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The Spirit of the Highlands



ven some lifetime residents of the Cumberland County area aren’t aware of the intrinsic connection between Fayetteville’s history and the Scottish people. Maddison Stewart, a 17-year-old student at Roland’s Dance Studio and an instructor in her own right, can’t quite say the same, as she has spent much of her youth becoming an expert on Scottish culture, most notably, their proud tradition of dance, as part of her work with instructor Amy Mooney, teaching residents the centuries old art of Scottish highland dancing. 

After attending the Flora MacDonald dance competition six years ago with her family as a way of learning more about her culture, Stewart fell in love with highland dancing and sought to learn everything she could about it. As there wasn’t a highland dance instructor in Fayetteville at the time, Stewart committed herself to traveling back and forth to Mooney’s home in Fuquay-Varina to receive private lessons for several years. It wasn’t until last year, when Mooney attended Stewart’s church to offer a lesson in highland dancing, that she was approached by Cathy Bersch of Roland's Dance Studio, about offering classes at her school.
“Cathy was a competitive highland dancer in her youth,” Mooney said. “And she wanted her children involved at the studio, so she reconnected with her highland roots. It worked out great.”
Mooney hired her longtime apprentice, Stewart, on as her assistant and for the past year she has made the trek from her own home in Fuquay-Varina back to Fayetteville to offer weekly classes.

Mooney is uniquely qualified, having taught highland dance, creative movement and modern dance for nearly 30 years. Mooney is a Fellow with the British Association of Teachers of Dance and has a bachelor’s degree in dance from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Like Stewart, Mooney’s interest in highland dance was spurred by a fascination with her own family heritage.
“These dances were originally done by warriors, as calisthenics, to prepare for battle. They give you quick speed and keep you in good shape for explosive bursts of power,” Mooney said. “A lot of what we work on now, is getting that explosive power you look for in sports. It is really keeping you in good physical shape.” According to Mooney, the dances were originally created for exclusively male dancers, though today they are more frequently performed by female dancers. “It is a very physically demanding dance and it is easier for men to do because when it was made, it was made for men, but it has changed with time,” Stewart said. “There have been more women’s steps created later, that are just as physically demanding, but have a bit more of a flow to them and a ballet influence.” Like ballet, highland dancers frequently wear specialized shoes, called ghillies. The dance is typically accompanied by bagpipe and can be done in groups, or alone. Today the dances are often seen in competitions. In fact, highland dancing is recognized as a sport by the Sport Council of Scotland, due in part to its intense physical demands. 

More evidence of the dance’s roots as a training exercise for highland warriors, is that swords are frequently in use during the dance. Of course, since Mooney’s class frequently involves children, the swords used are simply painted silver and black yardsticks. “They’re much lighter than real swords,” Stewart said.

Besides a great exercise, Mooney sees highland dancing as a great gateway for young people to learn more about a fascinating and centuries old history. “If you are born in North Carolina, then there is a very good chance you have some Scottish heritage,” Mooney said. “It is said that there are more people of Scottish descent in North Carolina than anywhere else in the world.”

In the 1700s, Fayetteville became a popular settlement for Scots, many of whom were Gaelic-speaking highlanders. Fayetteville even had some famous Scottish revolutionaries call it home, including Flora MacDonald and Bonnie Prince Charlie, who moved to the area after his Highlander army’s defeat in 1746. The two lived in the area for five years, and as loyalists worked to raise the local Scots to fight for the King against the American Revolution.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was even a Scottish Dancer Club at Fayetteville High School. They promoted their Scottish heritage and many girls auditioned for the club. Performing at the Miss FHS pageant and at the Homecoming and Sadie Hawkins Dance, the club was quite popular. Many women in Fayetteville that are active members of our community participated in Scottish dancing at FTS. Jerry Stein, who danced from 1957 to 1960, recalled performing at Grandfather Mountain at the Highland Games. Barbara Ciampa, a local optometrist, also danced in the club until she graduated in 1975.

    Former Scottish Dancer Sandy Edge, pictured here in her yearbook, recalled, "You had to know how to dance and we tried out to be a Scottish Dancer. We all wore the heavy wool kilts... the real thing. Our main event was performing at homecoming and when I won homecoming queen... I wore a kilt." 

Scottish dancing for Sandy's sister, Cindy Collins, was a little more than an after-school activity. "I competed. I was in another group and took it very seriously as I was also a ballet dancer. I studied in Nova Scotia during the summer for six weeks. I woke up to bagpipes every morning." She continued, "I went to many competitions and I also taught Scottish dancing. My kilt was Stewart plaid - very red and very pretty." Collins picked the Scottish tartan plaid she liked the best because she is of Italian descent.

Localite Carolyn Lancaster was a part of the Scottish Dancer group and remembers it fondly:

Our community was founded by the Scottish people and the Scottish Dancers at Fayetteville High connected our school with history. When I was a sophomore, Scottish Dancers were coached by Mary McMillan. During the year, the fun of being a Scottish Dancer was the social interaction… and of course, the dancing. We performed during halftime at the football games and we were also asked the year I participated, 1959, to perform at the State Fair in Raleigh. My friend Sandy Edge also remembers performing the “sword dance” … but that must have been too sophisticated for me! I was only a Scottish Dancer for one year before I decided to become a cheerleader. My future husband was a football player, so I became a cheerleader. I figured he would get to see me, if he tried. 

From the late 1950s to the 2010s…Scottish dancing is still thriving in Fayetteville.