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Last man standing dominates dancing champs

Highland dancing's lone male competitor, Angus Hendry, dominated the sport's national championships in Marlborough.

For the vast majority of the three days, space wasn’t an issue in the male changing room at the 2019 NZ Highland and National Dancing Championships at Marlborough’s ASB Theatre.

The lone male in a field of 40 elite competitors chasing the coveted New Zealand championship title, Angus Hendry didn’t exactly have to worry about where he hung his kilt.

It wasn’t until the trophy presentation on Sunday evening, when Hendry claimed more silverware than he could get close to being able to carry, that he would have had any kind of logistical issue storing his possessions – even allowing for the fact that competitive highland dancers come extremely well-armed on the costume front.

For Hendry, a 25-year-old law graduate from Canterbury by way of Tauranga, Sunday afternoon capped a lifetime of dedication to his craft.

For the sport (or competitive artistic discipline if you prefer), it was a case of the last man standing relegating his 39 female rivals to the slightly uncomfortable position of, ahem, bridesmaids.

“It was a relief to be honest,” Hendry said after completing the last of 10 gut-busting dances over three gruelling days.

“There is a lot of hard work that goes into it. You know that you are capable of getting the results – it's just making sure that you do it on the day.”

Angus Hendry gathers some of the silverware he captured at the 2019 NZ Highland and National Dancing Championships. Photo: Steve Deane

Now seems an appropriate time for a brief history lesson.

With roots that can be traced to burly Celtic warriors reliving epic deeds and imitating fighting techniques, competitive highland dancing was once the preserve of men. While women would dance socially, they didn’t feature in competitions at the Highland Games, held to preserve and rejuvenate Scottish culture in the face of an English campaign to exterminate it.

That all changed in the late 19th century when a woman named Jenny Douglas decided to enter a competition.

Since then the gender divide has been one-way traffic, with 95 percent of all dancers across the planet estimated to be female.

In New Zealand, that number appears to be slipping further. Last year there were two male dancers in the senior (18 and over) ranks. The year before that there were three, down from five the year before. A rash of retirements has left Hendry as the last of a seemingly endangered species.

“It is quite a hard thing to keep boys involved in that tricky 12 to 15 or 16 age - that’s where I had trouble as well,” says Hendry, who has a Scottish father, but followed his sister into dancing at the behest of his mother.

“We lose quite a few dancers to rugby and, because it is Scottish, we lose a lot to bagpiping. I don’t think the boys drop off at any greater rate than the girls do. It is just that there are less of us to begin with.”

The differing developmental curves of boys and girls can also be a challenge for young male competitors, with females dominating at junior level due to their superior physicality.

“You get teased a bit about getting beaten by girls,” admits Hendry.

Angus Hendry in action during the Reel O'Tulloch championship in Marborough. Photo: Steve Deane

As Piping and Dancing New Zealand president Barbara Tait puts it, with boys, only the strongest survive.

“It takes greater determination and perseverance from a young boy, especially in New Zealand culture, to continue with dance,” Tait says. “The male dancers in the 18 years and over have to be very determined to have stuck with it.”

There is, of course, what could be termed the Billy Elliott factor – the negative stereotyping of male dancers in a macho culture.

“I would like to think that it is becoming less of a cultural challenge, that we are becoming more inclusive and more open to the ideas that women play rugby and men can dance,” says Tait.

“Boys have always been in the minority because it is largely seen as a female sport. Not the sport itself – but dance in New Zealand is still not really widely accepted. But I think views are changing, and we need to do what we can as a national organisation to entice boys to dance and encourage them to dance.”

In terms of overall numbers, the sport is “holding its own”. A field of 205 competitors contested the national junior and senior titles in Blenheim, with by far the largest contingent coming from Canterbury.

The sport is most robust in areas that boast good numbers of experienced teachers, with Canterbury, Marlborough and Dunedin strongholds in the south. In the North Island, Tauranga and Auckland boast good numbers of dancers.

Dancers gather backstage at the 2019 NZ Highland and National Dancing Championships in Blenheim. Photo: Kate Deane

The sport is gender neutral. Alongside the likes of equestrian and some sailing classes, highland dancing is one of just a handful of sports where males and females compete head-to-head.

And here’s the thing – despite their dwindling number, men have dominated the national championship in recent years. Hendry’s win follows consecutive triumphs by Lewis Gibson in 2017 and 2018.

“At times you can be ‘oh this is so unfair, they are so much stronger and so much more powerful’," admits Harriet Lintern, the overall runner-up behind Hendry.

“But there are dances where it is an advantage to be a female, the dances where you are meant to be more graceful.

“I like [competing with males] to a certain degree, because when you are on with a boy you do want to push yourself to be as strong as them. But… you do kind of get a bit jealous of how much power they have got.”

That ‘jealously’ cuts both ways.

“I watch some of those girls dance and I would die if I could have feet like those,” says Hendry. “I could never have feet that look as good as those. Or be able to get that really soft, elegant look to my dancing.”

For Lintern, this year was the second straight time she has been thwarted by a man.

