A bonnie taste of Scotland

Posted: Monday, January 12, 2004

The Stroller White Pipes and Drums and the Highland Dancers of Juneau presented a local audience Saturday night with a taste of Scotland, as finger-shaking girls danced jigs and the sound of bagpipes filled the hall.

Tess Cannon, 15, and Katie Willis, 16, danced the cakewalk, a story-telling form originated by African Americans, enacting an argument between a woman and a sailor in Scottish dance moves. At times the teens danced on their bent toes, at times on their heels, their springy legs bending.

Cannon and Willis said they've been Highland dancing since they were kindergartners.

"I started doing it because my sister did it. I stuck with it because it's unique," Willis said.

"It's fun to tell people I'm a Highland dancer," Cannon said. "It's like a mini-community."

The performance in the gym of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near Lemon Creek was preparation for the group's fund-raising gala, Robbie Burns Night, set for Jan. 24 at Centennial Hall. It's an evening of dining, dancing, a concert and poetry that usually attracts several hundred attendees.

It celebrates Scotland's most famous poet and songwriter, Robert Burns, who lived from 1759 to 1796 and is best known among Americans for "Auld Lang Syne" and the poetic lines of dialect "The best laid scheme o' mice and men / Gang aft a-gley."

Not much gang aft a-gleyed Saturday night, although the bagpipes are a difficult instrument to play.

Bagpiper Rai Behnert compared a good performance to rowing crew.

"To an extent, when a band plays really well ... it's kind of like a good eight-oar in unison," he said.

Performers must keep a constant flow of air moving through the pipes while they finger the chanter, which creates the melody. The three pipes, called drones, are two tenor pipes and a bass pipe. The bag's purpose is to hold air that can be pushed through the pipes when the player takes a breath.

"You have to work really hard," said George Campbell, who has played the bagpipes for about five years. "It's a difficult enough instrument that it takes a lot of time and effort to practice."

Because bagpipes play at a constant volume, the only way to adjust the music's volume is through the drums, said snare drummer David Sheakley.

Highland snare drums have two snares, "so it gives it more of a crispy, raspy kind of sound," he said. "The bass drum kind of leads the tempo of the band."

Sheakley, of Irish and Tlingit ancestry, joined the Stroller White Pipes and Drums about two years ago because he loves drumming and hadn't done it as part of a band for a while.

"It gets me out and I have some fun. Plus, these guys are really fun," he said.

Behnert, who joined Stroller White in 1980, was inspired by hearing the bagpipes of the Black Watch, a Scottish regiment.

"Next thing I knew, I had a kilt and I was marching in a parade," he said, maybe exaggerating a bit.

"Once you get started in it, you have a hard time leaving it. It's camaraderie. It's a shared interest," he said. "Once you've eaten haggis, you're hooked."

Burns Night traditionally includes a modified version of the Scottish dish - lamb's liver, oatmeal and seasonings cooked in a lamb's stomach.

The celebration on Jan. 24, one day before Burns' birthday, will include performances by the Stroller White Pipes and Drums and the Highland Dancers, the Midnight Sun Pipe Band from Whitehorse, highly regarded bagpipe instructor Ken Eller of the 78th Fraser Highlanders in Ontario, poetry reading by Juneau's Jamison McLean and David Hunsaker and dancing to the music of A Blessing in Disguise.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the program begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at Hearthside Books for $12.50 for children 12 and under and $22.50 for others. Prices at the door are $2.50 more. Children two and under are admitted free.

• Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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