On Burns Night, everyone’s Scottish
If everyone can claim Irish ancestry to don their best green apparel and participate in the St. Patrick’s Day festivities every year, then everyone is Scottish on Burns Night.
Hosted locally by the Mystic Scottish Country Dancers on Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Holiday Inn in Norwich, Burns Night is an annual tradition among groups with Scottish ties to celebrate the late poet Robert Burns. Burns died in 1796 at the age of 37, but his works continue to be part of modern society; the classic New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne” is one of his most famous.
Burns Suppers are held annually around his birthday on Jan. 25 with family tartans, music, food, dancing and readings of his poetry, and while certain skits have been added over the years, the format has stayed the same.
“What we’ve really worked at doing is bringing Scotland to our country,” Mystic resident Ruth Walsh said. “There’s great joy on this night”
The Mystic Scottish Country Dancers, part of the New Haven branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, has been dancing its way through jigs, reels and strathspeys since the 1980s. In addition to Burns Night, the group does dance demonstrations at Highland games in Scotland, Conn., and Rhode Island as well as in various parades throughout the year.
Walsh, who served as president of the group for many years, said the group got its start after several Navy submarines from Groton were sent to Scotland; many sailors married Scottish women and brought them back to the U.S.
“There was a good meld of nice, young, lovely Scottish ladies who were here and anxious to maintain their heritage and their culture,” she said.
Scottish country dancing is similar to American contra dancing and English country dancing, with an emphasis on precise footwork. Preston resident Peter Leibert said he joined the group after teaching English country dancing and leading the Westerly Morris Men; his wife, Jane, also dances.
Cultural significance aside, it’s also a fun workout; Walsh, who lives at StoneRidge, said it fits in well with the organization’s wellness model.
“It’s good cardiovascular exercise,” Jane Leibert said. “You’re building your muscle mass, and weight on your feet helps with bone density.” She also noted its benefits for memory.
“Contra dancing and square dancing have active prompting while you’re dancing,” Peter Liebert added, “but [with] Scottish, basically you’re given a rundown of what the dance is, and you’re expected to have it memorized.”
To get ready for Burns Night, the group practices on Friday nights at St. Andrew’s in Groton. After a warm-up Jan. 26, dance instructor Karen Pestana led a group of about 16, a mix of newcomers and veterans, through dances with fanciful names such as the “Dashing White Sergeant,” the “Britannia Two-Step” and the “Flying Scotsman.”
The night had a jovial air to it, with dancers giggling when they stepped the wrong way or ran into each other. Club founder Annabelle Chambers was also in attendance, and while she doesn’t dance anymore, she recalled fond memories of teaching fellow dancers and past Burns Nights.
“There’s quite a crowd tonight,” she noted. “It’s a fun group.”
Burns Night will start at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10 at the Norwich Holiday Inn, 10 Laura Blvd. For information about tickets, call (860) 887-9184.
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