Not what I thought it was

The renaissance of my interest in ballet has, while not quite keeping pace with that of opera, at least continued up to now and shows no sign of abating.  I suspect that, having discovered an appreciation of both of these art forms I’ll continue to enjoy them for the rest of my life (although perhaps not always amongst my main active interests).

A few months ago I got hold of a CD of music by French composer Léo Delibes.  He was most notable as a composer of ballets, operas and other works for the stage and this CD contained ballet suites from Sylvia and Coppélia, a couple of arias (one of them the famous “Flower duet”) from his most popular opera, Lakmé, and a subset of a set of dance airs entitled Le Roi s’amuse.  It also contained a suprise…

When I came to play the CD I instantly recognised one of the pieces from Sylvia – a number entitled Pizzicati (it seems to be referred to sometimes as Pizzicato but as far as I can gather, the plural form is correct).  The basic tune, at least, is one with which I’ve been familiar from early childhood and I think is one that gets used quite often for adverts and suchlike.

The surprise was that I was sure that this piece was part of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and, if asked, would probably have guessed it was either the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy or (more likely) Danse des Mirlitons, despite having played both of those a few years ago in a performance of the Nutcracker Suite and therefore, in theory, knowing fairly well how they go.

I was intending to write about this when I first discovered the identity of the mystery piece, but didn’t get round to it.  I was reminded of my intention while listening to the Sylvia suite again this morning.

[Incidentally, for anyone who’s paying attention to the categorisation of posts on this blog, I’m aware that this one is really more music-related than dancing-related but I thought that the latter category was feeling a bit neglected.]


Not dancing like a chicken

Earlier today I came across a reference to “Dance Like A Chicken Day”.

Before you get excited and start dancing like a chicken (although don’t let me stop you if that floats your boat), I should point out a couple of things:

Firstly, the occasion, as far as I can tell, is only celebrated in the United States (as “National Dance Like a Chicken Day” or “National Chicken Dance Day”).  Even there it doesn’t seem to have official status and there is no mention of it on the Wikipedia page about the Chicken Dance.

Secondly, it was yesterday (i.e. 14th May).  Don’t worry, though, as it’s an annual event and in any case there’s nothing preventing you from doing the Chicken Dance on any day the mood takes you!

I haven’t had time to do extensive research, but a bit of Googling turned up a few websites corroborating the existence of (National) Dance Like A Chicken Day (you can recreate the search for yourself if you are so inclined) and the aforementioned Wikipedia article has a reasonable amount of information about the Chicken Dance – it’s a specific dance, to a specific piece of music (originating in Switzerland in the 1950s under the name of die Entertanz (the Duck Dance) and probably better known in the UK as The Birdie Song as the music was released here under that name in 1981 – I remember it well from school discos in my youth!).  Apparently, and unsurprisingly, it’s topped at least one poll for “most annoying song of all time” (the only serious contender I can think of is Agadoo – another frightful song from the early 80s that I remember from school discos despite my best attempts to erase it from my memory – and I apologise if you now have either of these tunes floating round in your head).

Fortunately the name of Dance Like A Chicken Day reminded me of an album by solo bass artist Steve Lawson (whom I have had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions, albeit not recently), entitled Not Dancing For Chicken.  This was one of his earlier albums as I recall (from about 12 years ago) and remains one of my favourites – certainly the title is my favourite (I think it was a reference to his cat).  I’m currently floating that past my ears and hoping that this rather better music will displace the twin earworms of the Birdy Song and Agadoo (though, to be fair, if you did feel like dancing those would probably be more suitable choices).





Less song, more dance!

Not long ago, I mentioned that I was rediscovering the delights of opera.  That is still true and I am also beginning to take another look at ballet.

In some respects, I tend to think of opera and ballet in much the same way – both are art forms that have considerable overlap with classical music (and, to some extent with each other – certainly, I believe it was common in early French operas to have extended balletic interludes) and, in today’s public perception (at least within British culture) tend to be seen as rather high-brow or elitist, although for much of their history both were actually quite popular forms of entertainment for the masses.  They are both art forms to which I’ve had limited live exposure but have enjoyed what I’ve seen.

