By Loraine Ritchey
Rosemary McGuire 6 times World Champion
This story is rather special as I believe that the dancer in the story is the
"Last True World Champion".
Like all stories there is a beginning, a little girl full of life and energy, the eleventh child in a family of twelve children.
You can almost catch a glimpse of her in your mind’s eye running, skipping through the tiny village of Banknock, Scotland.
Her father, Matt McGuire, was a coal merchant. His son, James, who quickly recognized the pent up energy in his little sister, thought that Rosemary (our lead in this story) might do well to take Highland dancing lessons from a teacher that was on his coal route. The scene was now set and little Rosemary, 7 years old, went along every Saturday to lessons.
However, after a short time her teacher married and went off to Australia. Rosemary’s father at this point wasn’t really interested in Highland dancing and one of the fathers in the dance class took Rosemary, with his own child, along to lessons in Motherwell.
It wasn’t long before Rosemary started to compete. Her father used to give her half a crown (approx 50cents) when she won a medal but when the medal tally would come up to 6 or 8 first place medals in a day, father started to take an interest in the dancing.
Matt McGuire, then took his little girl to competitions every Saturday, sometimes twice at weekends traveling around the Highland games during summer holidays, Rosemary continued her "winning ways".
Nine years old found the energetic little girl from Banknock attending the Cowal Highland Gathering, home of the World Championships. Rosemary remembers "I tied for the Scottish Championship that year, there was a dance-off but I lost on that occasion." Two years later at the age of 11 it was a different story, winning the Scottish Championship, the under 15’s Juvenile World Championship coming home with 6 gold medals. "I think that must have been my best achievement ever".
Rosemary continued to win adding the 1965, 1966 Juvenile World to her 1963 win and going on to win the Junior World in 1968 and 1969 finally the 1971 Adult World Championship. A total collection of 23 Cowal medals.
Winning 6 World Championship was a first in the whole history of Cowal up to that particular date. "I never competed at Cowal after that, as I had achieved my ambition by then". The Committee (Cowal) did, however, graciously invite me back in 1972 to present all of the Championship winners, (I don’t think that had ever happened before).
Rosemary competed and danced with some of the greats, Jean Boyd, Christine Crowe, Pete Daniel, Mary Godsman, Fiona Graham, Linda Linton, Mary McDonald, Janice McQuarrie, Ceceilia Orr, Jean Stewart Mhairi Stronach, Jean Swanston , Hilary Redman, Victor Wesley and her brother Alex McGuire.
Alex, readers will recall from last month’s column is very much involved with the "art" of Highland and the SOHDA. Rosemary’s story does not end with her last Cowal win. Far from it!
Dancing all over the United States, Canada, USSR, Sweden, East and West Germany, Holland, Folkdance Festivals in Belgium and at the largest Celtic Festival in Europe the Lorient Festival, Brittany France. Because of her willingness to dance for charitable causes she was presented "Address to Rosemary McGuire" part of which reads ‘ As the Poet says " Beauty lives with kindness" and this is certainly true in your case Rosemary.
No charity programme is complete without you and it would be impossible to count the number of platforms you have graced in the cause of charity... you were always given wholehearted support by your mother and father, both of whom are the essence of generosity. In asking you to accept this address as a token of our esteem and a reminder of your services to charity let us say that no one has more truly earned or gracefully borne the title of World Champion Highland Dancer’ Fr. Joseph Berton, Margaret McCann, Thomas Cassidy.
Every story has the light and the dark and Rosemary’s is no different. The world of the dancer became caught up in the world of "organizational politics". In the late 60’s the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing and the Cowal Games Authority were involved in a dispute. SOBHD withdrew its dancers and support from the Cowal Gathering. The World Championships went ahead that year but "The SOBHD would not recognize Cowal as the foremost Highland Dancing center of the world" ( Falkirk Herald Sept. 1971).
Rosemary’s father Matt, decided to challenge that statement and laid down a challenge in the sum of two thousand pounds (approx, $5,000) A great deal of money in those days probably the equivalent of $20,000 in today’s money. So strongly did he feel that Rosemary’s title should not be questioned. Rosemary would compete against all dancers the only stipulation was that the judging be done by a panel of independent judges.
There were no takers and the dispute between Cowal and SOBHD was "patched up".
