With success comes sacrifice: An insight into the life of a competitive highland dancer

07/02/2013 § 24 Comments

Glen McGregor photo

Dancers compete in the World Adult Championship Sword Dance at Cowal Gathering, August 2012: Glen McGregor photo

It is a common ideology that active dancers are some of the fittest people in our world and are in the greatest shape possible. Both of those views could indeed be argued to be the truth. But for dancers actively competing at the highest of levels and those regularly performing on the competitive stage— the life of practice is far from easy. Be it through the physical or mental aspects, dance is an art that can bring highs or lows to an individual at any given time. Nevertheless, with success often comes sacrifice, and that aphorism is especially true in the highland world.

Highland dancing is a form of dance originating in Scotland and regularly, participants will wear kilts when performing. Each individual dance lasts for an average of two minutes, involving a series of strenuous movements. For example, in a six-step Highland Fling, a dancer will jump vertically 192 times, using muscles from all areas of the body including arm movements. It is a form of dance that requires a distinct level of stamina, technique, timing and arguably power to be performed excellently. It places a strong emphasis on exterior rotation and turnout of the hips, legs and feet. Highland dancing also places many physical and mental demands on its participants, with those able to embrace all the combinations of those demands, the ones likely to come out on top.

Although there are many positive aspects to the sport, the toll it takes on participants is something few people see. Former highland dancer Keltie MacKenzie, a physiotherapist based in Calgary, says it is the hips, ankles and knees that are most affected by highland dancing. “There are lots of positive and negative effects that highland dancing has on our bodies in terms of bone mineral density and muscle strength for example.” MacKenzie, the co-owner of Calgary Youth Physiotherapy, said that due to the repetitiveness and intensity of highland dancing, overuse injuries are often seen.

“There is a very high cardiovascular demand and it requires a lot of muscle endurance and stamina. It’s not like a sprint. In highland, there is also a lot of continual hopping on one foot. These types of movement attack the muscles a lot more than anything we would to do in our day-to-day lives so highland dancers are much more susceptible to injury.” MacKenzie compared the sport to running a half marathon. Burnaby, B.C., teacher Mary Munro has won three Canadian championships and was runner up at the world championships twice during her competition days. Munro said, “I often go out and run for 45 minutes but that’s nothing compared to highland dancing.” MacKenzie concurs. “Your body needs to be trained to handle the dance from start to finish with the same intensity and the same output.” The Albertan stated that the most common injuries in highland dancing are Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, hip flexor strains as well as a variety of knee issues such as problems with knee tracking.

For those actively competing in highland dancing, the regular season can run from September to August. “It’s a long season,” said Mackenzie. “I think now as professionals [teachers and adjudicators] in highland dancing, we are now becoming much more aware in being proactive against injury. That balance has been poor up until now. We used to react to the injury after it’s there instead of trying to prevent it.” According to MacKenzie, stamina and stretching are of “upmost importance” in highland dancing. “If you don’t have stamina, your technique and form will fail. In terms of stretching, highland dancers train their muscles to be strong and tight, and if we don’t stretch them out, they won’t flex, and dancers become more susceptible to tendonitis.” Tendonitis essentially means inflammation of a tendon.

But despite the distinct chances of injury, highland dancing has a lot of positive qualities for participants, says MacKenzie. “There are so many physical benefits to highland dancing. It improves posture and core stability by giving you a strong spine. It teaches kids and adults body awareness, so people become more aware of different muscle groups and how the body works. It promotes muscle strength and endurance, gives a good cardiovascular workout and improves your balance, so people will have better reactions to when they fall for example.”

It is no doubt that highland dancing does take a huge toll on the body due to the intensity of the discipline. Mackenzie compared the practice schedule for those striving to compete at the championship level as “almost like a part time job.” She said this form of dance requires “day-to-day training” with a strong focus on strengthening. “Highland dancing has to be taken seriously. The demands are tremendous, but attainable, if you have the passion for it.”

