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The Thistle Dancers

The Thistle Dancers is a group of talented young dancers who perform the traditional dances of Scotland. Formed in 1998, they have performed extensively throughout Northern Virginia, Southern Maryland, and the Washington DC area. Annually The Thistle Dancers perform at the National Tartan Day in Washington, DC; the Potomac Celtic Festival in Leesburg, VA; and the Scottish Heritage Festival in Alexandria, VA. These dancers have also performed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at local nursing homes, private weddings, and various Robert Burns Celebrations.

Frequently, this dance troop performs with the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums. Together these groups have demonstrated the traditions of Scotland at the City of Alexandria’s 250th Birthday celebration, a summer concert series in front of City Hall in Old Town Alexandria and on occasion at Pat Troy’s Pub in Alexandria.

In March of 2003, The Thistle Dancers hosted and danced in their first concert, Something Scottish, at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, VA. Now an annual event, this years’ afternoon of music, song & dance will feature musical groups: Charlie Zahm and the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums. The Thistle Dancers will perform many traditional dances as well as some of their own choreographed pieces. Proceeds from the show go towards costumes, workshops and travel expenses for the dancers.

Many of the members are currently competing successfully at various levels, ranging from Beginners to Premier. They also cover a great spectrum of ages, from 5 years old up to adults, yet all perform with an air of professionalism and great enthusiasm. Susan E. Walmsley, a member of the British Association of Teachers of Dancing, is their founder, director and instructor.

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Highland Dance History

Highland Fling: Of all the Highland Dances that are performed at competitions and championships throughout the world, the Highland Fling must surely be the most famous.A war dance that was originally danced upon a shield called a Targe, with a spike in the middle of it. The fling is a stationary dance that shows the talent of the dancer because of the quickness of the dance and the complexity of the steps. It is danced on the ball of the foot, because of the spike.
The hands and arms portray the antlers of a deer. It is said to have been inspired by the sight of a stag cavorting around the hillside. All the movements; the arms held aloft like antlers, the feet dancing from side to side, the body turning around, suggest the stag's playing.

Sword Dance: Another renowned dance, which has its roots in ancient battles. It is reputed to have been created by Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland. In 1054 he fought a battle near Dunsinane against one of Macbeth’s chiefs. The outcome was success for Malcolm, who placed his own sword and that of his enemy on the ground in the form of a cross and danced in triumph over them. Supposedly it then became a ritual for warriors to dance over swords prior to battle. if a sword was touched it was believed the warrior would be wounded, and if they were kicked apart, he was sure to die.
Another story says the dance was done before battle. If the dancer touched the sword, he would be wounded, but if the swords were kicked apart the dancer would be killed. Today in competition, touching the sword is points off, and kicking them apart is disqualification.

Seann Triubhas: Seann Triubhas is Gaelic for Old Trousers. After the battle of Culloden in 1746, where the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie was utterly defeated by the English, the Scots were forbidden by the Disarming Act of 1746 to wear the kilt, play the bagpipes, do their dances, etc. However by the end of the century, all things Scottish had become a popular fad in London Society and the Act was repealed in 1782. The dance starts out in slow time showing the constriction on the dancer of wearing trousers. Upon the clapping of the hands, the music changes to quick time to tell of the shedding of the trousers to show the freedom and joy of dancing in the kilt. the Seann Triubhas is a Highland Dance.

The Strathspey and Highland Reel and the Reel of Tulloch: Of all the Highland Dancing events in which the competitors vie, the reels are the closest approach to social dancing. Even these, however, are individual competitions. While the teams consist of four dancers, the judges mark each competitor individually. Legend has it that the reel was first performed when a minister, tardy for his Sunday church service, left his congregation waiting in the cold. To keep warm, the people started moving and clapping their hands. Someone began to hum a tune and, as the feet moved in time, a lively dance was formed.

Broadswords: This is of military origins and was commonly taught to those in the Scottish regiments of the army. This dance is usually performed by four dancers around four highland broadswords placed to make a cross with their points in the centre. It is danced first to a slow Strathspey tempo and then speeds up into reel time for the last one or two steps.

Scottish Lilt: The Lilt exemplifies National dances, as it is very graceful and heavily influenced by ballet. It is an unusual dance because it has only six beats per measure rather than the standard eight. In competition, this dance is usually done with either four steps, and is rarely danced by the most advanced dancers. The Scottish Lilt has several recognized steps that can be used in competition and exhibition.

