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Dancing Through Scotland

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How Dance Taught Me Lessons I Used During and After My Semester Abroad

My parents enrolled me in dance classes at the age of four and I’ve been dancing my way through life ever since.  Dance has been an integral part of my life from a young age and has given me many opportunities to express my own story and emotions.  What I gained from dance, and what I believe others around the globe have obtained from dance, is a meaningful way to express emotion through movement, whether performed in a small town or a crowded theater.  Storytelling through emotional movement connects all those who watch and perform dance.  This connection became evident to me during my semester abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland in the fall of 2015.
I experienced this display of emotion through dance during my first week in Scotland.  The University of Edinburgh sponsored back-to-school activities including a class where students could learn traditional Scottish dances, such as the Highland dances.  I decided that given my history with dance, this would be an entertaining opportunity to meet new people and integrate myself with the Scottish culture early in my semester. 
At this event, I struck up a conversation with a girl standing nearby.  She told me she was from Australia, and that she was studying at the University of Edinburgh for all four years of college.   This introduction was the first of many connections I made with people from all over the world who were studying at the University.  The class was filled with students, some of whom had done Scottish dances their entire lives, but for others, this was the first time they had ever had to hold hands with strangers and prance around a room.  This interaction with so many people illustrated that I was in a truly global setting, which led me to have a completely open mind when I was meeting new people at this event and throughout my entire abroad experience.  This event set the stage for my growth during the semester and whenever I doubted myself, I reminded myself to be as open to learning new things and meeting new people as I was in dance class that first week.

Connect With Culture Through Dance

As we continued learning the dances, I connected with the culture and the heritage of the movement.  As a history major, I was curious as to how these steps were formed and how long these dances had been performed.  When I found out that I was learning centuries-old Scottish dances, my connection to the culture intensified.  Though I felt silly skipping around and trying to keep up with the beat of the music, I enjoyed getting to be a part of Scottish heritage that is still relevant in the twenty-first century.
When I walked into the room that day, I had no idea that I would develop such fond memories for the event or come to realize the importance of preserving this kind of dance.  However, by the end of the hour, I walked (or rather danced) away with an appreciation for learning new types of dance and the ability to connect with my new home for the next four months.  From the start of my semester, I integrated dance into my experience, and learned about others and myself as a result.
Another opportunity I had to participate in Scottish dance was at a ceilidh that the Scotland IFSA office put on for its students.  Ironically, this event also celebrated Thanksgiving and was a bridge between Scottish and American cultures.  We had traditional turkey and stuffing, but haggis was also on the menu.  Once we had eaten, we had a proper ceilidh with live music, and we learned to do Scottish dances.  It was comical watching 80 Americans try to perfect our hops around the room and get the footwork just right.  I enjoyed the collaboration between Scottish and United States cultures that was evident at this event.  This collaboration epitomized the experience I had during my semester of integrating my culture with the Scottish culture that surrounded me.

While the dancing was fun, I also reflected on the larger significance of the dances.  Ceilidhs were (and still are) performed to bring people together.  The social gatherings offer a time to celebrate the rich history of the country and its people.  Ceilidhs are marked by the wearing of traditional Scottish kilts, the familiar sound of bagpipes, and of course an abundance of whisky.  It is an enjoyable time for friends and family to reconnect and reflect on Scottish customs.  As an outsider, attending my first ceilidh was exciting, and I quickly embraced the jovial attitude that the Scots have when attending such an event.

The Thanksgiving ceilidh happened at the end of November when my time abroad was quickly coming to an end.  This gave me an opportunity to reflect on my semester as a whole.  From the dance class in the first week of school to the ceilidh at the end of the semester, I learned to appreciate new opportunities that came my way, even when they were challenging.  I knew not take myself too seriously and if I tripped over the dance steps or made a larger mistake during the months I spent in Edinburgh, I was able to laugh about it and continue dancing my way through Scotland.

Combining the passion I have for dance with my interest in studying history leads to the desire to continue putting myself in the (dance) shoes of others.  Doing so in Scotland gave me more perspective on dance and on the world, which is crucial to my development as a dancer and as someone interested in the history and culture of other people.  Learning to dance in the Scottish style offered me the opportunity to meet people from around the globe who also respect and cherish the Scottish culture.  By reflecting on the dances, I gained a greater appreciation for the style itself, as well as the Scottish customs that are still preserved today.

As I returned to the United States and continued my life back home, I took the lessons I learned from Scottish dancing with me.  When reverse culture shock (the feeling that though everything at home had remained constant, I had been changed profoundly) was a struggle, I reminded myself to have a positive attitude, adapt to changing environments, and enjoy the independence gained while abroad.  I hope that with each new challenge I encounter, I will use the lessons I learned from Scottish dancing and my semester in Edinburgh to give me the confidence to continue dancing through life.

Laura Bonds was a History major at Rhodes College and studied abroad with IFSA on the University of Edinburgh program in Edinburgh, Scotland in Fall 2015. She served as an alumni ambassador for IFSA.