A high shot of the British Open Championships held in Musselburgh, Lothian, every August, two weeks prior to the World Championships: Gwen Palmer photo

Caelin Palmer, 14, of Port Moody, B.C., certainly has that passion. Despite a number of minor setbacks with dance-related injuries, Palmer has come back stronger to win numerous championships including the B.C. Open, Western Canadian and B.C. provincial titles respectively. “Highland dancing means a lot to me as it’s pretty much been the majority of my life,” she said. “I sacrifice a lot but it’s worth it.”

Indeed with Palmer’s success has come sacrifice, and she describes an intense and disciplined training schedule as one of the keys behind her success. “I practice almost every day because it’s really important to be in good shape. If you take a week off before a competition, then you’ll be lucky if you’re able to get through the dances and dance your best.” Palmer has also performed admirably on the national and world stage, with an impressive fourth overall at the Canadian championships and qualification for the world championship finals, held every August in Scotland, already under her belt. However, that hasn’t come without the occasional bump along the way. “I’ve had small twisted ankles but they don’t last very long. I also twisted my knee once and that took me out for about three months. Then I did it again and was out for around a month.” Yet, despite those setbacks, it’s the thought of not dancing that gets her through those darker times. “It’s really frustrating sometimes but just thinking about how much you hate not dancing is what helps you pull through,” she says, highlighting her passion for the sport.

Three-time Canadian champion Caitlin Wilson is of similar ilk. “Highland dancing means everything to me, it really does. It’s definitely defined the person I am today in terms of my personality, determination and how I’m motivated.” Wilson, 18, is also an eight-time B.C. provincial champion and has been trained by her mother, Jennifer, since day one. She highlights her passion for the sport as the key behind her own success. “I’m very competitive and I want to win, so my passion for highland dancing has driven me to be the best I can be.”

In terms of injury, Wilson has never had any of serious note. She stated that she is in much better shape, compared to average people her age, because of highland dancing, and believes that to be a necessity, due to the physical demands and stamina level required to get through the dances. “I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve never had an injury that’s forced me to stop for a couple of months, but of course I’ve had sore ankles, sore feet, sore calves and all those things. Everything hurts a little, but that’s to be expected. You can’t expect to feel amazing all the time.” Clearly, Wilson is made of pretty stern stuff both physically and mentally. “I feel that one of the things I’m best at is just not getting too much into my head. I feel like a lot of people get sore ankles and let their brains feed it, and then they say they can’t do it. Of course things are going to hurt, but that’s not going to stop me.”

Wilson says the pressure that comes with winning the Canadian championship three times is one that just pushes her even more. “I want to prove to everybody why I’ve been successful.” But with highs, often come lows, and Wilson described how an evident growth spurt in her early teens caused a blip in results. “When I was about 14, there was one year that I didn’t place at Canadians and that was a big low for me. I felt like I was going through a really hard time. I was a shrimp till I was 12 and then I just grew, and I couldn’t [initially] adjust to that too well.” She commented that it took her “a few years” to build strength back up again. “That was really hard for me being a Canadian champion and then a few years later to not even place, but I just feel like in the last couple of years I’ve gotten myself back up there and every year I’m getting better.” A recent Fraser Valley championship victory in 2012 suggests exactly that.

The World Highland Dancing Championships are held the last weekend of every August in Dunoon, Scotland: Warrick Jackes photo

As in most sports, natural talent certainly helps on the road to becoming a champion, but mental toughness is just as important. Former biology teacher Deborah Wardrope, of Mississauga, Ont., explains that you need both on competition day to succeed fully in your own performance. “There’s a lot of pressure on highland dancers come competition day, especially if they’re competing on an international stage. It would be like the average person standing up in front of their peers at work and giving a presentation. It’s nerve-racking.” Wardrope, who has a degree in health sciences, says that the psychological side is the key, particularly for those dancers aspiring to achieve greatness. “It’s all about how you train before competition day. The work you do in dance class has to be positive and on the day of a competition, you shouldn’t be thinking all technique or else you’ll look like a mechanic on stage. You, as a dancer, need to figure out what confidence is, you have to peak at the right time.” Wardrope is also an active teacher and adjudicator, and is heavily involved in the world of highland dancing across Canada. She has also had pupils who have performed admirably on the world championship stage. “As professionals, we need to teach our dancers how to set realistic goals. If in class they are saying ‘I can’t’ then they’re correct. The minute you say that, you can’t do it. In my dance class, I often start by just putting the music on and telling the dancers to close their eyes and visualize the dance and do the arm movements. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but by the end of the number I’ve had students tell me that they can feel their kilt swaying.”

