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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 94 - Dashing social activity among the sans culottes

THOSE who remember the 1960, British film, Tunes of Glory, about top-ranking, regimental rivalry in a Scottish infantry barracks, will recall a sub-plot that dealt with how officers, and, presumably, gentlemen, should comport themselves when engaging in Scottish country dancing.

One lieutenant-colonel, played by John Mills, saw the activity as vigorous but refined, a bit like a hyper-active saraband; while another, portrayed by Alec Guinness, believed such dancing should ideally resemble a cross between a rugby scrum and all-in wrestling set to music.

The film never really got to grips with the problem, but one was left with the suspicion that guests at the officers’ mess parties would be in for a traumatic time, with females being hurtled like projectiles across the floor or, if convenient, through open windows and expected to pick themselves up and return to the fray with pleasant enthusiasm.

Males would be forgiven if they displayed more vigour than dancing skill and directed their partners using holds ranging from the cross-press to the half or full Nelson.

Such a clash of attitudes raises the question: Is Scottish country dancing a brisk social activity or one of the martial arts? In my experience, an over-vigorous rendition of the reel, The Highland Light Infantry’s Farewell to Barlinnie, can constitute a hazard, if not to life, at least to limb and I believe a too-convulsive interpretation of the Madeleine Smith jig followed by the Strathspey, The Not-Proven Verdict, could create a dancing minefield that might require special insurance cover.

APART from some dancers behaving as if they were defending Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu wars, highly-polished floors can sometimes make many behave as if competing in ice-skating championships, performing inadvertent double axels or triple salchows.

It is easy to suffer body bruises and contusions to one’s dignity in such a hectic, hilarious and - in my experience - highly-enjoyable activity.

Alas, it brought no pleasure to Mrs Marney Waddell, of Innerleithen, Peeblesshire, who broke her arm when she fell while dancing during the Peeblesshire Agricultural Society’s annual ball at Peebles Hydro Hotel on 26 January, 2001.

Her £30,000 damages claim that the hotel, which disputed liability, should have taken reasonable care not to polish the wooden floor so much that it was dangerous and that the hotel should have prevented guests from using it in that state, was rejected by Judge Gordon Coutts, QC, at the Court of Session last week.

Mr Coutts said that a degree of slipperiness was to be found on a dance floor. He had found no undue slipperiness and, accordingly, no significant danger on the floor.

The proposal, that persons could be prevented from falling at a dance, particularly when Scottish country dancing was involved, was absurd.

I regret that Mrs Waddell found herself painfully out of step and I must say that, in attempting fearsome reels, I have joined other limping participants who, after the final, exhausting note had sounded, resembled a Matthew Brady photograph of Confederate walking wounded after the Battle of Gettysburg.

MRS WADDELL fell while dancing The Dashing White Sergeant, a movement that, in my perspiring and palpitating experience, can seem to go on for ever, and sometimes resembles the surge and thunder of the sans culottes storming the Bastille.

At the end of it, and other popular reels like The Duke of Cumberland’s Fancy, and modern dances such as the jig, The Deil’s Awa Wi Devolution, and the rant, The Scottish Taxpayer, I have seen participants, who if they had been exhibited at Crufts, could have been classed as "best of breed", slumped breathless, the males with faces like over-ripe nectarines and the females flushed with fatigue, with eyes that had glimpsed eternity.

I once fell like a wind-up toy after being swung by a female built on the lines of a Sumo wrestler and behaving like a Viking in drink, but I admit that most of the Scottish country dances into which I have hazarded myself have been ones of rhythmic restraint and good manners, with hardly an eldritch screech heard to pierce the night’s dull ear.

Whichever dancing philosophy - sedateness or boisterousness - has the truer wisdom, I now regard the activity as a spectator sport.

For me, in my non-dancing years, the jig is up.

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