Q+A with Kelly MacArthur

Kelly MacArthur and her daughter

Kelly MacArthur’s Cape Breton roots run deep. Daughter of a long line of Scottish descendants, she unabashedly loves every part of the Celtic culture.

As she’ll tell you in this Q+A, she runs MacArthur School of Dance, in Sydney, which held a March Break program this year called The Celtic Department that has turned into a pilot project holding workshops year-round. The next workshop is coming up – find out details at The Celtic Department’s website.

1) Tell us a bit about your background both in dance, and in teaching.

I started dancing when I was 7 years old, and I never stopped. I’ve tried many styles of dance through the years, but Celtic Dance was my favorite by far. It is the most challenging and most physical of all I’ve taken. However, I think the best aspect is the fact that it opens a lot of doors for performance opportunities when you live in Cape Breton, and the Maritimes as a whole. I love to perform, so it was the best choice for me.

I also loved the challenge, goal-setting and work involved in the competition side of Highland Dance. I feel that it shaped me as a person. When I started attending the Gaelic College in the 1980’s, Step Dance soon became part of the teaching program, and of course I couldn’t wait to learn. I love the natural aspect of the rhythm and timing of Cape Breton Step Dance – the musicality.

Highland Dance has become very structured, and aside from choreography, there is little room for interpretation. The structure is great for learning, and you can go anywhere around the world and all who dance a Highland Fling can unite. Working to improve and master is a great thing about Highland Dance, and choreography allows the creative aspect missing from the set dances. In comparison, Step Dance allows dancers to create around the music, and is slightly different in style from teacher to teacher – which is pretty neat.

I started teaching dance at the very young age of 14. I taught for many years with my own dance instructor, and when I was 16 I started teaching Winter/Fall sessions at the Gaelic College. That was 23 years ago, and I have taught there every year since. I started out teaching Highland in the youth and adult sessions, and then when they dropped Highland from the adult sessions, I began teaching Step in the adult sessions. In 1997, I bought a small house in Sydney, and I opened my own dance school in the basement. This was part-time at first, but after having my first child, I opened up more classes and it has become my full time job. Teaching is my favorite thing to do, and watching my students grow from 4-5 years of age into wonderful and well-rounded adults is the best part of it all.

Students in The Celtic Department March Break Progream, 2012.

2) Why did you decide to do the March Break program? What were the different subjects you included? How did the program go? Did the kids have a good time?

In December of 2011, the Gaelic College made some big changes to their programming.

Pipe Band style piping and drumming were no longer offered for 2012, and this meant that there was no longer a formal place/instructor teaching these disciplines on the Island.

I felt that was just a shame, and decided to do something quickly before these possible students started leaving the Island to learn these programs. Highland Dance has always been part of the Highland Games and Pipe Band world, so it would also suffer great losses with these changes. Over the past five years, I have had trouble even finding a piper on the Island to play for dance performances and competitions, so I knew it could only get worse.

I had always run Dance related programs on the March Break for my students, usually involving trying other forms of dance, but this year I changed the program and added new ideals. The pilot to this new initiative ran for 2-days, and it included 6 disciplines: Highland Dance, Step Dance, Bagpiping, Pipe Band Drumming, Gaelic Song, Fiddle and Step Dance.

Highland Dance, Piping and Drumming have always run well together, as have the Fiddle and Step Dance, and Gaelic Song ties in with all five disciplines as the rhythms and tunes match with pipe tunes, fiddle tunes, highland dances, step dances and drum rhythms. We all sing, dance and play strathspeys, reels and jigs. Hornpipes and waltzes are also common for fiddle and highland dance, and also the pipes and song.

The hope for the program is to become a non-profit society. Also, as the youth become more experienced in their disciplines, the hope is to evolve the program to tie in all six disciplines around the language. This will, in turn, develop a deeper understanding and acceptance of all aspects of the culture, as well as help youth explore all the rhythms and songs in all these arts under a united format. We tried this in a small context during this first two-day program, and it was amazing how well it worked already with a mix of beginner and novice children!

The instructors worked together to choose same songs and tunes that worked with all disciplines, so the kids would learn to play, sing and dance to the same tune. It was unbelievable what was accomplished in two days, a real hope for the future once they are more advanced. Youth can explore their culture in 3 areas: recreation, performance and competition. They will get a great base, and then they can choose whichever direction/s they would like.