To perform to their best during competition, Wardrope says 90 per cent of dancers’ success will come from the mental side, with the other 10 per cent being physical. “My best advice to give to competing dancers would be concentration. It’s about visualization and using all of your senses to get deeper into the zone,” she said. “Psychologically, your body can’t differentiate between doing the exercise and visualizing it. It’s all about muscle memory.”

Wilson explained of how she tries to “keep herself calm” come competition day. “Sometimes I get really nauseous before competition because I just get so riled up. I do get nervous, but that’s because I want to do so well,” she said. “I don’t want to not be amazing, so I get anxious. My best thing is just to stay calm, and get out there, and do what I do in practice.”

Wardrope explained that those dancers who rarely make mistakes or displace the sword in the sword dance (which disqualifies the dancer) are the ones who have the best concentration and are focused psychologically. “Getting into the zone, which is different for everyone, is that place where you are totally not distracted and are focused on the task in hand. You are unaware of distractions around you, such as pipe bands or the banging of swords. It’s like being way down in a tunnel and you’re the only one there, and that’s when you’ll give your best performance. Everything will flow and you’ll have that wow factor. As a judge, it will look easy for those dancers up there on stage.”

Wardrope has also written a book entitled: Highland Dance Excellence from a Dream to Reality. The book illustrates the competitive skills needed to perform to the best of one’s ability as a dancer. More importantly, it also contains a section on anatomy and physiology and how to keep a dancer healthy. “Highland dancing is a strategic game. You need to have a plan in the lead-up to a competition. That way, if everything is prepared, you’ll have the confidence to get up on the boards and know you’ve done all you can, and you will look at ease.” She attributes part of the success of one of Canada’s best highland dancers, Ann Milne, to mental toughness. Milne, who won an incredible four world championships and 12 Canadian championships, was “one of the best competitors mentally,” says Wardrope. Wilson may come under a similar category. “I don’t think too much about it (on competition day). I get warmed up, get ready, get backstage, and I just get out there and do it.”

SDCCS Edmonton 2012

ScotDance Canada Championship Series, West Edmonton Mall, July 2012: Brenda McCorquodale photo

Wardrope is also the secretary of the organization ScotDance Canada, the national body that oversees highland dancing across the country. ScotDance Canada is an affiliated member of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing, the world governing body, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Edmonton-based Bill Troock is the president of ScotDance Canada. “We, in highland dancing, believe and there is a general consensus that if you train hard, you get better results. But at times we tend to over train, and that may have been the correct training idea a number of years ago, but not today. Less is often more not only in our sport but in sports medicine in general, and then you repeat. That’s how you develop muscle memory.” Troock is one of the most sought-after professionals to judge competitions and conduct workshops, not only in Canada, but across the globe. He has trained numerous Canadian champions and also had students achieve top six statuses at the world championships. Emmy-nominated choreographer and dancer, Stacey Tookey, was also a former highland student of Troock’s. He said to succeed in highland dancing and to get the best out of yourself, you have to have “fire in your belly.”

“You certainly have to like competing. What we do is so precise but that’s the measure of highland dancing. You have to be disciplined to move your foot over one centimetre if need be. You need a perfectionism make up in your DNA to make it to the top.”

Come competition day, Troock says the advice he gives to his dancers before they go on stage is “different for everybody.”

