A personal account
When I first started dancing in February 2007, some people asked me if I had attended Summer School. No, I hadn’t, I knew nothing about it, I didn’t even know anything about Scottish Country Dancing.
But by the end of the dancing year, I knew how to dance – after a fashion – I was hooked, and I was keen to give Summer School a go, despite having injured a calf muscle at Tawa’s final club night while doing a rather too enthusiastic poussette.
As luck would have it, that year, Summer School was in Wellington, so I was able to attend as a commuter. I attended the Elementary/Beginners class, taught by Romaine Butterfield, and what I learned in that class still stands me in good stead today: posture, correct ‘handing’, foot positions, timing of steps, phrasing, eye contact.
Two years later, in 2009, I attended the Intermediate class at the Auckland Summer School, which was held at AUT, and accommodation was on campus in student hostels. Because I was a late registration (they probably had nowhere else to put me), I was very lucky to have been accommodated in a five-person student flat, sharing with four top UK teachers (Alan and Christine Mair, Ann Dix and Maureen Haynes – no less than RSCDS ‘royalty’).
Being such a newbie, I spent a lot of down time just listening to their conversations, and learned so much – about dancing, teachers’ perspectives, and the RSCDS as an international organisation.
I found the Summer School experience fabulous, fun and exhilarating, but exhausting and hard on the feet. Staying on campus is wonderful because, as well as the three or four sets of people in your class, you also get to meet people from the other classes, at mealtimes and other activities. People come from all around New Zealand, Australia and beyond, with many attending year after year.
Living in also means that all meals are provided and not having to cook is always a bonus in my book! As well as the daily morning classes, you can take part in some of the extra activities that are happening in the afternoons. These vary with each Summer School – there might be extra classes in other forms of dance or music, lectures, local excursions, and/or walk-throughs of the evening balls or socials.
That year in Auckland I attended a lecture by a physiotherapist who spoke about looking after one’s feet and other body parts that might be hurting after such intensive use. It is tempting to want to do it all, but you might also want to use the free afternoons for resting your weary feet, catching up on sleep, or reading up the cribs for the evening dances.
In twelve years of dancing, I have now attended seven Summer Schools, and I hope I will be able attend a few more before my body decides to give out on me. I must say, that in that time, I have learnt to pace myself (deciding which dances I would and would not do at the evening socials), learnt the judicious use of painkillers (for arthritic feet) and Voltaren Emulgel (for sore muscles), and the value of taking time to rest.
I have found that pressure socks (as in-flight socks) and ice-packs help with sore feet and calves. And have padding inside your dancing shoes!
Summer Schools generally alternate between the North and South Islands. They follow a predictable pattern, with some events being a regular part of the experience. Here is what a typical Summer School might look like.
The dates are always from 28 December to 5 January, regardless of the days of the week. On the first day (28 Dec), participants arrive in the afternoon, they register, and are allocated their room and given their ‘goody bag’, which will contain such useful items as information about the school and its key people, programmes and crib sheets of the evening dances, touristy information about the local area, often a notebook and pen, a named water bottle, sometimes a little treat (lollies or chocolate).
Most importantly it will have your name tag, which you must wear all the time, as it entitles you to meals, entry into the evening dances and transport to halls for the morning classes.
Before dinner on the first day, there is a short function, with drinks and nibbles, for first time attendees. Your name tag will have a star or other form of identification to show you are a first-timer.
The morning classes run from 9am to 12 noon, with a break for morning tea. These are compulsory. It’s important to turn up, as the tutor will have planned their class according to the numbers on the roll.
There are usually classes at all levels ranging from Elementary to Very Advanced Technique, all taught by highly competent teachers, some from overseas. On the first or second day, a photographer will take photos of all the classes, as well as of the whole school (quite an exercise!).
After lunch there will be a programme of optional activities, and after dinner there are usually evening dances. The first and second evenings are casual socials, lasting from 7:30 to 9:30 – not too long and not too difficult. Of course, all the evening functions have live music.
The third evening is a Fancy Dress dance – the theme is detailed well beforehand so you can come prepared (fancy dress is optional). Prizes are awarded to the best costumes. This dance is planned and briefed by young dancers (JAMs – Junior Associate Members). The dances are fun and energetic!
The fourth night is Hogmanay – New Year’s Eve. This calls for somewhat more formal attire – certainly if you are male and own a kilt, this is the time to show it off – and be prepared for a long night.
After the Hogmanay midnight ceremony, there is more dancing – a couple of dances, plus traditionally, the 32-some Reel, or Eightsome Reel, which is danced with much gusto.
If you want to take part in that, it is a good idea to attend the walk-through in the afternoon. If you join in without knowing it, and make a mess of it, you will just spoil it for those that know and love it. Just enjoy watching it instead!
I haven’t mentioned the ‘after-parties’ which take place in the accommodation’s common room after the socials, and where often people do yet more dancing, to music played by members of the band and/or members of the Musicians’ Class.
The after-party after Hogmanay is legendary and has been known to continue into the early hours of the morning (e.g. 4, 5 or 6 am). Needless to say, breakfast is replaced by brunch the following day. Many of the young people don’t even turn up for that.
New Year’s Day is the day of rest – for some. Brunch is the only meal provided on that day. There will be no dinner. A list of cafés, restaurants or supermarkets in the vicinity will be made available so you can organise your own. Sometimes picnic packs can be provided (need to book for these).
During the afternoon on 1 January, the NZ Branch of the RSCDS has its AGM. This is open to all, though not all attend. It is quite interesting to see/hear how things are organised, and what people’s issues are. Of course, members of the Executive are elected, there is voting, and then there are the dreaded Remits – with a bit of luck they won’t go on for too long …
For a bit of levity, the Wooden Spoon will be awarded to the school’s biggest ‘stirrer’. On 2 January, classes start again – hopefully your feet will have recovered from the previous three days of classes and social dancing.
In the evening, there will be the traditional President’s Ball, which is preceded by drinks and nibbles. This is a formal occasion, and a chance to dress up in your best finery. There is usually a photographer, who will take official photos, but will also be available to take photos of you and your friends. This dance goes on until midnight.
The next night, there is no dancing – phew! You get to sit and watch. It is Ceilidh Night, where talented attendees perform items – music, singing, dancing, skits, poetry – there is such a lot of talent amongst the SCD community!
If you have any performance skills, make sure you get in touch with the Ceilidh organiser – they will be calling for items in the daily school newsletter.
On the last full day of the school, there is the infamous Mock Court in the afternoon, where prominent people (members of the Exec, teachers, summer school organisers, and general ‘big noise’ people) are hauled up before a ‘court’ to answer to trumped-up charges of serious misdemeanours.
They are given outrageous punishments, such as dancing 40 Pas de Basque in a row, or dancing Petronella backwards … It is all a lot of fun, and as a newbie, you need not worry about getting targeted.
The final night is another social dance, finishing at the respectable time of 9:30pm, after which you go back to your room to pack for your departure the next morning.
Home, to your own bed, and no more dancing for at least a couple of weeks, so your body can recover from all the rigours of Summer School. But what a blast you will have had!
From Désirée Patterson
25 June 2019