In 2018, she placed third, behind the only two males in the field, Gibson and Hendry. But she is full of admiration for the lone dancer who stood between her and a national championship she has dreamed of winning for 20 years.

“He has worked so hard. We all have, but it is very admirable of him because it's a sport that is not male dominated, so you have got to really admire him for sticking at it this long while not having a whole lot of guys around.”

The working hard bit is worth examining. Highland is one of the most technical and physically-demanding dance forms. Dancers are required to perform set steps in time to bagpiped music. The execution must be spot on and, crucially, must be made to look easy.

A beaming smile is a prerequisite, even for those on the point of collapse – which happens frequently backstage after the on-stage delivery of performances that have appeared effortless.

“It is hard yakka,” says Tait. “The sword dance has been described as doing a four-minute mile in three minutes.”

Lintern’s weekly training regime in the weeks leading up to the championships comprised of 10 hours of lessons with teachers in Auckland and Blenheim, interspersed with core strengthening and flexibility work in the gym, and plenty of running.

In May she ran a half-marathon, which was nowhere near as gruelling as dancing the championships.

“I joked about that before the sailors. I was like ‘if I can get through a 21km half marathon, surely I can get through a three-minute sailors’ hornpipe?' But they just seem so different and so hard.”

Having dedicated herself to the sport for two decades, Lintern is nearing the age when many elite competitors call it quits. A physiotherapist at Middlemore Hospital, she has ambitions to travel.

“It’s really hard. This has been my life for 20 years and I do want to have another life. Part of me is thinking this may be my last year. I did always say that when I turned 25 that was me, I’d retire.”

While Lintern has been lucky and managed to stay injury-free, for many competitors injuries are a factor, particularly as they enter the senior ranks and more steps are added to make the dances even more demanding.

“Especially as you get older it can be really detrimental. Your body doesn’t hold up as well as a 14-year-old’s. That’s why the conditioning and cross-training is so important as you get older. You need the recovery phases. You can’t dance every single day, so you do need to do something that is going to keep you fit and get your muscles conditioned when you can’t dance,” she says.

If she does retire, Lintern will at least go out a champion. Much like gymnastics, Highland competition involves multiple disciplines, with national titles awarded for each.

Lintern claimed the double time Irish jig title, with Hendry taking out six of the nine remaining dances that comprise the overall title.

Harriet Lintern in action during the 2019 NZ Highland and National Dancing Championships. Photo: Steve Deane

As with all sports that involve judging of artistic merit, Highland is not without controversy. Each dance is judged by just one ‘adjudicator’, meaning personal opinion is very much a factor in the results.

“It does come down to personal likes and dislikes,” says Jeanie Borsboom, one of the adjudicators in the open class.

“When you are the judge it is your decision. You’ve got to do your homework, know your technique and know what you like. Then you’ve just got to make a decision based on what you see on the day. That’s really exciting. Picking the top performance on the day is a real thrill.”

Controversy might be stretching it, however there is a debate within the sport as to whether it is time for major championships to feature panels rather than solo judges.

“I’m open minded about that kind of judging,” says Borsboom. “There is definitely room to have the debate about it.”

So what makes a champion?

“A champion highland dancer is one that has the technique nailed,” says Borsboom. “And I guess being able to do it so that it looks easy. That comes from strength, great physicality and a real performance element as well.”

But how do you judge the men against the women – or in this case the man against the women?

“Once males mature and get to the open age group, then they definitely have an athletic advantage,” says Borsboom. “But strength and athleticism is not all there is to it. There is the artistic element and the performance element. So, yeah, the males have that strength but it is not something that can’t be overcome.”

Typically, at the top of a class, competitors are separated by very fine margins.

“Sometimes it is just a performance edge, somebody who can engage the audience with a performance element,” says Borsboom. “Sometimes it is different technical elements. A dancer that gets most of it right is going to give themselves a chance of a higher placing.”

This year, the dancer doing that the most consistently was Hendry. His silverware haul comprised eight trophies, including those for gaining the most points in all three of the sports’ disciplines: reels, step dances and solo highland dances.

It is the first time he has tasted that level of success, having started out near the bottom rung when he began taking the sport seriously at 17, and gradually worked his way up the ranks, placing third overall in 2017 and runner-up last year.

“To be honest you are not going to have a very fun time if you are in highland dancing to win,” he says. “Because not everyone can be a winner.

“If I was in highland dancing to win I probably wouldn’t have made it this far. You’d be miserable every time you didn’t win. It is the people. There is a such a close relationship with the people who you dance with because you go through the same process, same hardships. So you form a really strong connection with the people you grow up dancing with.”

Hendry has no plans to retire any time soon.

“There are a few more things I want to achieve. As long as I feel like I am still enjoying competing and am satisfied with the standard I am competing at, I would like to keep going.”

With the next crop of promising junior male dancers still three or four years away from competing at senior level, he faces the prospect of being the sport’s lone male standard bearer for some time yet.

“I’m not particularly aware of it sitting back-stage,” he says. “You are all equals. You are all sitting there just as sore and tired after the sword dance.

“So I can’t say I’ve really noticed it – except that I get lots more room in my dressing room now. That’s a bonus.”

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