We also held a Ceilidh on the night between sessions, which was open to all students and their families. Colin Grant and Jason Roach played, and we did square sets, step dancing and highland dancing all evening. I would say this was a highlight for many children and their families, as it was interactive, social, and it helped apply how well all the disciplines can work together.

I sent out a parent, instructor and student feedback questionnaire, and everything that came back from all involved was very positive. The kids had a great time, the parents loved the format, and the instructors felt inspired. Everyone wanted to do it again! I can see a few areas for some changes and new ideas, but overall, it was a good start.

4) What are your plans for the coming year, and including these subjects in your curriculum?

The plan is to develop into a Non Profit Organization, and to continue in a workshop format throughout the year. For example, we hope to run a Gaelic Song class the first Sunday of each month for those interested. This would be open to the workshop students, as well as anyone interested from the community. Some students were interested in continuing disciplines, so they have contacted these instructors, or were given names of instructors in their area. The program as a whole will run in July, with hopes to run also in August, the Fall and March Break ~ in a format similar to the pilot, but with a 3rd day – we really needed a 3rd day!

(For more information about The Celtic Department’s summer workshops, check out their snazzy website here. You can also read a great piece about it in What’s Goin On, Cape Breton’s Entertainment Guide.)

More understanding of the music will just further help the children better their dance performance. One of the songs we learned at the workshop was ‘Am Pige Ruadh’, and that happens to be a tune that I already use for a Highland/Step Dance choreography with my young dancers. We use the Barra MacNeils (Lucy) version of the tune, and now the same group of dancers who learned this dance also learned to sing this in Gaelic Song class at the workshop. They were so excited, and its familiarity made it even more interesting to them. Understanding what they are dancing to will surely make it more exciting.

5) From your experiences with international media, and the fallout from your letter regarding the Gaelic College’s changes in their programming, do you think Gaelic language and subjects like highland dance, and pipe and drum bands, are important to people? Are they still relevant? Why or why not?

After I wrote the article regarding the changes at the Gaelic College and the plea for the Highland Dance competition, I learned that the Highland Dance and Pipe Band world is a strong, loyal and very supportive bunch. I guess I knew this, but it was a good reminder!

Calls, emails, messages and letters came to me from all over the world – thousands of them! Scottish societies, dancing/piping/drumming friends, Gaelic College alumni, Gaelic speakers, Gaelic community elders and interested citizens – all sent support for their belief in the culture as a whole. It was both wonderful and overwhelming at the same time. Considering the variety of people, and extension of boundaries it touched, I would say that Highland Dance and Pipe Band piping and drumming are certainly relevant and respected for the most part, and loved by many around the world. What’s that saying…’to know it is to love it’.

I could never imagine my life without being surrounded by all these aspects of the culture. I have spent my entire life learning, teaching and accepting every part of it, in a positive and enthusiastic way – without judgment. I love it all.

My MacArthurs are Gaels from the Isle of Canna, in the Western Highlands of Scotland. My Dad is from Inverness, and he grew up in a purely Gaelic speaking home for most of his young life. He doesn’t speak it now, but he often speaks his sentences in the way of Gaelic translation. I used to wonder why so many people of his generation from the mining towns (where many of the Gaels moved to work early 1900’s) arranged their sentencing/phrasing in such a way, but it wasn’t until I was much older, and around the language, that I realized that the Gaelic phrasing for some translations was the reason for this.

My mom took Gaelic lessons (I surely remember the cassettes in the car on long trips!), my younger sister and I took Gaelic at the GC for years, as did my nieces and cousins and dancers. Although I am nowhere near fluent, and I can only make small conversation, I remember every single song I learned – especially the tunes which were used for Highland Dancing 🙂 I have been teaching these to my daughter for years, and as soon as she was old enough, I started sending her to the Gaelic College for Dance and Gaelic Song. She loves song, and she is quite a nice little singer. She dances Highland & Step, and she takes piano and fiddle lessons. My baby boy has already been exposed to and loves the song, language and dance as well, and I hope he discovers a ‘niche’ within someday. I can’t think of anything more I can do at this point except to continue to keep their minds open to all of the culture, and to give them a deeper understanding, appreciation and acceptance through my own love of it all.

