“Th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis!” is the refrain in Juno and the Paycock, and that was my feeling as well as I set off to hide in a dancing bubble for a fortnight, hoping to ignore the worrying world events and concentrate on something that I could do well, and that brought me joy.
I’ve attended Summer School a few times before, but had never been there for opening week. It was noticeably quieter, there were no queues for the dining room, and there was space to dance in the common room and Younger Hall. After a welcome drinks reception on the Sunday evening, we Unit 2 candidates met up in the TV room to introduce each other, and meet Rebecca, our tutor, and Kathleen, our pianist. There were 10 of us for the first week, including two people re-sitting, and we came from all parts of the world. We would be spending most of our time in the Common Room, mornings and afternoons, and would have homework to do in the evenings. We were all housed on the same floor, which helped us to gel as a bunch.
We’d already done some preparatory work before arriving, including analyses of the 12 dances we were expected to know very well for Unit 2. There were four each of jigs, reels and strathspeys, and the exam on Friday would require us to dance one of each as first couple, as well as acting as supporting couples for the others. We would also be expected to do a recap before our dance. As well as knowing the steps, this necessitated using your big-room voice, with appropriate hand gestures. I found doing the recaps a little nerve-wracking to begin, and during one of them it was pointed out to me that I was standing with my hands on my hips, obviously focusing deeply on remembering the words! Thankfully this was only during class, rather than the exam. And before each recap the whole team got to “huddle” where we could remind each other of the main points.
On Tuesday evening, I managed to “sneak out” to the dance held by the local St Andrews branch in the lovely town hall. While I was there, the chassis-ridden outside world crashed into my bubble, as my husband phoned me to tell me that Max had had to be rushed to the vets with bloat, a twisted stomach which I knew was a very serious condition. He had had an emergency operation, but the next few days would be crucial. My fellow dancers were very supportive, one of them was a vet and was able to answer my questions, whilst others provided gin and hugs.
On Wednesday evening, things got even worse, when I received a phone call from my husband’s best friend, to tell me he’d been rushed to A&E suffering from severe dizziness and balance problems. Thankfully he was released a few hours later, but I found myself seriously wondering if I should just go home. And that 2016 could just feck right off!
By mid-week, Rebecca had matched each of us with partners. Being only 5’2, and knowing that there were a couple of tall guys in the group, I had expected to be dancing as a “woman”, but I was partnered as a “man” with Claire, and I think we made a great team. It did mean I needed to work hard at some of the formations such as the Tournee, which I had practised on the assumption that I’d probably be a “woman”!
My husband visited Max every day, and kept me updated on his progress. The poor wee thing looked miserable in photos, and I wished there was something more than facetime where I could stroke his silky ears or give him a chuckle under the chin.
Thursday Nights at Summer School are a big Younger Hall night. I’ve given off in the past about the nonsense about having to buy a separate ticket for these, and last year I’d forgotten to get one! So this year I’d bought my Thursday tickets in good time. However, it was our exam on Friday, and the rest of the group wanted to have a final run through all the dances, doing as much “cleaning” and fine tuning as we could. So my Thursday ticket lay sadly unused on my desk.
On Friday Claire and I checked that our chosen outfits didn’t class, and we had a final run through in the morning, before the exam in the afternoon. I wore a new dress in silver grey, with yellow polka dots, and it moved nicely when I danced. I’d met one of the examiners, Marilyn Watson, before. She’d been my examiner at last year’s Dance Achievement Award, and had also recently visited Belfast to take a children’s day school. With five couples doing the exam, only four were needed on the floor for each dance, so there was a welcome break at intervals. The dances Claire and I were allotted were General Stuart’s Reel, Miss Hadden’s Reel (which is a jig….) and Miss Gibson’s Strathspey. There were a lot of Misses and Mrses in the names of the dances, as well as a General and a Duke, and a Reel which was a strathspey….
We rattled through them all in good time, and celebrated with a glass of champagne at the garden party, before relaxing at the traditional Friday ceilidh.
No rest for the wicked, though, and on Saturday morning we were back in the Common Room making a start on Unit 3. We were looking forward to dancing for fun in the Younger Hall on the Saturday night, and wanted to take some group photos. But at the interval I looked at my mobile phone to see four missed calls from my husband, and I knew what he was going to tell me. Max had contracted an infection after the operation, and had slipped away that evening. He hadn’t been in pain, and there had been someone with him. Saturday nights usually finish with a “dregs” party, where everyone brings along their remaining stash of booze and nibbles, but I wasn’t in the mood to party and went to bed.
Sunday was a rare day off. Having been stuck inside all week while the sun blazed in the sky, of course it was mizzly and grey. I found my way to the beach and had a long walk, smiling at all the lovely doggies frolicking on the sand and in the surf. Some Edinburgh friends came and took me out for lunch, which we had in the delightful fishing village of Craill, where I really enjoyed some dressed crab in a dinky little cafe overlooking the sea.
Monday was back to studies, and our first chance at teaching to a group of volunteers, rather than just amongst ourselves. Working with a real live musician was a new skill for all of us, and I was rather proud of my commanding “Ready…AND”s. The structure we were learning was quite prescriptive – teach a step in certain incremental way, then do a skills exercise, leading to a formation, and for the exam there would be an additional 8 bars to dance to make up a 16 bar phrase. We learned so much from watching each other do practise lessons, and we co-operated on writing our nightly lesson plans. I only had my iPad with me, and I found that downloading Word for iPad, combined with the Office 365 package that I’d recently taken out, were a godsend.
