Making Dance Connections

2 Apr 2012 in Aberdeen City & Shire, Dance & Drama, Gaelic, Highland, Moray, Music, Outer Hebrides

DANNSA have been part of the Scottish dance and music scene for over a decade now, but the group remain passionately committed to their work.

THEY were formed initially by Mats Melin for a gala concert at Eden Court Theatre in 1999, where he was joined by Frank McConnell, Caroline Reagh and Sandra Robertson. The group has continued to cultivate an exciting repertoire of traditional Scottish dances since that debut, and have established equally strong connections with the step-dance tradition of Cape Breton, which had Scottish origins.

INDEED, the revival of Scottish step-dance over that period was sparked in large part by the discovery of a thriving tradition preserved in Cape Breton. The authentic dances have been “re-imported” to their native turf, and Dannsa were very much in the vanguard of that revival.

Sandra Robertson and Caroline Reagh (top) with Mac Morin and Frank McConnell (photo Maria Falconer)

Sandra Robertson and Caroline Reagh (top) with Mac Morin and Frank McConnell (photo Maria Falconer)

Interestingly, the current core group consists of Sandra Robertson and Caroline Reagh with piper and step-dancer Fin Moore. Fin is the son of Hamish Moore, one of the people very much responsible for the re-discovery and dissemination of Cape Breton dance in Scotland.

For their North by North East tour, that trio will be joined by Frank McConnell, Cape Breton dancer Mac Morin, guitarist Matheu Watson and Gaelic singer Catriona Watt. Sandra Robertson explained the genesis of the project.

“We had invited Mac – well, to be strictly accurate, Mac invited himself! He had some free time a year or so ago, and had worked with us in the past and fancied doing it again, although at that point he was really just coming over to try things out – there was no formalised project at that stage. We put something together and went out and did some workshops and very informal performances, and we all enjoyed that.

“From there we thought, okay, let’s put a more formal proposal together and see if we can get some funding, and that has become the Dannsa Connections show we are doing for North by North East.

“The connections with the group and Cape Breton dance go back a long way, and we wanted to take that on. It will be good to have Frank back with us again – he is very busy with his plan B company and took a step back from full membership, but always likes to come back and work with us.”

Dannsa's current core trio of Sandra Robertson, Fin Moore and Caroline Reagh

Dannsa's current core trio of Sandra Robertson, Fin Moore and Caroline Reagh

The new show will focus on their long-standing engagement with step-dance. The traditional Scottish style of step-dance does not involve the spectacular high kicking routines familiar to millions from Irish dance, and especially the popular adaptations in Riverdance and its successors.

The dances developed for ceilidhs in Highland farm kitchens and other cramped spaces, where wild flailing or kicking would have threatened your neighbour’s shins, or worse. Instead, they developed as close-to-the-floor routines, but with plenty of scope for embellishment, improvisation, and a degree of individual expression.

“Step-dance has been the main collective passion in the group,” Sandra agreed. “We all have different backgrounds – I’ve got quite a bit of Highland dance, for example, and Caroline has contemporary dance, and we bring those things in, but always with step-dance at the heart of it.

“From that we have been inspired or intrigued enough to try and take things a bit further. Sometimes when you look at the old-fashioned notations of how dances were done, it is fascinating to take that away from the paper and see how it develops into a different thing, especially when you take it on stage for an audience. We are constantly tweaking things.

“The new show is more like a concert-type format than many of our shows, by which I mean there isn’t really any audience participation in the dancing. We’ll be presenting a dozen or so fairly short pieces, and there will be opportunities for the musicians to have their own slots, which also gives us a chance to catch our breath!

“We have some new material that people won’t have seen before, and we are looking forward to taking them out, and we have arranged some pieces that were originally for Caroline and myself to include Mac and Frank. Lots of new stuff, then, which certainly ensures that we keep the brain cells working as well as the physical side!”

The full line-up for the Connections tour (photo Maria Falconer)

The full line-up for the Connections tour (photo Maria Falconer)

The process of creating new work within a traditional form can take many shapes, and Sandra reckons that there is no one set way in which that happens within Dannsa.

“It can start off in many different ways – I wouldn’t say there is a single process. It can start with a rhythm or a bit of music, or it can be a style of dance that we haven’t done. It can just be one person who has a particular interest and floats an idea, then we all work on it and it moves in different directions.

“Sometimes we reach a point where it becomes over-elaborate or we find ourselves adding in things without a real reason, and we have to unstitch it all because we are not happy with the way it is sitting, or we have come to a dead end, so there is a constant process of questioning and reconsidering what we are doing as we create a piece.

“Fin is probably our greatest critic when we are developing new work. He is very into the creative process in what we do – he doesn’t just turn up and play the music. He has had an immersion in step-dance from a very early age, and he loves to join in the dancing as well as playing.”

I wondered if any of the group had envisioned Dannsa reaching a second decade when they first launched?

“Definitely not, no, it has been a big surprise to all of us,” she laughed. “We just wanted to do it in the first place because we enjoyed it and had some ideas that we wanted to tackle, and we still do. As those ideas developed and we put in applications for funding we kept on being successful, and that gave us the momentum to keep on going.

“There have been lots of sources of inspiration for us over the years, whether it be collaborations or just coming up with a new idea that we fancied poking our noses into a bit more, and that has helped to keep our enthusiasm high.”

The group’s name is simply Gaelic for dance, and has caused occasional mis-understandings over the years, especially in Sandra’s native turf (she is originally from Barra).

“Back at the start we all sat round the table in my kitchen in Kingussie and came up with lots of different ideas,” she recalled, “but I can’t remember exactly who it was that suggested Dannsa. It does lead to a wee bit of confusion, especially in the Outer Isles, when events are advertised in a way that makes it sound as if it is a dance rather than a performance, so we have to be careful about how we word our posters and adverts!”

Following the NxNE tour, Dannsa will be reviving the Connections show for further dates later in the year. More immediately, they will be visiting schools in what will be the fourth year of their Gaelic project, giving workshops and demonstrations.

Dannsa Connections is on tour from 5-21 April 2012.

© Kenny Mathieson, 2012