In my competitive days, (a very long time ago), it took a long time to master the art of backstepping in Highland dancing. The aim was to perform a very smooth backstepping action with all required positions reached at the right time. Backstepping back then truly was a magnificent step to watch and a very demanding one to perform well. But it was worth the effort it took to achieve some of the smoothest backsteps in town. When I see backsteps being danced today, I feel uncomfortable. Instead of a lovely smooth action, today’s backsteps are danced with such a staccato, jerky action that they no longer look like backsteps at all. And they do not have the aesthetic quality of the backsteps danced in my day.
What has caused this once, elegant, stylish, smooth step to become so unattractive to watch (and dance, I suspect)? Well, I don’t know for sure but from what I understand it has something to do with ‘winning making it fashionable’. As I say, I don’t know for sure but this seems like a reasonable explanation that has some truth in it. Let us say for the sake of discussion that it is true. The stories go something along the lines of somewhere in the past a dancer won a major competition dancing jerky backstepping. Now backstepping is not the only step in a dance so it might not have been the backstepping that clinched the win. Perhaps the dancer won despite the jerky backsteps. But as the story continues, once these backsteps had won, other dancers copied the winner and started dancing jerky backsteps too. And the rest as they say, is history. So, is this the real reason for a step that has lost it aesthetic appeal or was it something completely different? I do not know and perhaps it doesn’t matter what caused it. What matters is why it still exists and why it is apparently so accepted in competitive Highland dancing.
I find it difficult to believe that anyone would actually prefer to watch today’s backstepping if they had the option to watch instead the old, smooth, action backstop. And I also find it difficult to understand why the backstop of today would be the dancers’ choice. And what about the teachers? Are teachers teaching backstepping this way because they feel obliged to or have been told it is the way that it has to be done according to the technique book? Or is it just fashion? I can but hope that if it is just fashion, like most fashions what has been fashionable before will come back in – and then the old type of backstepping will become fashionable once again. And with it, Highland dancing might, once again, become more aesthetically pleasing to watch.