Person Mary Isdale MacNab 242

1889 – 1966
Vancouver, Canada
Areas of activity
  • Deviser of dances
  • Publisher of dance descriptions

As reported in issue 2305 Mary Isdale MacNab is the correct spelling of her name. However some RSCDS publications and therefore the original SCDDB entry had her middle name as "Isdal".

The following brief biography was provided by Stephen Webb.

Mary Isdale (for this was her maiden name) was born in 1889 in Govan, SW Glasgow and was taught highland dancing as a child by E E Henderson. She and her family emigrated to Vancouver, Canada in 1907. In 1920 she married Allan MacNab from Lochgoilhead, their son is called Gordon. Mrs MacNab started teaching highland dancing from 1910, not confining herself to teaching the standard répertoire for highland dancing competitions she also collected, and eventually taught other less common dances.

Her collecting started, when she was encouraged by some elderly highland ladies in Vancouver to learn some of the dances they knew as children. She found that other people were also willing to teach dances to her, and her mother encouraged her to write down what she learned. Most of her collecting was done up to the mid 1940s. She collected step-dances, sword-dances, quadrilles, figure dances both country and highland resulting in a large collection. Because her collecting simply involved writing down descriptions in note form told to her or from seeing dances danced it was not unusual for Mrs MacNab to have to reconstruct the dances as she believed, using her dance expertise, that would have been, often working on a dance with her dancing class to see it all fitted. In recording the dance description Mrs MacNab would also note down from whom the dance was collected and any associated story attached to it thus, bringing the dance to life and often establishing a provenance.

Mrs MacNab was an extraordinarily unique teacher and dance collector without whose dedication many old and very interesting dances would have been lost. Macdonald of Sleat, McKenzie of Seaforth, Hebridean Weaving Lilt, inter alia come to mind. Mrs MacNab gained her RSCDS Teaching Certificate when she first visited St Andrew’s Summer School to teach in 1948 the first of her nine sets of dances. Her forte though, was making dance programmes for festivals and gatherings when she would create a historical and balanced dancing spectacle. One such concert for which she was famous in Vancouver was the annual ‘Gathering of the Clans’. A particular favourite devised dance included was the spectacular, The Brooch of Lorne. Once in 1964 even taking a team to perform at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Mary Isdale MacNab died in November 1966; the Scottish dancing world losing one of its greatest advocates, exponents and ambassadors.

The above synopsis is an abbreviated outline of Mrs MacNab’s dancing life, the reader is invited to see the full version in The Thistle No 33. Also, an excellent article on Mrs MacNab by Rosemary Coupe and Mary Murray can be found in RSCDS Bulletin Issue 82, November 2004. Another article is in issue 295 of The Reel.

A summary of the dances collected and/or arranged and/or choreographed by Mary MacNab is given on the London Branch website.

Dance(s) Collected by Mary MacNab Dance(s) Collected by Mary MacNab Mary Isdale MacNab 0