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My SCD Kaleidoscope Panel Contribution


The SCD Kaleidoscope conference held near Geneva, Switzerland, in July, 2009, included a panel discussion on The Future of SCD: Can We Get There From Here?, and I was invited to sit on the panel together with David Hall, Irene Paterson, and Andrew Timmins. As part of the session, each of us was invited to give a five-minute talk sharing our thoughts on the issue, and this page roughly corresponds to that presentation – I will probably forget to mention things that I said in Geneva, and elaborate on other things that I didn’t have time for there, but there you are. I have included the four interesting slides (the fifth is just a title page); you can download the whole set of slides in PDF format if you like.

NB. During my presentation I made a deliberate effort to talk about the future of SCD, not the future of the RSCDS. There are two reasons for this: First, it wasn’t the topic of the panel. Second, I happen to believe that the future of SCD does not necessarily require the RSCDS to be around. There are many valid and important reasons why keeping the RSCDS around in some form is probably a very good idea indeed, but it is worth noting that the Society didn’t exist for most of the time that country dancing existed, and it is pretty safe to say that SCD would go on even if the Society vanished off the face of the Earth tomorrow. Hence, “The Future of SCD”.

SCD and French Kissing

Slide 2
The first point that I brought up is what I call “The SCD Relation”. Briefly: SCD relates to Scotland as French kissing relates to France. There are two important lessons we can learn from this.

Firstly, the Scots did not come up with the idea of (Scottish) country dancing – they borrowed it from the English (and kept using it even when the English were no longer interested very much). The Scots do deserve a lot of credit for keeping SCD going when it was in danger of going altogether extinct, and we all should be thankful to them for that, but now that SCD is being done all over the world, including many places that don’t happen to be part of the former British Empire, there is no reason whatsoever why the Scots should get to “own” SCD forever. Looking at the global SCD scene it is obvious that much of the innovation there takes place outside Scotland, and we would do well to acknowledge that SCD is now no longer a Scottish phenomenon with the rest of the world reluctantly being allowed to tag along for the ride, but a world-wide phenomenon with part of its historic roots in Scotland, much like football is today a world-wide phenomenon with its historic roots in England. As a German I am quite sick of needing to defend my “right” to do SCD to nationalistic Scots who suggest I really ought to be doing German folk dancing, which even though it does happen, fortunately doesn’t happen too often.

[Side note (not from the conference): In fact, many of the proverbially “Scottish” bits in SCD are just retro-romanticism, anyway – there is no particular reason why one should, for example, be wearing a kilt other than that the garment looks nice and feels good for dancing. Certainly nobody wore the modern kilt for country dancing in Scotland in the early 18th century, (a) because it hadn’t been invented yet, and (b) because it would have been as out of place in polite society as bathing trunks and flippers would be at the opera today, i.e., you would be politely but firmly told to go away. Besides, there are people who prefer dancing in trousers and if they like it that way then I say more power to them.]

Slide 3
[Another side note: We do use Scottish music for dancing and it tends to work fine, but even way back when, the Scots didn’t think twice about co-opting music from other traditions, e.g., Continental opera, for their dancing if it could be made to fit. Whether a particular tune is suitable for dancing to is, IMHO, more to do with its rhythm and “lift” than the nationality of its composer. We’re fortunate that Scottish musical history has left us with many wonderful tunes that are suitable for dancing, and that people from Scotland as well as the worldwide SCD community are adding more to the repertoire all the time, but again there is no rule that says SCD can only ever be done to Scottish music, since this hasn’t even been the case historically. For example, The Glasgow Highlanders is quite a popular dance and indeed one of the very few strathspeys that did survive into the 20th century as part of the living tradition, but the official tune isn’t Scottish.]

Secondly, the SCD Relation reminds us that we do not need to encourage the French to take up French kissing because it is part of French cultural heritage. The French (and many people outside France) do it because it is an enjoyable thing to do.

This implies that efforts to goad the Scots into doing SCD because it is such a very Scottish thing to do (see the previous slide) are fundamentally misguided. People in Scotland, like people anywhere, should be doing SCD because they enjoy it, and if they do not enjoy it they should by all means do something else that they do enjoy.

Which brings us to the second point.

World domination, fast!

