DST - University of St Andrews Celtic Society
August 31, 2022
Continuing our blog posts about Dancing Scottish at universities, Thomas Rintoul, President and Teacher (General and Technique Classes) of St Andrews University Celtic Society tells us all about it...
Celtic Society is the oldest student society at the University of St Andrews. Founded in 1796, we’re a mere 226 years young as I write this from the RSCDS Summer School in 2022. We’ve not been Scottish country dancing for all that time, but for several decades it’s been the bread and butter of what we do as a society. Alongside teaching Scottish Country, we also run Scottish Gaelic language classes.
Currently, we run two dance classes a week during term time. Our General class on a Sunday evening in Boys Brigade Hall is designed to allow everyone to get something from the class whether you’ve been dancing for years, or you’ve just stepped off the plane and haven’t been to a ceilidh yet.
For those who’ve been with us a while, or who show particular aptitude for dancing, we also run a Technique class on a Wednesday evening in St Mark’s Church Hall. Members of this class work towards more challenging ball programmes and prepare dancing demonstrations. In the past year we’ve competed at the Glasgow and Aberdeen Music Festivals, performed at the Scottish Universities Scottish Country Dance Festival (SUSCDF), and put on several demonstrations at our ceilidhs.
We run several ceilidhs throughout the academic year including our Ceilidh in the Castle, where we have around 400 dancers attend a dance in the ruins of St Andrews Castle. We run several social dances and a beginner friendly dance around November. This year we’re intending to branch out into half day schools as well open to students and adult dancers.
Our main dancing event, however, is our annual Highland Ball. It had been our intention to host a special Highland Ball to celebrate our 225th anniversary. That got slightly delayed, initially be the pandemic preventing dancing, then again by the delays to the Younger Hall renovations. However, I can now confirm that these celebrations will take place at Highland Ball 2023, on Saturday 25th February 2023 in Younger Hall, with music provided by Sandy Nixon and his Scottish Dance Band. It’s sure to be a great night and it would be wonderful to see as many dancers as are able to celebrate with us! We’re also planning to launch a book of dances at the ball since we last published a book in our Bicentennial year.
As far as getting involved in Celtic Society, I’m a bit of an odd case as university dancers go. I’ve grown up in Scottish country dancing. My parents met dancing and I attended a kids’ class in Dollar taught by my Gran. Despite all that, I left dancing when I was 10 to go to Scouts and didn’t think I’d be back. I vividly remember telling my mum (formerly Vice President of Celtic Soc) that I would not be joining Celtic. That lasted all of about 5 minutes after attending Celtic’s Freshers Ceilidh and SCD taster.
After about 4 weeks I was on Committee. After around 5 weeks I’d got back up to speed and was dancing in our Intermediate Class (now Technique). Towards the end of my second year at St Andrews, as COVID-19 began to kick off, I took on the President role. I’m now entering my 3rd year as President. Starting in September, I’ll also be teaching in both our General and Technique classes.
Pre-pandemic Celtic Society had around 30 members but since we started also offering Scottish Gaelic Language classes, and changed up our Scottish Country Dance Class structure, we’ve grown to have between 40 and 60 members. I hope we continue to in the next academic year.
Our members come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some come from the other side of the world to study in St Andrews, others come from just up the road in Dundee. We have students from across the university’s academic departments from Physicists to Art Historians. Celtic is a melting pot of students from all parts of St Andrews and I love it!
Most of our members are recruited at the start of the academic year. Many find us through the Freshers Fayre, or through our Freshers Ceilidh and Give-it-a-go events. Members bring along their friends, and many find us through Facebook, Instagram or the Students’ Union website. We’ve always found that you get the most people when you approach them the way they’re comfortable being approached, so you have to try multiple methods.
A good number of our dancers do continue to dance after they finish their time with us. Several of our members have joined up with local branches in St Andrews and Dundee, as well as with the Youth Branch. I also know of several former Celtic dancers who have based their post-uni moves based on the availability of Scottish Country Dancing nearby. In the past year we’ve had people move to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Ayr, and a key factor for them was the presence of good Scottish Country Dancing.
I’m firmly of the opinion that the best way to get young people into Scottish Country Dancing is to show them what it is and get them involved. University is a great time for this because you have an environment full of young, energetic dancers. There’s no perception of Scottish Country being for older people at universities. It’s just a great social dance form and the best exercise around.
Even when we run Ceilidhs, we make sure to have a Scottish Country demonstration and hammer home that this is what we do, you don’t have to have any experience and you’ll be having a great time in Mairi’s Wedding before you know it!
For us, what’s made a big difference recently is support from local branches. We joined up with St Andrews branch to trial dances for Book 53 with a larger number of people. Off the back of that we’re working together to offer more opportunities to dance to our members, and to the local branches. If branches are lucky enough to have a university group nearby, I’d highly encourage them to make that connection and see where it leads.
Finally, what I’d say to other young people who haven’t given SCD a go yet, is “why on earth not?!” Coming back to Scottish Country Dancing might not have been planned, but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made at university.
Through SCD I’ve made friendships for life, been to dances all over Scotland, competed at competitions in Newcastle, Glasgow and Aberdeen and now I’m writing this from the RSCDS Summer School in St Andrews.
Give Scottish Country Dancing a go. I cannot recommend it highly enough!