Unlike opera, where my interest until recently has  been almost non-existent except for watching live performances, I have quite enjoyed listening to, and sometimes playing, ballet music (mostly in the form of concert suites rather than complete ballets) over the years, with some of Tchaikovsky’s (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) and Khachaturian’s (Gayane, Spartacus and Maskerade) being among my favourites.  It is mostly the visual form, i.e. watching the dances themselves, that I am currently rediscovering.

My first encounter with ballet came through a workshop that I attended while I was at school (I think it was primary school but it may have been the early years of secondary – we’re certainly talking well over 20 years ago).  This was led, as I recall, by two ballet dancers (one male, one female) from some professional ballet company or other.  They gave us demonstrations of various techniques and got us to try a few basic exercises.  One of these involved each of us, in turn, running across the floor and then making a graceful leap, emulating a bird or an aeroplane.  My own attempt was one of the less graceful ones in the class and, as I recall, prompted a comment about jumbo jets from one of the instructors! (Perhaps this incident is partly to blame for the love of egregious wordplay that has probably been one of my strongest defining characteristics since my youth?!)

I have only, as I recall, ever been to the ballet twice.  Both occasions were on my school trip to Russia in the autumn of 1991 (which also provided my first opera experiences). The first one was in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and was an evening of excerpts from various ballets performed, I think, by members of the Kirov Ballet (although it was not at the Kirov Theatre).  The second was in Moscow, at the Kremlin, and performed by the Bolshoi Ballet.  This one was a complete ballet and I’m not entirely sure what it was but I think it was Don Quixote, a ballet with music by Ludwig Minkus (a fairly obscure composer – or at least one I’d never heard of – described, perhaps rather unkindly, in a book I was recently reading as an “official hack” who supplied “scores by the yard” for the Mariinsky (aka Kirov) Ballet).  I don’t have very clear memories of either event but I seem to recall that I quite enjoyed them, especially the Moscow one.

Given my previously-noted mental association of opera and ballet, and the also previously-noted fact that I have been re-exploring opera of late, it is probably not that surprising that my explorations should have strayed into the territory of ballet as well.  Via watching a few YouTube videos and then getting a handful of DVDs (which may well become the basis of a larger collection as the years progress) I have discovered that, while a lot of ballet music does work fine on its own (and, indeed, quite a lot of it was originally written with no thought to it being used for dancing), the visual dimension does add quite a lot to things.  It’s fascinating to watch, both for the grace, elegance and sheer athletic prowess of the moving bodies in their own right (both on their own and in combination with each other) and for how the dance and the music interact with and complement each other.

In order to deepen my understanding, and hence also my enjoyment, of ballet I’ve not only been watching and listening to it but doing a certain amount of reading about it.  I was able to remember a handful of terms (such as pirouette and pas de deux) from the ballet workshop I attended all those years ago, but I now at least have some idea when I’m watching a pas de chat or a fouetté (or 32 of them in a row, as in a famous bit from the “black act” of Swan Lake) and I know my arabesque from my elbow!


Two organisations I belong to are are celebrating significant anniversaries this year, although in one case we’re running a bit late.

I have been a member of the Caernarvonshire and Anglesey Caledonian Society for almost 10 years (and the chairman for about 6 years).  Until very recently we thought that this year was our 60th anniversary, although a bit of research by one of our members has now shown us that the society was actually formed in 1953 (i.e. 61 years ago), so we’ve missed the boat slightly – although arguably a 61st anniversary should be even more cause to celebrate than a 60th!