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100th post!

Yay! It snuck up on me there, the 100th post. WordPress keeps track, though, and told me I was about to hit the big three digits.

So – 100 posts. Six months. Five hundred and eighty-nine members in the Facebook group.

(That’s enough numbers for now, my brain hurts a little.)

So what have I been learning?

Oh, goodness, where to start.

OK, for one: I will probably never completely get rid of stress. Even when the work I am doing is something I really love – this writing, researching, etc – I always feel like I’m behind. That there should be more that I’m doing. Even though I am my own editor. Go figure.

Two: time goes by awfully fast. It’s weird how when you’re in the middle of a long work day, it doesn’t feel that way, but then when you sit and look back over a month or six, it’s amazing how it just … went.

Three: Dreams versus reality. Dreaming is great, for sure, and you need to dream in order to actually do. Ideas, sketches, talks – all of these things are vital for creativity of every kind. BUT. (And it’s a big but.)

Along comes reality. The real day-to-day. Factors you cannot control, like other people, the weather, the stock market, and pure chance. Your dreams meet reality and that’s where the magic happens, really. But then your dreams end up having to shift and change.

That’s the hard part for a control freak like myself. (And like a lot of us, I’m sure.)

Because then I think, “Oh man, I guess I didn’t control it well enough,because why doesn’t it look like how I imagined?” (This can refer to a party, or a piece of writing, or a morning at work, or whatever.)

I forget about the magic. Those parts I can’t control – they’re the parts I need to relax and take in, and let go of the need to control. Because, that’s LIFE.

And four: last but not least, THANK YOU so much. From the deepest bottom of my heart. You who read this blog, you who share it with others, or click “like”, or write comments: you are what keeps me and this blog going. No, seriously! Checking my site stats and seeing the numbers of readers is a HUGE motivator for me. “They like me, they really like me!”

Because the writing might come from me, but this blog really is an ongoing dialogue between all of us. It’s a place to talk about ideas, as frankly as we can. And about reality. And about how those two interact.

So, the next six months: I’m ready to take things to the next level. (Even though I’m not entirely sure what that is yet, I’m open to it!) I want to do more research, and present some of Cape Breton’s history. I want more guest posts and contributors. I want more video content. I want to kick it up a notch.

Also, I’ve hit a bit of a slump in terms of driving around and checking things out, and while that’s OK (work is busy, and gas is expensive), it was really part of my initial intentions for the blog, and it’s something I myself love to do. So, I want to try and do more neat things and get out to more parts of the island than just Baddeck and North Sydney.

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Local Businesses: Protocase, Part 1

The manufacturing side of the building.

Just to give you an idea of how backed up I am in turning raw material (photos, written interviews, etc) into actual blog posts, I visited Protocase for this piece back in March. Yikes!

Although, maybe with such a vibrant, interesting place as Cape Breton as my subject, that’s just the way it’s got to be.

Anyway – back in March of 2012 I visited the premises of Protocase Incorporated, a Sydney-based manufacturer of “custom electronic enclosures for engineers and designers,” on the invitation of my friend Alicia Lake‘s husband, Douglas Ronne. (Note: I had no idea what “custom electronic enclosures” were before I set foot in the Protocase building. But maybe that’s just me.)

Douglas lives in Baddeck, where I live, and he works as the Lead Software Developer for this small but growing local company. When he heard about my blog, he said I definitely had to come visit his workplace, as he felt it was defying the dominant narrative of Cape Breton being a difficult place to start and run a business. (Protocase is actually always looking for people to hire!)

So, I went, and I toured the building with “the two Dougs” – both Douglas Ronne, and his boss, Doug Milburn – getting to see the manufacturing process and meet some of the workers. It was a lot of fun! I even saw a laser at work. They are super fast and so efficient, going exactly to the point they are meant to go to, doing the work, and zooming off to the next point, stopping on the nose. Like Douglas said, ‘if/when the robots take over the world, we have no hope.’

Both Douglas and Doug were kind enough to do Q+As with me, as well, which I’ll share in parts 2 and 3 over the next couple of weeks.

Enjoy your tour of Protocase!

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Slow down. Please, slow down.

