The following interview with Heather Richendrfer was obtained at the 2005 Bellingham Highland Games. Ms. Richendrfer is the director of Clan Heather Dancers, a school of Highland Dance located in Bellingham, Washington, with studios in Mount Vernon and Everett as well. For many years a certified dance instructor, she is also a memeber of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing World-wide Judges Panel. This past year, she was also the chief organizer of the United States Inter-Regional Highland Dance Championships which were held at the Skagit Valley Highland Games.
Highland Games: I understand you are a dancing judge. One thing about which I am curious is the best dressed Highland dancer competition which is held at some games. As a judge, what are you looking for since they are all dressed alike?
Heather: It's not every Highland Games that has a best-dressed dancer contest, and that is not really dancing, that's judging costumes. There is a specific costume that is prescribed for Highland dancing by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) in Scotland. They govern all of the competitive aspects of Highland dance. Certainly, how the garment fits the body, of course, would be one thing we look at, that everything is the proper length, the socks are the right height, that the design of the socks - the tartan designs - is going right up the center of the leg in the front and the back. We look to see that the kilt covers the body the way it is supposed to, that the pleats break at the right place on the hip, that the jacket is the right length for the vest and just the overall neatness and appearance of it.
Highland Games: I've noticed there is a kilt-styled outfit and then there is the Aboyne dress? Can you tell me about this outfit?
Heather: Sure. The Aboyne costume, which is commonly referred to as the National costume, was the costume developed for females when they first became involved in Highland dancing. Traditionally, this dance form was only performed by men, and the kilt is the men's uniform. So the dances like the Scottish Lilt, the Flora Macdonald's Fancy, Blue Bonnets O'er the Border, are all National dances that were developed for this soft, flowing tartan costume that is worn for the National dances. The Aboyne costume consists of a tartan skirt which is very full so that the dancer holds the skirt. Then there is a velvet vest with petals on the bottom, and a shawl called a plaid that goes over the shoulder. It's just a beautiful, traditional costume.
Highland Games: Yes, it is. In fact, one of the attractions of Highland dancing is the costuming. Can you tell us something about the tartan designs which are worn in dance competition? Are they prescribed in the rules?
Heather: Usually, the Scots chose which tartan to wear based on their family clan. Nowadays, Highland dance, like everything else, has participants that are not always of Scottish descent. What happened in recent years is that now there are tartans that are developed that are not necessarily tied to a family clan in Scotland. There are tartans that named are for people - there is a Princess Diana tartan, for instance, or districts - there is a District of Dundee tartan, or cities - an Edinburgh tartan. So there are hundreds and hundreds of them And there there are still people are developing their own.
A lot of dancers wear what are called dress tartans that are predominantly white in the background with bright colors. The traditional clan tartans are usually darker, and you see the pipe bands wearing them. Competitive dancing is all about is all about making yourself be seen - you know, marketing the package, I guess you would say. White tends to make those bright colors stand out.
Highland Games: So the SOBHD doesn't specify a certain tartan or range of tartans . . . ?
Heather: No. They specify that Scottish tartans must be worn and that the garment is a kilt, specifically the length of the kilt, those kinds of things, but not which tartan.
Highland Games: And do they have specifications regarding shoes and socks and the like?
Heather: Yes, all of that is set out by the SOBHD.
Highland Games: And the shoes have to be dancing shoes? They're not Ghillie brogues . . .
Heather: We call them Ghillies, but they are a soft shoe, made of very soft leather. Competitive dance is a very elite dance sport, actually, and the shoes are much softer than they used to be. They are closer fitting to the foot so the dancer has a beautiful point. But there are different designs of those shoes, though they are always black in Highland dance competition. But sometimes they will have white eyelets, or green eyelets or something like that. But they are always black and soft with eyelets that laces fit through.
Highland Games: Turning now to dancing itself, at what age would you say it is too late to start Highland dancing? Most of these kids seem to start when they are quite young.
Heather: Well, I do have a lot of students who are as young as three years old. My youngest has been two, but I have adult classes that are only adults, and I have a grandmother who is dancing in the school right now. She doesn't compete, but a lot of people do it just for recreation. There is certainly nothing wrong with that at all. It's a wonderful dance form and I find that often there are people who wish they'd done something as a child and its never too late. We have a very gentle introduction to Highland dance and they build up from there.
Highland Games: But it is a competitive activity . . . ?
Heather: It doesn't necessarily have to be. We do performances, or it can be just for recreation too.
Highland Games: If someone were interested in the competitive aspects, and if they were, say, 12 or 13, would they be seriously handicapped starting at that age?
Heather: Well, no, I don't think so. I think a lot of people have talent that they don't know they have. Is someone who starts at age 2 or 3 at an advantage? Possibly, because of the years of training in the basic movements and so forth. Just having had that experience helps a dancer, but I have students all the time who started at 12, or 18, or 25, so I think anyone, at any age, can.
Highland Games: How about yourself? Were you, or are you, a dancer?
Heather: I danced competitively for years and years in North America and I danced in Scotland as well. Once you take your judge's credentials, which is after you take your teacher's credentials, if you are judging all age groups, you can no longer compete. The idea is that you shouldn't be judging somebody this week and then dancing against them the next week. That makes perfect sense. And I can't judge my own students either. That's for a good reason as well.
Highland Games: How does one become a judge?
Heather': You have to pass an exam. And before that you have to be a certified teacher under one of the recognized organizations under the SOBHD. The judging exam is a very intense exam. I would have to say it is the hardest test I've ever taken in my life. Luckily I was in college at the time that I took it, so I knew how to study and I also was very definite that it was something that I wanted to do so I was prepared. People who go into that exam and aren't prepared struggle. The year I took it, it was in Vancouver, where I believe about 25 people took it. I think I was the only one who passed. There was another lady who passed, but she had taken it several times before. But I passed it the first time. There are not very many judges in North America. The test is written, but it also involves mock judging.
Highland Games: Do they show a videotape and you judge that?
Heather: No, they put dancers up in front of you and you judge them. If you've never done that before, it's an interesting exercise. But essay questions, like for instance, in a particular dance - pick an easy one - a dance like the Highland Fling, a question on the judge's test might be "in the 4th step on the 3rd bar, on the 2nd beat, where is the working foot placed?" So you have to know the numbers of the steps, be able to figure out which step they are talking about, be able to count the bars, and then be able to describe the movement - the particular action of the feet, so it's very intense.
Highland Games: One other thing which I have wondered about the dancing as I watch. And this concerns the piper and his part in it. If the piper is off, not keeping a regular beat or whatever, doesn't that affect the dancers?
Heather: Sure. Judges have to know the music, and it is their responsibility to tell the bagpiper when he or she is too slow, or too fast, or erratic. We've all heard the saying that timing is everything, and in dance that's true as well. The piping is accompanying the dancing, but the dancing has to be in time with the bagpiper.