I’ve heard it said many times over the years that the highland dancer is supposed to dance to the piper, and although this may well be useful advice for dancers for a number of reasons, I’m not sure it’s the best advice for a piper to hear!
My fear is that “dancing to the piper” gives the false impression that the piper can play whatever and however they want, which couldn’t be much further from the truth. I wonder if this is why there are so many reports of pipers being shouted at by dancers (or even their parents!) and therefore never playing for highland dancing again?
I feel that the piper’s job is to support and accompany the dancer to bring out the best in them, which means listening to what they need, even if it’s not the tempo you might normally play a tune on your own or in a pipe band. The nature of the great highland bagpipe means that we are used to being the centre of attention when we play, but piping for dancers is more about blending in and not being the one that draws any attention!
In my experience, which is now 22 years of playing for dancers, the piper needs to adapt to the dancer if they want to succeed. For example, I would never play the same tempo for the babies group as I would for the more experienced open/premier dancers. This is not only due to the length of the legs and ability levels involved, but also the style of dancing actually performed.
Open/premier dancers will tend to dance slower as they are trying to highlight their grace, elegance, elevation and accuracy of their positions. If the piper was playing their own music like there was no audience, then the tempo would vary more than you would imagine.
It’s a well known fact that a piper playing on their own will tend to slow down (which is why drummers think that they are so useful!) and the dancer would then look like they are out of time, when they are in fact desperately fighting to stay with the tune. This causes a confusing scene for both judges and spectators (and even the untrained eye!) as it’s quite obvious when the dancer and piper are not in sync.
Another problem is the variation in age and size of the dancers that can exist across several judges tables at a competition. It’s great to keep the day moving and avoid a looong day, however it can make it very difficult to chose the correct tempo to allow for every dancer and then keep it steady. I think I’ve found the way to combat this awkward situation though, and it often raises a few eyebows from the spectators!
If there is too much variation across the judging tables, I’ll simply chose what appears to be the average tempo being danced and then look away from all the dancers. Occasionally I will even turn my back on them completely, but concentrate carefully on keeping the tempo and expression of playing as consistent as possible. I like to treat this as a bit of a challenge of my own which helps avoid losing concentration through the day, especially if there are 13 flings!
If I can give any advice to the piper, it would be firstly to keep a careful eye on the dancers and respond to how comfortable they appear. Experience will help you tell if the dancers are struggling to keep up or indeed when they are in agony because you’re going too slow, and if you can’t tell from their feet then have a look at their faces!! Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask someone in the know if you don’t have the experience or ability to recognise the signs.
My advice to the dancers would be to communicate (politely!) with the piper and don’t always assume that they know what they’re doing. The more experienced judges will help keep the piper on track, but unfortunately some judges may lack the confidence to tell the piper that they are too fast or too slow, even though it can be painfully obvious to everyone else!
A good piper should receive positive criticism in the way it’s intended…after all, pipers are used to criticism mostly of the negative variety.
Dance to the piper? Nah, I’ve always piped to the dancers, it’s far safer!