The fire siren went off about two hours ago. Our town still has a fire siren that sounds when the fire trucks are called out, and usually it’s a false alarm. I know that, because one of my co-workers is a volunteer fireman, and the marina is directly across the street from the fire hall, so he’ll often go to the call, and come back a few minutes later.

This morning he hasn’t come back yet.

We pass bits of knowledge to each other like bees touching antennae, in passing: “I heard it on the radio, road closed both ways, probably all day.”

“Yeah, I heard it was in St. Patrick’s Channel.”

“Four cars.”

“A fatality.”

There have been too many accidents this summer so far. (Any is too many, but it feels like there have been an awful, awful lot of them lately.)

I know, when you’re driving, wherever you’re going feels super urgent. You might be running 15 minutes late, and it feels like if you pass someone, you’ll save lots of time.

And going fast feels good, I get the adrenaline rush too. I love flying along the highway, feeling the power of my vehicle as it zips along.

So I need the reminder as much as anyone else – slow down. Go slower. Take your time. Be watchful of the other drivers.

Honestly, you might save two minutes by passing someone. But the accidents that kill people only take a split second.


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Whale Cove yoga

Photo: Tanya MacLean

The woman who teaches the yoga class I go to, Faye Chipchase, does this thing in the summer that she calls “Yoga on the rocks”. It’s a free session somewhere near the water that coincides with the full moon. Anyone can go.

Last week she held one on the bluff overlooking the ocean, at Whale Cove (near Margaree Harbour), and I was able to go.

I’d been debating whether or not to go. You know how it is – at the end of a workday you’re tired and you think, “Would I rather go home and get in my comfy pants? I think I would!”

But, I’m so glad I went. The weather was sweet and balmy. All the people there – around thirty! – seemed giddy with the pleasure of coming together in this beautiful spot to do stretches and exercises and meditation.

It reminded me, yet again, that being outside is so good for my soul, and something I need to ensure I get lots and lots of, if I want to feel balanced and happy. Like fertilizer for a plant, being outside is for me!

All photos are by me, unless otherwise noted.

To find out more about Faye’s yoga classes, email her at fayebchipchase@gmail.com

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Frugal Friday with Erika Shea: Savings Websites

A short little post for this short little week:

Do you have any favourite money saving websites? Here are a few of mine…

Save.ca: this site was mentioned in a comment on the very first Frugal Friday post. Often I find that the coupon sites I stumble across are directed at American consumers – the coupons are either for stores we don’t have or products not available here. Save.ca is great because it is Canadian and I regularly come across almost all the items showcased on the site: Post cereals, Nature Valley granola bars, Majesta bathroom tissue, Silk soy milk, etc. Some of the coupons can be printed at home, but most have to be mailed to you. In other words, this isn’t the best site to visit right before you head out the door to the grocery store. Still, the coupons available change fairly frequently and run in the $0.75 to $3.00-off range so with a little planning ahead it can be a pretty useful tool to have in your grocery saving back pocket. Brandsaver.ca is another decent Canadian coupon site, just remember to focus on items already on your list or those you know you’ll use rather than being enticed by coupons into making purchases that you wouldn’t otherwise make.

Frugal Dad: this one is tops for a few reasons. It’s nice to look at and has some fun and useful infographics, but most of all it offers a great description or analysis of frugality: spend less, save more, don’t go into debt. Live simply, be generous, and consume resources conscientiously. In other words, frugality isn’t about buying more (and more and more) for less, but about being aware of the impacts of what we do buy on ourselves, others and the planet and looking for ways to lessen those impacts. The advice on the site is thus tailored to this perspective on money and consumption: Fun, Inexpensive Things to do with Kids this Summer, Unsubscribe: A Quick Way to Reduce the Urge to Overspend, and Ways to Reduce Costs on Paper Products. In reviewing Frugal Dad, slate.com highlights this consume-spend-less orientation, pointing out that sites like these on frugality are quite different from daily deals sites like Groupon or Living Social, which, while they may offer passing low prices, are designed to make you spend more, not less.