I’ve mentioned the Caledonian Society on several previous occasions (most recently here) on this blog but, in case you haven’t read those posts or have forgotten, here’s an executive summary of what we’re all about.  The group exists to promote Scottish culture and provide a meeting place for people of Scottish origin or with interest in Scotland.  For much longer than I’ve been on the scene, our main activity has been Scottish Country Dancing (not to be confused with Highland Dancing – an entirely different wee beastie), which we generally do in Bangor on Thursday nights between September and April (dr0p me a line if you want to know more).  Apart from that, our only other regular event these days is an annual Burns Night dinner (incidentally, at this year’s event, I performed a couple of Burns’ songs (on the ukulele), one of which was the song I’d quoted in my speech a couple of years ago).  I gather there used to be a wider range of activies in years gone by.

Apparently the dance classes started a few years after the society was formed (in about 1958 if my memory serves me), so we haven’t actually missed the 60th anniversary of dancing.  That’s just as well, as we’ve been working on a lovely dance called the Anniversary Reel and it will be good to get another excuse to dance it (not that we particularly need an excuse!).

The other group I’m in that’s celebrating a significant birthday this year is even older – in fact twice as old.  The Menai Bridge Brass Band started playing in 1894.  We have several things in the pipeline to celebrate our anniversary.  Perhaps the biggest one is a CD recording project, which we are aiming to complete in May.  The band is currently trying to raise money to pay for this and if you’d like to help you’re very welcome to do so. 🙂

We’re also hoping to hold at least one big concert some time this year (although the exact timing depends on things like whether we do sufficiently well in the regional band competition this weekend to get through to the national final later in the year) and possibly a series of open-air concerts in Menai Bridge during the summer, as the band used to do regularly in its early years (usually performing at least 8 complete concerts per season without ever playing the same piece twice).

On the fine art of wearing a kilt

This evening was the End of Season Dance for the Caernarvonshire and Anglesey Caledonian Society, so I dug my kilt out of the back of the wardrobe for the occasion (I was going to suggest that it was for a final Highland Fling, but that would be confusing Scottish Country Dancing, which we do, with Highland Dancing, which we don’t) and have been enjoying wearing it all evening.

As it happens, my friend Andy posted a question about kilts on his blog a couple of days ago.  I replied with a short comment, but I thought I would use this opportunity to set down at slightly greater length my thoughts about kilts and how to wear them.

I had long been fascinated by kilts and quite wanted to try out wearing one so, when I took up Scottish Country Dancing back in October 2004, I lost no time in buying myself a kilt and accessories on eBay.  At the time, I had no definite knowledge of any Scottish ancestry (although there were rumours of Scottish blood somewhere in my maternal line) and, since I’d heard that some people were  sensitive on the issue of people wearing clan tartans without any links to that clan, I decided to go for a safe option and pick something neutral.  I managed to find a nice Black Watch kilt bundled with a set of accessories (I think it included a belt, sporran and sgian dubh) for a reasonable price (somewhere around £50 as I recall).  I got a “highlander” shirt (i.e. one with a lace-up opening at the top of the front), a pair of kilt hose (aka long socks) and some sock flashes (little bits of tartan material – I went for Black Watch to match my kilt – attached to elastic/velcro bands that are used to hold the socks up) as well to complete the ensemble (along with some dancing shoes that I’d already bought, or my old school shoes for non-dancing occasions when a harder sole was required).

I quickly discovered that a kilt is much nicer for dancing in than trousers (at least for Scottish dancing), although I have tended to wear the kilt only for our special dance events (St Andrew’s Night and the End of Season Dance each year) rather than for regular dancing evenings.  I also wear it for Burns Night dinners and have occasionally worn it for other occasions, including one solo fiddle gig I had (although that was mainly because I went straight there from dancing on a night when I had been wearing the kilt anyway).  I am fortunate that my Caledonian Society, which organises the Burns Night I attend, is fairly laid back so I can get away without wearing the formal jacket etc. that are supposed to accompany a kilt on such occasions.  For the first year or two, I wore an ordinary black suit jacket and bow tie.  More recently, I’ve discovered that my highlander shirt is perfectly acceptable in this company.   I think it looks a lot better (certainly on me) than a formal jacket and (bow) tie anyway.