“I don’t have a set speech. Those who are more nervous you take a different approach to compared to the ones who are over confident. You have to know the dancer as a coach, and that’s how you form a healthy student-teacher relationship.”

He highlights that healthy relationship as one of the keys to becoming successful, but also emphasized a healthy side to that perfectionism. Asked of what dancers need as human beings to rise to the top Troock said, “You need to be a healthy perfectionist and have a healthy mind. You have to have the passion, but you can’t be an unhealthy perfectionist, as that gets in the way of moving on to something that is more productive.”

Every year in July, ScotDance Canada hosts a five-day competition now known as the ScotDance Canada Championship Series that contains the Canadian interprovincial championship contest. The series has developed into the biggest highland dancing competition in the world, attracting an average of 800 dancers from across the planet, and is moved around to a different city annually. Peter Archibald, originally from Winnipeg, is currently ScotDance Canada’s historian. “ScotDance Canada was developed over a number of years but it was in 1987 [in Regina] that it officially became an entity. We had our first meeting in 1984 and I was at that meeting just out of curiosity as I was still dancing. It was sort of a vision finding. This whole new can of worms was being opened and it was really exciting.” Archibald is a former president of ScotDance Canada from 2006 to 2010.

During his competing days, he won the provincial championship in Manitoba as well as the Commonwealth championship title in Scotland, and was also runner up in the world adult championship. “(The can of worms) was opened to provide a consistent mode of communication from the board in Scotland to the teachers and judges in Canada. It was a vision to look at Canada being a bit more autonomous with regard to how things are done here.” Archibald explained that the Canadian championship series was not a five-day event in the beginning, merely just a weekend event in conjunction with various highland games. “I don’t think anyone ever imagined that it would morph into this thing that we have now. It’s pretty incredible.” He commented that there is a strong passion for highland dancing in Canada. “I think from a worldwide perspective, the teachers, judges and dancers in Canada have just made this massive impact. We’ve enabled Scotland to change and the grass roots of making things better has come from Canada.”

Archibald has called Vancouver home since 1998 and illustrated how “overwhelming” the size of the championship series can be at first, particularly for younger dancers. “Sometimes there are 10 platforms running so 39 other dancers up at the same time, there is so much going on. Dancers have to be encouraged to focus on their own business and not get involved in any of the drama.” The Manitoba native feels as though the five-day format of the modern day event would likely have helped him back in the day. “I was certainly more focused the longer the competition went on, that was when I pushed myself the most. Some people win everything on the first day and never come through again.”

There is no doubt highland dancing has progressed and developed over the years and Archibald, an active adjudicator, is certainly an advocate for power in the modern day. “You don’t always see it and it’s not always necessary to win, but when you do see it, and when it’s there, it will always prevail. I’ve always went for what I think is more traditional, the strength, the elevation, all that kind of stuff. It’s not number one, but it’s one and a half, and I just think it’s missing in a lot of respects.”

The adage, “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again” and “no pain no gain” both could be applied to help one succeed in highland dancing. In terms of advice to anyone aspiring to achieve in this sport, Wilson said “to not give up and to stay motivated” is a huge factor. “I would say just don’t let anybody take away your motivation and determination that you have to be successful. And to practice hard, because that’s the only way you’re going to get better.”

Whether or not Palmer and Wilson go on to add to their impressive array of rewards remains to be seen. Both have come through tougher times, via physical and mental well-being, to prove themselves stronger at the other end. In the stories of both, evidently, success does not come without sacrifice. But seemingly if you look on the bright side of the two and remain focused, that is certainly a decent recipe in order to achieve greatness.

Westerns fling 2012

FVHDA photo

A feature piece by Ross Armour


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§ 24 Responses to With success comes sacrifice: An insight into the life of a competitive highland dancer

  • Christa says:

    Very well done Ross. 🙂
    Makes me sad that I am sick and am currently unable to get up and practice.
    Christa Powers

  • Ross Armour says:

    Thanks Christa! And get well soon!!

