The Shepherd's Crook

Rosemary Coupe

Message 60245 · 20 Jan 2011 22:21:31 · Fixed-width font · Whole thread

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Richard Goss writes,
"The McNab dances are demonstration dances and not meant for the ballroom or social dancing.
There is some question as to their authenticity, since no one as ever seen any source material on them
or evidence that they had ever been performed prior to Mary Isdale´s use in demos. C Stewart Smith
told me that he felt that she simply made them of of bits and pieces, including dances from other
countries she had observed as a judge at international folk dance festivals."


Yes, Mrs MacNab had a flair for the theatrical. She did indeed develop her dances for performance through a kind of workshop process; people who danced with her groups in Vancouver confirm this. In doing so, she followed the tradition of 19th and early 20th century dance teachers in Scotland who worked with traditional material and shaped it for public performance. D.G. MacLennan comes especially to mind; these people were running businesses, as their ads in The Scotsman make clear. Step dance groups who perform still do this kind of thing--ours certainly does!


However, that doesn’t mean that all the MacNab dances lack a basis in traditional Scottish dance forms. I’ll just give one example to illustrate the way in which she combined her instinct for effective display with her interest in transmitting traditional dance forms, in this case the dramatic dances of the western isles. When she visited Barra, Mrs MacNab learned a dance from L McNeil of Castlebay which she published as “McNeil of Barra.” Here 6 women stand in two lines facing each other. A single man in the centre dances Fling steps while the women dance figures around him. The dance ends with 16 high cuts performed by the man, presumably to the awed wonder of the women. Of course, this was a superb opportunity to exhibit the talents of a star male pupil, and Mrs MacNab just happened to have one; his name was Billy Kerr.


When the Fletts visited Barra in 1953, they found an 88-year-old piper, also named McNeil (there were plenty of McNeils on Barra!). He remembered some details of a dance called “An long Bharrach” or “The Barra Ship” in which 6 dancers form the outline of a ship and the 7th, who represents the mast, dances with each in turn. Of course Mrs. MacNab changed the meaning of the dance (and the way she dressed up her dance descriptions with romantic mythology is embarrassing) but the physical basis is there.


Sorry, but I also have to take issue with the comments about Emmerson and Thurston. Emmerson actually makes derogatory comments about Mary Isdale MacNab. Hugh Thurston was as far as it’s possible to be from “using the current party line.” At the cost of making this posting far too long, I’m going to quote an account written by Marianne Taylor about a story told by Stewart Smith (yes, I know, secondhand evidence…). It concerns Miss Milligan’s visit to Vancouver in 1963 when she stayed with the Thurstons. Hugh had great personal respect for Miss M but also, I believe, great intellectual honesty:

"Miss Milligan and Stewart Smith are flying to Vancouver, where she intends to give Dr. Thurston a piece of her mind about his recently published comments on the RSCDS research techniques and their way of figuring out Scottish dances. They get to Vancouver; Hugh meets them; his wife Nina gives them a lovely meal and then Hugh and Miss M. go into his study, while Stewart sits outside, chewing his nails and listening for sounds of conflict. After about an hour, Hugh and Miss M. emerge, all smiles, and Miss M. trumpets, 'Dr. Thurston and I have agreed to disagree!' "

Hugh Thurston’s book Scotland’s Dances, published in 1954, is dated now--manuscript sources like David Young and McGill have come to light since he wrote--but it’s the first modern book to take an analytical approach to the subject.

Finally, much as I hate arguments from authority, I’m going to finish with one and point out the respect which Tom and Joan Flett show to Mrs. MacNab. She deserves it.

Rosemary Coupe

Vancouver

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