Friday, 10th August 2018

Pop Princess And Strictly Stars – Lonach’s Dancing Decade

Later this month, an Aberdeenshire Highland Dancing school whose protégés have appeared on Strictly Come Dancing and performed for a global pop superstar will celebrate a decade of tutoring local youngsters.

The Lonach Society School of Dancing was established in 2008 to help preserve the traditions of Highland Dancing and encourage more children in the Strathdon area to compete in the discipline at the annual Lonach Highland Gathering and Games.   On Saturday, 25 August – when the 177th Lonach Gathering is held in Bellabeg Park, Strathdon – the achievements of the school will be celebrated.  The school’s existence has helped bolster the number of dancers competing in the local Highland Dancing competitions at the iconic event.

Having grown from just 13 dancers a decade ago, the school now boasts a membership of 40 pupils under the age of 18, plus a few adults.  A mix of girls and boys attend the classes which are held on Thursday evenings in the Lonach Hall and over the years the skills of these young dancers has consistently improved.  At last year’s Lonach Gathering, Lonach pupils won all of the Lonach area competitions in the local Highland Dancing section.

The school was the vision of local resident and qualified Highland Dance teacher Louise Anderson, who began dancing 35 years ago aged four.  She admits to not having stopped dancing since.  Along with competing at other local Highland Games including Ballater and Aboyne, Louise has danced in France and Russia while on tour with the Lonach Pipe Band.

Providing an opportunity for children of all ages and abilities to learn Highland Dancing in a fun environment is a core teaching principal at the dance school.  Although the youngsters are encouraged to enter dancing competitions they are not pressurised into doing so.  Louise – whose sister Annette McIntosh helps teach the children – believes that learning Highland Dancing should be as much about the exercise and life skills it provides, as taking to dancing boards in front of an audience and judges.

It is not just an audience of up to 10,000 visitors to the Lonach Gathering that pupils of the Lonach Society School of Dancing have performed in front of.  They have pas de basqued for pop princess Kylie Minogue and setted with Strictly stars Pamela Stephenson and James Jordan.  A birl of famous faces for anyone, let alone youngsters from a rural community an hour’s drive west of Aberdeen.

During a visit to Aberdeenshire in December 2016, Kylie was treated to a display of traditional Highland Dancing by Louise and some of her pupils.  The Australian singer was mesmerised by the intricate footwork performed by the youngsters and spent time chatting to the children.  Although she tried the Highland Fling, the popstar refrained from attempting the sword dance.

The school’s first brush with celebrity came in 2010 when Pamela Stephenson – who at the time owned Candacraig House with husband Sir Billy Connolly – was competing on Strictly Come Dancing with professional dancer James Jordan.  Whilst the pair were filmed practising their routine in the Lonach Hall, Louise and some of her pupils were asked, at short notice, to take part in an impromptu ceilidh.  It gave the children their fifteen minutes of fame and an opportunity for Louise to teach James Jordan some Highland Dance steps.

Commenting on the success of the Lonach Society School of Dancing, Louise said: “Lonach has been a huge part of my life.  Games day – the fourth Saturday in August – is the best day of the year, Christmas and birthdays don’t come close.  For me, it is really important that the heritage and traditions that go hand in hand with it are preserved.  That was my motivation to set up the dance school.

“Over 100 children have passed through the school in the past 10 years and I’m still teaching three of my original pupils.  The Lonach Society School of Dancing isn’t about pushing children to compete at the highest level.  It is about nurturing them to achieve the best they can, regardless of their ability and skill, and giving them the support and opportunities to do that.  There is no pressure.  The focus is on fun and teaching them skills they can use throughout life, including teamwork, resilience, patience and stepping out of their comfort zone.

“Dancing for Kylie was an incredible experience for the children and one that came out of the blue.  I nearly turned it down.  She spent a lot of time chatting to the children who were over the moon.  Our Strictly experience was great fun, but I’m not sure whether James has kept practising his Highland Dancing steps.”

Highland Dancing is one of the most iconic symbols of Scotland’s Highland Games, which are huge draws for visitors from across Britain and around the world.  Traditionally performed by men, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that females were allowed to compete in Highland Dancing competitions at games.  Today, the majority of Highland dancers are female, with some of the country’s top competitors being invited to perform internationally.

Jennifer Stewart, secretary and chief executive of the Lonach Highland and Friendly Society, said: “Louise has achieved a fantastic amount over the past decade and it is great to see all her hard work with the youngsters paying off.  Highland Dancing is an integral part of Highland Games and an iconic symbol of Scottish culture recognised the world over.  Preserving and nurturing that through local dance schools is extremely important.”

This year’s Lonach Highland Gathering and Games takes place on Saturday, 25 August.  Featuring the march of the Lonach Highlanders – believed to be the largest body of non-military men to carry ceremonial weapons in Britain – the annual event draws thousands of visitors from around the world to the small Aberdeenshire village of Bellabeg. 

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