Mrs. January (Frugal Living Made Easy): lastly, this site offers a little bit of all of the above: coupons that are available and usable in Canada (and that you can print at home), listings of Canadian daily deal sites (but remember, that whole making-you-spend-more thing) and tips on frugal living. I find the latter here to be the most useful. There are a whole series of posts called “What to buy in (Insert Month).” As an end of season shopper (heck yes, I’m waiting until September to buy new lawn chairs) these are quite intriguing. Things to buy in July (or things that generally go on sale everywhere in July) include: sunscreen, bug repellent, condiments, craft supplies and swimwear. These monthly posts are based on a yearly sales cycle for Canada that you can find here (http://www.mrsjanuary.com/frugal-living/canadas-yearly-sales-cycle/) although the month-by-month entries offer more detail and rationale. Other favourites include, simplifying meal planning (http://www.mrsjanuary.com/frugal-living/simplify-menu-planning-routine/), twenty-five handmade gifts under five dollars (http://www.mrsjanuary.com/frugal-living/25-handmade-gifts-under-5/), five things you should never buy at yard sales (http://www.mrsjanuary.com/frugal-living/5-things-you-should-never-buy-at-yard-sales/) and five things you should always buy at yard sales (http://www.mrsjanuary.com/frugal-living/always-buy-at-yard-sales/)

And as with Dream Big, many of the best ideas on Frugal Dad and Mrs. January are found in the comments! Happy saving…

For more of Erika’s Frugal Friday posts, click here!

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seasonal work (or, “you do what you gotta do”)

So we’re into July now, and that means that in Baddeck – and, I’d imagine, most other parts of the island – we’re now in the busiest two months of the year. You know that saying about making hay while the sun shines? Well, most of us don’t make actual hay anymore, we serve beer and lobster, or man a gift store, but the saying still applies.

The sun is shining. The tourists are here. And it’s time to work our butts off.

I’ll be working some long shifts in the next two months, and while I’m actually glad for it, because it means I’m stocking up hours for my winter EI claim, it may mean my blog posts come a little slower (like every couple of days instead of every day).

Seasonal work is a funny thing. I’ll admit that the times I’ve had a winter “off” – i.e. drawing unemployment – I’ve enjoyed it. Yes, while on EI I’m not making as much money as when I work, but at least I know there is a job to go back to*, and I’ve got some time free. It feels like “catch up” time. Time to rest. Or work on house projects that got pushed aside.

(*God willing. And the creek don’t rise.)

A customer came into the marina the other day. They were from Germany. We were talking about this island and some of the different customs. The woman said something about how bizarre she found it, that the people here “just work a few months of the year. I find that so odd!” She didn’t elaborate much on this oddity, but I’ve heard that view enough to know what she was thinking. It’s as if people who are lucky enough to have year-round work see those of us in the seasonal-work industries and ask, don’t you have any ambition? Why don’t you work all year-round, like I do? Are you happy with this situation?

Yes, and no.

I would love it if Cape Breton had enough small businesses or environmentally-sustainable industry to employ good-sized communities of people here, all year round. I really would love that. That’s one of my biggest dreams for this island I love so much.

But, for now, it doesn’t. And until that day comes, I still want to be able to live here, so I will do whatever I can to continue living here.

Being a seasonal worker isn’t as easy as it sounds, either. When you are working, you’re full on, usually going from morning til night. Sometimes you work two jobs, or three, to make ends meet. Most of the time, the work is minimum-wage, and because it’s only seasonal, employers tend to view employees as expendable, or easily replaceable. That’s not a situation that contributes to a ‘rich working life’, shall we say.

Meanwhile, as you’re slogging away waiting tables or cleaning rooms, you’re waiting on people who are all on vacation, “getting away from it all,” and who say uninformed things to you about how lucky you are to live here. I try not to be bitter about the things tourists say to me, because

  • their leisure is my paycheque, and I really want to like them, and
  • they really don’t realize the struggle most of us go through to live here, so they’re not trying to be ignorant.

But, after a long work-week with too few days off and too many frustrations, it’s easy for me to get resentful.

Anyway, that’s the view from the front lines! Busy as a bee. Hoping for some nice weather on my day off this week, so I can make it to a beach and start racking ’em up for my 10 Beaches challenge. (And pretend to be a tourist here, myself.)

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Posted in 10 Beaches/2012, Jobs, Leah's thoughts, Sustainability, Work | Tagged , , | 9 Comments