free and open organization for the love and promotion of all things Celtic.” There are no membership requirements, dues or regular meetings. But there is a spirit of joyful celebration throughout the year on occasions such as Robbie Burns’ birthday, St. Patrick’s Day and the Cotton District Arts Festival, among others.
The idea of free dance instruction was inspired by a Celtic gathering set for July 3 in Starkville. The ceili (typical Irish spelling) or ceilidh (Scottish; both pronounced kay-lee) will be held at Buffalo Wild Wings, open to all.
The first week of class (three nights per week) was devoted to Scottish dance, led by Robby McCain. The week of June 15 will focus on English country dancing, taught by Dr. Amy Mallory-Kani. Dr. Beverly Joyce will lead Irish dance during the week of June 22. Anyone may come, to some or all of the sessions from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the church hall.
“This is an opportunity — a push from the pool — for people to learn some of the steps so they can enjoy taking part in the dancing July 3,” said Paige Lawes, a driving force behind the Golden Triangle Celts.
Outfitted in his kilt, McCain began class Tuesday. With a sporran (pouch) at his waist and dirk (dagger) in the hosetop, he displayed the traditional dress of men in the 16th century Scottish Highlands. The Mississippi State graduate student studied Irish dance for three years while at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“I’m mostly Irish or Scots-Irish, and I’ve always liked dancing,” he said, noting how the craze took off after the stage show “Riverdance” gained wide acclaim.
He arranged dancers in formations and illustrated the pas de basque, a basic step in three beats. Before long, the group was on its way, learning dances with names like Dashing White Sergeant and Gay Gordon.
“Go, Mary Margaret!” Lawes shouted, clapping to lively music as Mary Margaret Stuart executed a lane change. Celebratory whoops went up as dancing continued and occasional missteps sparked laughter.
“Just get back to where you’re supposed to,” Lawes called out as sets of four tried a tricky exchange.
Dr. Beverly Joyce of Columbus, and Gail Gillis and Paige Lawes of Starkville, were experienced dancers in the group. All wore ghillies — laced shoes for Celtic dancing. Other participants were just starting out, but making headway.
Lauriane Yehouenou is from Benin, a small country in West Africa. Celtic dance was the last thing she envisioned doing when she came to MSU to work on her master’s degree in agricultural ecnomics. The same goes for Hazel Andrews, from Trinidad. Gillis invited the women to the class.
“This is very new for me, the music, the way of dancing,” said Yehouenou. She and Gillis have worked out an exchange of sorts: “I will do this, and then I will teach her how to do my African music and dancing,” Yehouenou smiled.
From the English countryside
Dr. Amy Mallory-Kani will instruct the second week of dance. The MSU assistant professor of English became active in English social dance while getting her Ph.D. in upstate New York. The early style was popular in the 17th through 19th century as a way for young men and women to meet and converse, all within decorous confines of groups that often danced in lines, males on one side, females on the other. The advent of the waltz in the early 1800s changed the dynamics.
“Now we were dancing with one person … it was a little bit naughty,” Mallory-Kani said.
Participants will learn dances like Hole in the Wall, named for a dance turn where partners capture each other’s gaze — which made this movement a gentle form of flirting.
While Scottish and Irish dance share similarities, they are each unique, explained Joyce. The Mississippi University for Women art professor’s grandparents were immigrants from Ireland’s Counties Mayo and Roscommon. Her early training came via a former Scottish Highland world champion dancer in Kansas.
Expect to get acquainted with the Siege of Ennis and Walls of Limerick during the third session led by Joyce.
“We’ll learn some dances that you could be anywhere in the world and be able to jump in and do them,” she remarked. “You have a sense of accomplishment once you get the steps. It’s a tiny bit of a challenge, but it’s a lot of fun and you meet people from all different backgrounds.”
It’s also good exercise. As the old joke goes, it’s “Eire-obic.” (Eire is the Irish word for Ireland.)
When dancers paused for a deserved break Tuesday, McCain went it alone to demonstrate the Highland Fling. At the end of the war dance, his shirt damp with sweat, his face carried a tired smile. Applause erupted from his audience.
Overhead, fluorescent lights starkly illuminated institutional tile flooring, folding tables and metal chairs. But by session’s end, the dancers may have imagined they were in the rural Scottish countryside, in a beamed village hall or private home — perhaps gathered on a dark night with neighbors, listening to legends of ancient heroes and heroines and dancing to music written an age ago.
Taking part in the steps is a kind of living history, Mallory-Kani said — an opportunity to be in the experience of a time long past, but still relevant today.
Editor’s note: For more information on the free dance sessions or the Celtic gathering July 3, contact Paige Lawes at 662-324-1507.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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