We were allocated numbers at random, which would be the order we would do our test on Friday. I was Lucky 7 – “the luck of the Irish!” said Rebecca.
In any spare time we had, we were working on an item for the Friday ceilidh. George had come up with some new words to “All I Have To Do Is Dream”, and we tweaked and fine tuned these, and grabbed the odd 5 minutes with Kathleen to practise.
On Thursday morning, we gathered nervously outside the Common Room to receive our assignments in sealed envelopes handed out by Mervyn Short. After this, we wouldn’t be able to speak to Rebecca, though we could use any of the other tutors for advice. We agreed we would all open our envelopes together. My step was strathspey travelling step, my formation was turn corner and partner, ending own sides, and the final 8 bars were advance and retire, and 1s turn 1 1/2 times to end opposite sides. I double checked a few aspects of this: so the 1s were starting in the middle of the set facing their first corners? And finishing in 2nd place opposite sides? The whole 16 bars was very like part of a dance, Strathglass House, and I was worried that the more experienced dancers in my group of volunteers would be disconcerted by the not-quite-ness. And neither beginning nor ending a 16 bar phrase on own sides just felt a little awkward.
I did a quick lesson plan, ran my concerns past Mervyn, and decided to get some much needed fresh air. In one shop of pretty things, I was just finishing my purchases when Rebecca entered – she put her had across her face and joked “I can’t see you!” I also decided to get a haircut, just so’s I’d be neat and tidy.
We worked together during the day, timing each other, looking at YouTube videos of the various formations we had, reminding each other of the teaching points, and rehearsing our patter. I felt sufficiently on top of things to get to Younger Hall this Thursday, though I spent some of it on the balcony trying to hone my observation skills.
As Lucky 7, I wouldn’t be on till the afternoon, and I didn’t want to get into my chosen outfit too soon, in case I spilled anything on it. At breakfast time, someone expressed concern that my skirt was too long for the exam, and I explained that I would be changing later into a plain navy flippy skirt, with a navy top and my lucky star turquoise necklace. I spent Friday morning rehearsing and getting my timings down, and although I was nervous, I tucked into the traditional fish and chips lunch with gusto.
Soon it was my turn. I calmed my nerves with some Rescue Remedy, entered the room with a bright smile and handed my neatly printed lesson plans to the two examiners and Rebecca, and checked the music with Kathleen. I was happy with how the lesson went, I tried my best to be engaging and bubbly, and to keep coaching in my biggest voice above the music. I even managed to throw in a Eurovision quote before the final dance through – Nicky Byrne in this year’s Irish entry “Sunlight” sings “dance like you mean it.”
I was happy that I’d had no brain meltdown moments, and that I’d done my best. But I was still anxious about the results – there are about 24 different attributes that the examiners are awarding a score of A,B,C or D to, and in some of them you MUST get a B or above. And no more than two Ds in total. So it could be one wee thing that means a fail.
Meanwhile, there was champagne to be quaffed at the garden party, and a final 5 minute rehearsal of our ceilidh item. It went well, and a number of people commented afterwards how much they had enjoyed it. Please forgive the blatant over-acting.
Those words in full:
Reach close reach, spring beat beat and
Reach close reach, spring beat beat
We’re Unit 3s from far away
We’re here to learn, and every day
While you went out dancing we were in this room, going
Reach close reach, spring beat beat
Our aching feet would love to be
In Younger Hall or in the sea
But we must do homework, need a lesson plan, hop step close
We show you how to pose, how to point your toes
Now your posture and grace
Will help each set you’re in begin
To dance like you know how it goes
We’ll teach you how to dance strathspey
And pas de basque with a jete
And if there’s a figure called a tournee
Yo’ll never ever go the wrong way
Rebecca’s looking sacred, I feel so unprepared
I’m facing volunteers
I’d like to introduce Kathleen
Who’ll come in whenever she hears (with the music)
My teaching points I must explain
The hands and arms and covering
Remember your posture, close your feet in 3rd once again
We never see the sun, Jim Stott says have some fun
And here’s a camera crew so get it right.
It rained on our day off – enough!
I’m sneaking out dancing tonight.
Exams are done, it’s party time
And Claire will say “all back to mine”
Can someone bring chocolate gin and lots of wine….
Reach close reach (etc)
Another Saturday morning and I STILL hadn’t been able to revisit the lovely local parkrun! We had a bit of a reminder of “what next” – I still need to do my written Unit 1, and then see if I can use some of the 7 weekly classes we have in Belfast Branch to build up my Unit 4 portfolio. I realised just how Lucky I am, with the support and encouragement of a great lively branch, blessed with many very experienced and generous teachers. We managed a quick rattle through some of the new Book 50 dances, and I spent the afternoon having a welcome potter around St Andrews’ charity shops.
The Saturday dance in Younger Hall was full of emotion. I was trying to get a dance with each of my fellow students, but there just wasn’t enough time. We took some photos and headed back to the dregs party, and I squished and squeezed everything into my suitcase.
My journey home was uneventful, though I felt emotionally and physically exhausted, and was never so glad to have my husband’s arms around me.
The house is eerily quiet without Max, he was such a big presence in many ways. Minnie is missing her companion, though she was overjoyed to see me. I got the hoped for email a few days later, telling me that I had successfully passed Units 2 and 3.
And I’ll leave you with Max, a soul who liked to go his own way.
Maxim Von Thunder 2007 – 2016