Birmingham resident Kate DeGood was drawn to traditional Scottish Highland dancing before she even learned about her Scottish heritage. As director of the Kate DeGood School of Dance, she offers in-person and virtual lessons for ages two and up.
“It isn't as well known in the U.S. as Irish (Riverdance), but it is just as competitive and exciting,” she said. “We wear traditional outfits including kilts, and dancers as young as four dance over swords.”
Born in Lockport, New York, Degood grew up in Holland, Michigan and Illinois as well as Alma, where she would discover her passion for Scottish dancing. “I got involved when my family moved to the city known as Scotland, USA. My mom signed me up to try that and other types of dance like ballet, tap and jazz,” she explained. “I really loved it and I became really good at it and started to travel more. I became a premiere at 10 – the highest level – and I won my first U.S. championship at 13. I started traveling to Scotland every year for the World Championship.”
She describes Scottish dancing as precise. “It’s very technical and our positions and techniques are very exact. It appeals to perfectionists,” said DeGood. “It’s very similar to ballet with that technical aspect, but it requires a lot more stamina because the dances are a lot shorter and you’re jumping up and down all the time.”
Originally, these dances were performed by men in Scotland, where the technique was also used for military strength training. “As the story goes, a woman dressed as a man entered a competition and won. Now male and female dancers compete in the same categories. Although we do perform, it is primarily for competition,” she said.
Special event performances can feature a group or one or two dancers for a Scottish wedding.
Both cultural and historical, every dance has a story behind it, like a sword dance done by warriors. The dances can be performed indoors, but historically they were only done in outdoor settings.
The Highland Fling, one of the oldest and most traditional of the Highland dances, may have originated from a young boy describing the movements of a leaping stag to his father. It was also used as a victory dance after battle.
Irish dances share the competition aspect and cultural history, but the techniques are very different. “We both hold our bodies upright, but we use our arms all the time,” said DeGood, who has been teaching traditional Scottish dance for more than 20 years to students that range from beginners to champion dancers.
Last year, her school traveled and competed extensively. For instance, DeGood taught workshops in Australia and many dancers competed in the U.S. National Championships in Portland, Oregon and the Canadian National Championships in Nova Scotia. Some had great success along the way, including those who won medals and trophies in Scotland.
In addition to her online classes, DeGood currently teaches at Birmingham First Church CLC Dance Studio and Kilgour Scottish Centre in Troy.
“I’ve tried to be really involved in the Birmingham community, like the Hometown Parade and the Wintr Market. We have also done Story Time at the Baldwin Library,” she said. “We are always looking for new opportunities in the community. There are a lot of people with Scottish heritage who don’t know we’re out there.”
Story: Jeanine Matlow
Photo: Laurie Tennent