However, the story does not end there. Eventually, Cowal, which was an "Open" competition and was judged similarly to Royal Braemar today ( judges from independent, SOHDA and SOBHD organizations ) became totally a SOBHD competition.
Only dancers who belonged to the SOBHD organization are allowed to compete. This negates dancers from all other dancing organizations, including New Zealand, parts of Australia, and indeed dancers from Scotland herself. Rosemary, like her father before her, strongly believes in the right for all dancers to have the opportunity to dance for a World Championship. So strongly, in fact that in 1994 Rosemary withdrew from Cowal "The Rosemary McGuire Challenge Trophy". "When I danced at Cowal it was never all board, it was probably one third independent, one third other associations and one third SOBHD. I think it should still be that way. It seems to be a "closed shop" now and not a "true" World Championship, as it is not open to all dancers. I was so incensed with the way highland dancing was heading that I wrote to the then Cowal Committee asking that my trophy should, meanwhile, be withdrawn from circulation."
In a letter to Cowal Highland Gathering .. "It has now come to my notice that the Cowal Highland Gathering have, for the first time, abandoned the notion of running truly OPEN TO THE WORLD, Highland Dancing Championship events. I gather that this event is now names and to be restricted to so-called "Premier" Dancers and not OPEN Dancers for which "The Rosemary McGuire Challenge Trophy" was originally intended. I feel this demeans the status of the World championships at Cowal".. I would ask that you hold on to the Trophy until such times as the competition is restored to allow all OPEN dancers to compete freely one with the other. RM."
The situation at Cowal of course continues and although Rosemary retired from competitive dancing at 26 and from non-competitive dancing at the age of 29, with the birth of her first child, she is still an "independent judge". Rosemary, who continued to teach privately for a time does not belong to any particular dancing organization .
I asked Rosemary what she thought of the dancing today in comparison to when she danced. "I don’t think the standard of dancing today had deteriorated. What I do think is that is has become more robotic and dancers lack their own sense of style. I do think kids today in general, have too many other pursuits in their lives, therefore they are not as dedicated to their dancing or whatever else they are involved in as my generation were. They also don’t have the same discipline. There are still a few who are dedicated and they are rewarded accordingly.
I think Highland dancing is definitely an Art. It is part of our culture and is performed on stage and is enjoyed by all kinds of people of different cultures. Each individual dance has a story to tell. Having seen more and more dancers from abroad I think we should try and preserve some of the old steps we see". I think standardization is quite a good thing but I also think it has been taken too far by the SOBHD. I would like to see competitions, whoever runs them, being ‘ open’ to all dancers and give dancers the freedom to dance wherever they like (the way it used to be)
Rosemary also had some advice for today’s dancers "I, unfortunately, suffer from ostearthritis in my knees, this of course is wear and tear caused through so much strenuous dancing, "practicing several hours a day on the sitting room floor, which was made of concrete. So, dancers beware, if you dance repeatedly on hard floors, it may affect you in the future!!"
Although there have been other champions who have garnered 6 or more Cowal titles to their win column, Rosemary, was the first and last dancer to do so when the "Worlds" was open to the world! So, in my story Rosemary, retains her achievement, never to have been bested and is definitely one of the "Last True World Champion." Until the championship is open again (if that ever happens) Rosemary will continue to hold the record of the most wins in an open to the "World" Championship.
For many months, as readers are well aware, I have tried to get the answer about SOBHD dancers competing at non-board competitions. I have thanks to a large group of persons who had parts of the rule, come to at least a facsimile. Remember this is not the actual rule just information gleaned. It seems SOBHD dancers "may" dance at non-board competitions "if" they are "premier dancers", and the competition is not a championship and there is no "pre-premier" section. (Since just about every competition has a beginner section, that’s where the numbers are after all and the incoming revenue, that pretty much shuts out the dancer from competing) Also (and this might be erroneous can’t get confirmation the dancer must dance SOBHD steps) By the same token "only" dancers belonging to the SOBHD organization are allowed to dance at their sanctioned competitions.
So can you dance in Scotland etc. at a non - board competition, it seems yes, if you are lucky enough to come across one that is "open" and doesn’t have a pre-premier section. A recent posting on the "lists" had an individual trying to find a loop hole in order to dance at Cowal. I personally find that terrible sad, to think that dancers are having to look for loopholes in order to "dance"! There is definitely something wrong in that scenario.