Highland Dancing competitors – are we expecting too much?

I always think that Highland dancing is a tough, stamina demanding, highly technical form of dance. And I am conscious that it is a dance genre where the youngest dancers need to do the same as the adults. Even when young children are dancing a three-step Fling, the three steps are the same steps that adult dancers do. Adult dancers are likely to dance more steps than very young dancers but the basic steps, such as the first step of the Fling is the same for everyone. When it comes to Championship level dancers the number of steps that the 7 and under 10 years need to dance is less than those who are 10 years and over. But 10 year olds need to do the same number of steps as the adults.

This year the number of steps in the Championship dances for 10 years and under 16 and the 16 years and over are:- 6 step Fling, 3 and 1 in the Swords, 4 and 2 in the Seann Truibhas and Strathspey and 1/2 Tulloch. So the 10 year olds are dancing the same number of steps as the adults. It is true that the adult steps usually include some of the most challenging steps in each dance. However I notice that this year the 10 year olds need to dance the 6th alternate step in the Seann Truibhas – leap and shedding. I know that we can argue that it is easier than doing the 6th step – leap and high cutting, but I think we need to consider whether a step like this is really appropriate for 10-year-old competitors.

First of all, the leaps in this step in the Seann Truibhas need the dancer to have great strength, flexibility, control, coordination, stamina and skill if they are to dance them well. Danced badly they pose a risk to the dancer. And all of this at a time when dancers in this age group might be approaching the adolescent growth spurt where enormous physical, psychological and social changes take place. These changes are often very overwhelming for the dancer and can include sudden increases in height, decrease in muscle strength and coordination and their hormones being all over the place. The onset of the growth spurt and how long it lasts is very individual. It usually takes place at ages 11 to 14 although it can be a little earlier for girls (perhaps our 10-year-old Highland dancer) and a little later for boys. The growth spurt takes about 18 to 24 months and during this time dancers can experience a whole range of challenges with decrease in strength, flexibility and coordination.  At this time it is vital that training modifications are made and that the dancer is aware that the drop in ability is temporary. We need to understand how frustrating this is to the dancer and the lack of confidence it can cause. So at the very time the 10 year old Highland competitor has the stakes raised competitively, she is facing one of the most challenging times developmentally. We can modify the work we do with these young competitors but without some change to the demands of the Championship steps any modification benefits might be limited.

I have concerns for children who have just moved up into the 10 year old age group. Last year they would have danced fewer steps. This year they are dancing extra steps in all the dances. In the Seann Truibhas, for instance, this means going from dancing 3 slow and 1 quick step to 4 slow and 2 quick steps. So they are already having to cope with performing an extra two steps in this dance this year. And as well as the two extra steps they need to cope with the leap and shedding being one of them. Teachers need to prepare students in a safe and effective way but is it really possible to do this when there is such a difference in the demands of such young competitors when moving from one age group to the next? I am not sure what the process is for choosing the SOBHD Championship steps each year and how much consideration is given to child development in relation to the steps chosen. But I would certainly want issues like these given proper consideration when choosing steps in the future.

Useful reading

IADMS paper to download: The Challenge of the Adolescent Dancer

Preparation for Performance for Highland Dancers available to download free from decodanz website.