After a few years, my kilt (which was somewhat lighter weight than a standard one) started to get a few moth holes (and perhaps just a little bit tight around the waist – although I could probably fit into it quite easily again now).  By this stage, I had discovered a probable ancestor (on my Mum’s side of the family) with the surname MacDonald.  Although she was born and raised in Kent, back in the early 19th Century, it seems highly likely that her forebears came from Scotland, so while I’m not absolutely sure I’m actually related to her I am quite happy to consider myself a member of the MacDonald clan (or at least sufficiently so to wear their tartan – or one of them, for there are many).  So I got myself a new and slightly better quality kilt (also on eBay) as well as a nicer kilt pin (i.e. one that didn’t look like an overgrown safety pin).  My new kilt is supposedly a MacDonald tartan, although it’s not one I’ve been able to find in any reference sources, so I’m not sure how reliably the shop identified it.  On the other hand, I like the pattern (it’s red superimposed on dark green and blue) and I think that most people are probably not that bothered about what tartan you wear anyway (and there are so many out there that you could probably just claim it was a rare variant).  As it happens, the new tartan is quite similar to the old one, with the addition of prominent red bits, so my Black Watch sock flashes go quite nicely with it.

I thought I had a picture of me wearing my kilt, but I couldn’t find one in my collection.  I’ll try to take a suitably-attired self-portrait sometime.  In the meantime, here’s a picture of me in my knitted tam-o-shanter instead (a few years ago when I had a bit more hair):

Self-Portrait with Tam

I’ve realised that this post has turned more into a history of my own personal kilt wearing than any kind of examination about how to wear one (beyond the question of what tartan you may or may not be entitled to wear).  Still, there is plenty of advice (much of it conflicting) available online with the aid of Mr Google, so rather than carry on at even greater length here, I’ll stop for now (not least because I’ve just noticed that it’s past midnight and I’m overdue turning into a pumpkin).

Still in the chair

Last night was the AGM of the Caernarvonshire and Anglesey Caledonian Society.  It was a nice short meeting, at just under 30 minutes (which left plenty of time for dancing later in the evening) and, as expected, I was re-elected as chairman for another year.

As chairmanships go, this one is a bit of a sinecure.  Apart from chairing the AGM (and any meeting which allows itself to be finished in less than half an hour can’t be too bad!), pretty much the only duties involve welcoming people to our two annual dance events and introducing the speakers at our Burns Night (this year was unusual as I was one of the speakers – I was introduced by our secretary, rather than having to introduce myself).


Dancing Vikings

I have been a member of the Caernarfonshire and Anglesey Caledonian Society for several years now (probably about 7;  as mentioned in my recent post about this year’s Burns Night celebrations, I’ve been the chairman for about 3 years).   I gather that in the past, the society used to do quite a range of activities, all geared towards celebrating Scottish culture and bringing Scottish expats and other interested parties together.  In recent years, however, the main focus has been on Scottish Country Dancing.  In fact, apart from the Burns Night dinner, this is about our only regular activity (and it was the reason I joined in the first place).

We meet for dancing on Thursday evenings during the autumn, winter and spring (taking a long summer break, usually from May to mid-September) at Canolfan Penrallt in Bangor.  Our main aim, which we usually achieve, is to have lots of fun while dancing, rather than to do all the dances perfectly (although we do try and make them look reasonably nice).

As well as working through our regular repertoire of dances and trying out occasional new dances (or ones so old and long-forgotten that they are effectively new to us), we often have a slightly more complicated dance that we work hard at for several weeks in a row.  The one we’re doing at the moment is an interesting 4-couple longwise reel called The Viking Longship that is supposed to visually describe the shape of the eponymous vessel.  It’s one of those dances where the dancing couple (the first couple, as in most longwise-set dances) are doing one thing while the other couples (at least 2 of them) are doing something else for a large chunk of the dance.  In this case it involves the dancing couple nipping through rapidly vanishing gaps between the other dancers and it’s a great test of one’s phrasing abilities!

There appears to be a similarly-named but entirely unrelated dance called The Viking Ship, which we haven’t yet tried.