Burnaby Scottish Country Dance Club / Supplied

Looking for exhilaration? Try Scottish country dancing, says Burnaby club

“It's not just for people who have Scottish blood... I discovered this in my 20s, and I wondered why I hadn't heard about it sooner.”

By Srushti Gangdev | September 13, 2022 |5:00 am

For five decades, a group of Burnaby residents has been following a quaint passion–that of Scottish country dancing.

The Burnaby Scottish Country Dance Club recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and its new season began this week.

And it would be happy to welcome new members—no experience necessary.

“It’s not just for people who have Scottish blood or who have a kilt. I discovered this in my 20s, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard about it sooner,” said instructor Cathrine Conings.

Conings has done Scottish country dancing for about 50 years, and has been involved with the Burnaby club for about 15.

“When I first started—I mean, I just got hooked. Although I felt a bit like a klutz for a whole year, trying to remember things and trying to learn the terms, the jargon and things for all the different formations. I was determined… and it’s just been a wonderful hobby for me,” she said.

While the folk dance form involves a lot of jumping around, making it an easy way to get aerobic exercise, Conings said the thing that’s most attractive to her about Scottish country dancing is its complexity.

Each dance involves a specific pattern of moves, with dancers effortlessly threading through the group from one partner to another as a lively tune plays. Formations change from circles to lines to squares and triangles, and each dancer knows exactly where they’re going.

Remembering all the patterns and combinations is good for the brain and memory, Coning said.

Many of the more traditional dances done by Scottish country dancers are the same patterns remembered from the 17th and 18th centuries, and some even earlier.

And while the worldwide umbrella group under which the Burnaby club is based—the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society—was created in 1923 by two Scottish women for the very purpose of standardizing and preserving those dances and patterns, there’s a certain amount of innovation that’s made it to the modern dance clubs.

“Many dancers are writing their own dances, and there’s some really new formations. There’s one called the snake and it was written for somebody who was a zoologist. And so it has a snake formation in it,” Coning said.

“Well, I think these two ladies in 1923 may have been quite surprised—I don’t know if they might have been horrified—to find that we enjoy dancing this formation in more modern dance.”

What’s also wonderful about the dance style, Coning said, is its inherent sociability. You’re always changing partners and dancing with someone new—both within the patterns themselves, and within the clubs.

In fact, there are so many branches of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society worldwide that Conings packs a pair of dance shoes in her suitcase whenever she travels—and more likely than not, she finds a class to take part in or a party to join.

In Burnaby and the Lower Mainland, the club has become somewhat of a family. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and brings different skill sets—but Coning said that enriches them all.

They dance with each other, travel with each other, and send food when someone is sick.

Along with weekly Burnaby meetings, they also gather with the other clubs in the Lower Mainland (there are branches in Vancouver, the Tri-Cities, North Vancouver, Delta, Langley, and White Rock, among others) at events like Dancing in the Park (so if you see a group of lively Scottish dancers in Stanley Park one night, you know who they are).

Like so many other social groups, the participants found themselves suddenly isolated from their passions and each other when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

While they kept up classes on Zoom, Coning said it just wasn’t the same to do such a group-based dance form alone in the living room.

“It doesn’t come close to the exhilaration of dancing in a group. And especially if the dance is tricky, difficult, and you all manage to do it—it just brings such an amazing high. And always after our dance parties—we have a few formal balls a year—you get home, but you’re just … you’re flying out there,” she said.

“You’re clinging to the ceiling. It takes a while, you can’t go to bed right away. You have to just calm down because it’s really quite exhilarating.”

Kerry McDevitt / Burnaby Scottish Country Dance Club
Kerry McDevitt / Burnaby Scottish Country Dance Club

Most of the Burnaby club’s members are above the age of 60. Sadly, a few of the members in their 90s decided not to come back to dance when classes re-opened.

While some of the other clubs in the Lower Mainland have younger members, Coning said that’s not really the case here.

“We’re a little worried that we are aging out. And we’re trying to appeal to younger people with children’s classes, because children love this and they pick it up very quickly. So if we can get children’s classes going, they also get hooked, they love it,” she said.

“… After graduating from high school, or into university, they get busy, they get married, they have families—life gets in the way, but often they’ll come back to it later.”

For anyone interested in seeing if Scottish country dance is the activity for them, the Burnaby Scottish Country Dance Club holds weekly lessons on Monday evenings from mid-September through to April at Jubilee Church (7591 Gray Ave.).

New dancers can try the first two classes of the season at no cost.

And Coning also hosts monthly social dance parties called ceilidhs at the Scottish Cultural Centre, where beginners are welcome to join.

“[The ceilidhs are] not too strict with the steps and the footwork and everything. It’s a lot of fun. If you make a mistake, you just howl with laughter and carry on and everyone in your group does the same. Everyone’s very forgiving. It’s huge fun,” she said.

“And there’s sometimes collisions because two people think they’re both going to the same place at the same time. … You give your right hand here and then you give your left hand over there. And if you make a mistake, there’s some interesting consequences.”

Kerry McDevitt / Burnaby Scottish Country Dance Club
Kerry McDevitt / Burnaby Scottish Country Dance Club

Apart from the advantages brought by cardio exercise, and the benefits to memory, balance, and stability, Conings says simply that dance is “good for the soul.”

Put another way, in the words of Dr. Nicola Mooney in a 2008 paper exploring Punjabi folk dance in Canada:

“Dance is a uniquely grounding performative genre—the feet leave but are always returned to the earth.”

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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