  • Michelle says:

    Great article…from a dance mum who cheers/consoles from the sidelines and is constantly trying to help avoid the dance injuries by being proactive with massage and physio when needed. We were part of the Canadians at West Edmonton Mall and are planning to go to Musselburgh this summer while on vacation! Very nice to see a shot from this competition-thanks!

  • Ross Armour says:

    Thanks Michelle. Glad you enjoyed all aspects of the article! I go back to the UK every summer to visit the family and do the dance circuit in August. I go to Musselburgh every year. It’s a great event- hope to see you there!

  • Carol Ann says:

    Well done Ross really good write up. Carol Ann

  • Ross Armour says:

    Cheers so much Carol!

  • Excellent article, Ross. I started Highland dancing late in life (in my 30s) and never looked back. The late start did prevent me from reaching championship level, but I did eventually qualify as a teacher and am now actively teaching. I am in South Africa in Pietermaritzburg, a small town, and face the same issue as all country-wide – that our numbers are dwindling – we really do need much greater numbers, and I would like to use some of your inspiring passages as input in my recruitment efforts.

  • Ross Armour says:

    Sure thing Noleen, and thanks so much for your comment! Good luck and all the best

  • Diane Banks says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article. The Highland dancing world needs to be promoted in this way.
    It is insightful regarding the fitness & stamina required and the perspective of, & emphasis on, physical preparation.
    I am a mother of past & current dancers & grandmother of current dancers and thoroughly enjoyed reading the report.

  • Christine says:

    So great to see such an in-depth look at Highland dance. My son has been dancing for 4 years here in Texas. Competition season will start soon for us, so this is a wonderful, motivating piece!

  • Ross Armour says:

    Thanks so much Diane and Christine for your kind words. Great stories from you both too. Good luck and hope to meet you both around the dance circuit one day!

  • Allison says:

    Wonderful article. We’ve seen the ups and downs…goals met, great competition wins and being told the week before a qualifier that there’s a broken bone in the foot. *sigh* It honestly made my wee one a better person. All grown up now and we both miss it.

  • Ross Armour says:

    Allison, cheers for your comment, kind words and for sharing your own experiences! I wish you all the best

  • This is a great story that sheds light on an amazing world. The highland dancers I know definitely have what you call a “fire in their belly.” It applies to so much of life. I was a competitive swimmer in my youth and we had long seasons as well. But I believe in that arena it was easier to get into the zone, because the water and cap and goggles provides a simulation of a tunnel for the athlete.
    This was a great profile of an amazing sport.

  • Ross Armour says:

    Thanks for your comment! Greatly appreciated

  • Grace says:

    So cool! I have a shin splint now and my mum told me to read this.

  • Ross Armour says:

    Glad you could Grace! Hope you enjoyed the piece. All the best, Ross

  • Fiona Hunt says:

    Great article. As a retired competitive dancer I relate to this very well. Turnout was something I always struggled with but I never let that get the better of me. Loving teaching now and will have a passion for Highland Dancing the rest of my life. It definitely makes you a strong person.

  • Ross Armour says:

    Thanks for your comment Fiona! It’s certainly my passion too, couldn’t imagine life without highland dancing. All the best

  • Heidi Howe says:

    I’m a highland dancer. This article is a great example for highland dancers to read about. I’m was really impressed by this fine & amazing article. Very well done Ross. I like this article very much:)

  • Ross Armour says:

    Thank you so much Heidi! Glad you enjoyed it

  • Charley says:

    Really great article. I had surgery on my pelvis last May and was advised by my doctors to take 2 months out for recovery. But I was back at class two days after my surgery and back dancing within a week. Everyone said I was mad,but I won 2 adult competitions within 6 weeks of leaving hospital. I’ve been dancing for 16 years,competing for 14 years,and I’ve had almost every dancing related injury known to man,but it’s all about staying focused and pushing through the hard times. Much love from south-west Scotland x

  • Love this article ! I think I am going to print this and give it to My Childs Gym teacher , who believes she is not fit because she is only a dancer!

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