The former Ceilidh King of Barmulloch cuts a rug

24th December 2004 at 00:00
With the school festive dancing season now over, John Cairney recalls taking to the floor

Reports that education authorities are to introduce ceilidh and country dance lessons into Scottish schools were music to my ears, not to mention my feet, heart and lungs.

The fact that they are doing so as part of the fight against childhood obesity inevitably begs a lot of questions about the role of exercise, diet and heredity in losing and controlling weight. But why be so churlish as to query the rationale when something as inherently worthwhile is at last being so widely promoted?

As the self-styled former Ceilidh King of Barmulloch during my time as a physical education teacher on Glasgow's north-east frontier, I think I can safely boast that no boy or girl who attended school regularly left without being able to go considerably beyond the toe-tapping stage whenever they heard a Jimmy Shand record.

As one well-inebriated former pupil in his thirties said to me once in a city hostelry: "Thanks for teaching me to dance and to swim."

I doubt whether the latter skill proved to be of any use during the time he spent in Barlinnie prison, but I like to think that he might just have had the chance to impress his fellow inmates with a lively barn dance or a stately "St Bernard's Waltz", though I wouldn't have blamed him for body-swerving "The Gay Gordons" and "Strip the Willow".

At school he might well have been among the reluctant ones who initially tried to avoid taking part in the lesson, either by bringing a note-"Please excuse Jimmy from PE as the dug ate his PE kit. And Oblidge" (sic) - or by feigning injury. All in vain.

The great thing about social dance, as we called it, was that it could be done in outdoor clothing and "walked through" by the less mobile. Once we even had a boy on crutches - well, OK, one crutch - make up a (very slow) threesome for "The Dashing White Sergeant", and enjoy the experience.

Another early, but short-lived, problem was getting pupils to hold hands.

But once the pattern of the dance was learned and the music added, it stopped being a problem. This was little consolation to one girl who announced loudly: "Please sir, he's picking his nose and wiping it on my sleeve."

I hope that the grandly-entitled "traditional dance officers" envisaged by the authorities to develop dance in schools don't concentrate on the process of dance to the neglect of the product. A key motivational factor is the chance to perform their newly-acquired skills in the context of a year group or whole school function. In Barmulloch, our Christmas ceilidh evolved over several years from a disco, then a "dansco", until, by popular request, the ceilidh and country dances took over completely.

The event took place in school time, was free and, eventually, was open to the whole school and the staff. It was quite a sight to see first- year girls partnering fifth-year boys, even more so to watch a "difficult" lower-school boy sashaying meekly round the hall with a statuesque fifth- year girl. While tackling obesity had not yet appeared on the curricular radar screen, judicious selections of records could ensure that anyone who survived a non-stop 15 minutes of "The Virginia Reel" or "The Dashing White Sergeant" had benefited from a strenuous muscular and cardiovascular workout.

I often wondered how many pupils ever followed up my suggestion to listen to Take the Floor, the regular Saturday evening BBC Scotland country dance programme, and how they might have responded to my parody of the programme's well-kent signature tune, "Kate Dalrymple". (See box, left) I humbly offer this to the traditional dance officers to use as they see fit, as it were. In return I hope that they will avoid the temptation to spend overmuch time trying to instil the intricate, elusive skills of the pas de Basque or Paddy Barr, so beloved of many a Scottish country dance purist.

Put simply, life is too short and the dancing experience too enjoyable to spend much time trying to teach a skill that, in my estimation, is beyond at least 90 per cent of the population. Much better to simplify the setting and travelling steps, teach the pattern of the dances and let the music take over.

That way, too, the ceilidh calories might just start to disappear, diet and heredity permitting.


"If you're a Scot, then I'm sure that you've got

Quite a lot of time for Scottish country dancing.

It's in your culture, and child, youth or adult

You're bound to find it all so life-enhancing.

When you hear the sound of 'Kate Dalrymple',

Standing still is not so simple,

As fiddle, box, or even a virginal

Take it away to the tune of the original."

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