Flora MacDonald's Fancy: This is danced in honor of Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to the Isle of Skye. In 1746, this intrepid young Scotswoman helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to France after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. Flora then came to the American Colonies where she raised a family in North Carolina. She backed the Tories during the American Revolution and ended up back in Scotland. She died penniless in the Hebrides.
The dance has only six steps and is the oldest of the National dances

Blue Bonnets: This dance shows a young women trying to catch the attention and flirt with a blue bonnet. Blue Bonnet was slang for the Regimental Scotsmen because they wore blue hats.

Village Maid: This dance has a ballet look and feel. This is one of four dances where the dancer steps on the flat foot. The other Highland and National Dances are done on the ball of the foot.

Scotch Measure or the Twa Some - When this is danced solo it is called the Scotch Measure. When it is danced with two people, one dancer taking the male role and one the female role, it is called the Twa Some. It is supposed to depict the Scottish dating ritual.

Earl of Errol: This was originally a dance performed in hard shoes, which was choreographed for the Earl of Errol. Errol in a small town in Aberdeenshire. Although it looks quite easy, it is perhaps one of the hardest National dances to perform well.

Wilt Thou go to Barracks, Johnnie? - This is a recruiting dance. It is said a recruiting officer would go into a village with a dancer as entertainment, or to attract people to his temporary recruiting station. Some say that each regiment had its own dance, but this is the only one widely practiced

The Highland Laddie - This dance was devised by soldiers in the First World War I. It is always danced to the famous tune of the same name. This dance is also a tribute to the Highland Laddie, Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The Hebridean version of this solo dance is from about 1850-60. The one adopted by the SOBHD is DG MacLennans whose brother emigrated to New Zealand. He saw a Highland Laddie in South Uist when judging the Askernish Games in about 1925 and later modified it to the version of the dance that is performed today. (From Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust)

The Scottish Version of the Irish Jig: The Scottish version is meant to be a parody of an Irish washerwoman in an agitated frame of mind. While the steps are traditional, the arm movements are not. Arm movements are an intrinsic part of Scottish dance, and so the Scots added them to the Irish Jig as a humorous salute to their Celtic brethren across the Irish Sea, hence this is an energetic dance featuring lots of fist shaking and skirt flouncing among female competitors. It is a parody of Irish dancing and the infamous Irish temper. Females dancing the Jig are acting out an angry fit of an Irishwoman who's husband has not made it home from the pub until all hours. Males dancing the Jig act out the happy-go-lucky Irishman facing his wife's tirade. Another version of the story is that the female dancer is an angry washer woman whose clean clothes have been knocked off the clothesline by playing boy. In the same version, the boys demonstrate their cheekiness for the act they have committed.

The Sailor's Hornpipe: The Hornpipe was a popular stage dance of the 18th century and the ancester of the modern tap dance.This dance is common to many parts of the British Isles. It derived its name from the fact that usually the musical accompaniment was played on a hornpipe rather than on bagpipes. Hornpipes were common instruments in those days; they were comparable to our present-day tin whistle. Sailor's took it to sea, creating a dance which depicts shipboard activities such as hoisting the mainsail, climbing ladders, hauling ropes, and standing look-out duty.

Cake Walk: This dance originates in the Southern states of America where domestic servants would gather together in the evenings and amuse themselves by making dances that impersonated their masters' ways! The winner would receive a cake - hence, the Cake Walk! The dance is always performed by two dancers.

Choreographies Created and Performed by The Thistle Dancers:

Scottish Teatime: What child doesn’t dream of stuffed animals and dolls coming to life? In this choreography, this children’s dream is realized, when the Scottish dolls change from inanimate tea partners to active playmates. Danced to music by “Neil Anderson and Friends” from set “Under the Table” on album of same name. This was created for five dancers.
The Flagstone Reels: Scottish Highland Dancing is primarily a solo dance form. However, as this choreography demonstrates, the same movements are equally as spectacular and challenging when performed in a group dance using eight dancers. It is danced to music by the Celtic group “Rathkeltair” and their tune set named “The Flagstone Reels”.
Dancing Birds and Reluctant Lovers: Another group dance for eight dancers demonstrating intricate formations and footwork. Music for this piece is by the celtic techno group “Rù-Rà” and their tune set “Dancing Birds and Reluctant Lovers”.

All of the above Choreographies have been created by dancer and instructor Emma Trentman.

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The Thistle Dancers!
Highland Dance History