Slide 4
[The title of this section derives from a very early interview with Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system. When he was asked, some time during the mid-1990s, about his plans for the future of Linux, he answered, somewhat but not completely tongue-in-cheek: “I think my ‘plan’ says something like ‘World domination. Fast.’ But we’ll see.”]

In former times in Scotland, everybody danced because it was essentially the only game in town and television, let alone the Internet, hadn’t been invented. Today in the globalised world and in particular in places outside Scotland or even the “British Commonwealth”, SCD needs to attract people who are not Scottish by heritage and who have limited spare time. This means that SCD needs to compete for “mind share” with other forms of dance as well as completely different types of recreation. There are no hard and fast recipes for doing this but the following (fairly obvious) points should be repeated:

Be open
SCD groups and classes should be accommodating to visitors and “new recruits” to as large an extent as is feasible. Nobody should be turned away because their surname doesn’t start with “Mac” or because they don’t seem to “get it” on their first attempt. SCD groups should also actively communicate their existence through appropriate channels (e.g., a web site, an aggregated web site of various local dance groups, a local dance group umbrella organisation, …) and work together with other local dance organisations. The point should not be to “convert” others to SCD but simply to “be there” in a very obvious way for anybody who might be interested.
Be special
During the course of the 20th century, SCD has mutated from a repertoire of a fairly small number of dances with a handful of basic formations to a very large set of dances, many including new formations of recent invention. SCD offers everything from very simple dances for beginners to stamina-eating brain-teasers for people who have been doing SCD for years. This is a good thing. Many people who are now active in SCD enjoy SCD especially for the challenge that many dances present to the body and mind. Occasionally there are calls to the SCD community to get rid of the newfangled material and restrict itself to “traditional” dances like the Dashing White Sergeant and/or abolish aspects of current technique such as the pas de basque (see, e.g., Finlay Forbes’s article in Dance On!, issue 40). Such “dumbing down” of SCD to make it more attractive to beginners would be fatal as it would only serve to drive away the people to whom the challenge is an essential part of the enjoyment. [Side note: It should also be pointed out that there is nobody (not even the RSCDS) currently in a position to effect such a “dumbing down” while a majority of the SCD community enjoys dancing the way it is. Any attempts to the contrary would only lead to a schism, with the proponents of challenging dances and technique continuing just like before.]
Be fun
For most dancers today, SCD is not an expression of their
Slide 5
cultural identity but a recreational activity. They are not interested in historical re-enactment nor close-order drill. There is no question that mastery of SCD requires a certain amount of technical instruction, much like other exploits such as football, martial arts, scuba diving, or photography require technical instruction. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this. However we should make sure that whatever instruction there needs to be is presented in a way that does not turn people off SCD but instead keeps them wanting to learn more. [Side note: There will always be dancers who at some point decide for themselves (with or without justification) that additional efforts on their part to perfect their dancing are unlikely to lead to additional enjoyment on their part. Sometimes this point may be reached fairly early in a dancer’s career. This may be deplorable but not a reason to discourage these people from continuing with SCD (at least if they have reached a standard that allows them to join in a set without continually spoiling the dance for the others). It is also important to note that dancing ability and the ability to be part of a dance group do not necessarily correlate – there are great-looking dancers who can still be difficult to get along with as well as not-that-great-looking dancers who are the life and soul of any group that they join. The SCD community should try to offer a place for both of these.] Besides, a dance group’s activities should not restrict themselves to general dance instruction. The group I teach, in addition to putting on an annual ball, delights in “extracurricular” events like an annual tea dance, highland dancing, etc., and (during school breaks, where the general class is in recess) game evenings, visits to the cinema, pub, etc. The aim is to offer dancers more than just SCD instruction, so they will identify with the group as well as the SCD community at large.

Finally, we can learn from the “free software” scene that it is quite possible to have a great community at 5% market share. That is, the desktop computer market may be dominated by the Windows family of operating systems, but within the niche of people running Linux there is still a great number of people who can support each other as well as generate considerable innovation – to a point where a “community” operating system such as Linux is in many ways equal or even superior to any commercial offering on the market. The same model will work for SCD: We do not need to get everybody into SCD as long as we manage to attract enough people to keep the community going.

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You see things, and you say »Why?« But I dream things that never were, and say »Why not?«
– George Bernard Shaw