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(Updated 24 Oct, 2016)
Who are these people in Czechoslovak costumes, and what do they have to do with Scottish Country Dancing? They are original members of the Reel & Strathspey Club which in 20 years developed into the San Francisco Branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. The Oral History Project has been investigating the origins of Scottish Country Dancing in Northern California, and we will be presenting articles on the life of Scottish Country Dancing here.
In 1943 the Folk Dance Federation of Northern California was formed under the leadership of Henry "Buss" Glass. It provided an organized basis to give Folk Dance Festivals where demonstration groups could exhibit the dances of various lands. For three years a tall (6ft. 2 in.) daughter of Glasgow watched these festivals and wanted a Scottish group to represent the dances of her birthplace. So on November 23, 1946 she gathered some interested exhibition Folk Dancers at her home at 1121 7th. Avenue, Oakland. Margaret Lamont (pictured at far left) invited Robert Smith (Margaret's partner), Ada Harris and Marvin Hartfield (next to Robert Smith) and Millie and Vernon Von Konskie (far right). Ada, Marvin, Millie and Vern came from Chang's International Folk Dancers, and they had a long history in the Folk Dance Movement. Millie and Von also studied under Buzz and were teaching in their own right. These six were taught by Phil Aldrich and Mrs. Allen Rough. These last two brought their spouses to make a happy of group of 10 at the first meeting of this Scottish exhibition group.
They met on Saturday nights starting at 8:00 p.m. until 1954, and their classes seemed like a Saturday night. A fairly typical example is their first anniversary party on November 22, 1947:
"The early part of the evening was spent in practice for our exhibition, but after that we started our programe (sic) in which all the members took part. We were presently surprised at the talent among us, Gerry led off with a very nice Can Can Dance, Phil provided a Scottish flavor with an imitation of Harry Lauder, Margie did a burlesque of the Lass of Killiecrankie, Millie and Vernon came through with a Hill Billie skit, and Marvin and Ada topped everything with the "Sultan's Favorite" which was very well done indeed. Ed and Juanita gave us readings, and Doreen was very cute in the Three Bears. Bob and Margaret wound up the program with Le Danse de Apaches which was well received... The refreshment committee did a very creditable job, and the evening wound up with everyone very happy." (minutes which were kept for every class meeting) (If any of you youngsters want to know who Harry Lauder was, ask Walter McAdam. He had tea once with Sir Harry)
Many times they would talk after dance rehearsal and refreshments until the "wee small 'ours", and Bob Lamont (Bob Smith married Margaret in early 1947 and took her name) would climb the stairs to cook breakfast for them. According to Millie Von Konskie "we really enjoyed each other. But we really worked on technique: lift, turnout, body carriage. Sometimes we would spend an entire evening on entrances and exits." And for 3 years they met at Margaret's house on a cement floor to perfect dances for exhibition and have fun.
Phil Aldrich taught from the beginning until Margaret and Bob visited Scotland in the summer of 1948. Their trip included a visit to Miss Muriel Hadden, Secretary of RSCDS headquarters. (Is this where we get Miss Hadden's Reel?) The Reel & Strathspey Club had been affiliated with RSCDS since early 1947, so Bob and Margaret were dropped off at St. Andrews in a "very advanced class" for two weeks. When they came back with many new records and dances (e.g. the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh), Margaret began to teach. Both Phil and Margaret taught Highland Dancing. They had to address the question of "costume". Margaret combed old National Geographics, and what she came up with was a Highland Regiment piper's uniform (pictured at left,) (please notice that Stewart Smith was a member of the Club for a short while in 1949). They had to make their own horsetail sporrans because Scottish exports were unavailable in the late 1940's. Since they were exhibiting Highland Dancing as well as Country Dancing, the kilt and sporran was acceptable for ladies as well as men at that time. Clifford Porter, a long time member of the Reel & Strathspey Club and the Branch summed up the early interest very well: "Whether or not the present membership of the Branch realizes it, over the years there has been a lot of mutual support by the Folk Dance Federation of California. Just from the mere point of being invited to exhibit at festivals or at Woodminster in the days they were putting on shows, they gave us a place to dance. It kept us active which is the crux of the thing. That's what we were there to do; to show off dancing."
Change: the Eternal Element
In 1949 change swept the Reel & Strathspey Club. Six of the first 10 members left, and the nature of the club began to change. The club which was formed in Oakland shifted to San Francisco. Some elements remained the same, such as exhibitions and the need for high quality steps in the dancing. This article will examine what remained, and what was changed.
In 1948 the Reel & Strathspey Club gave many demonstrations but two seem memorable. On July 16th, they started what proved to be along association with the Folk Dance exhibitions at Woodminster. More than half the Reel & Strathspey Club dancers were recruited by Milie von Konsky from her Oakland Recreation Dance Arts or from her long (35 years) association with the Oakland Parochial Schools where she taught Folk Dancing to children. The R & S Club was also part of the Oakland Folk Dance Council. The City of Oakland gave (and still give) tremendous support to its Folk Dance clubs (ask the Oakland and "Berkeley" classes) including free halls with sprung wood floors. Millie said, "I don't know of another city in the state that supports Folk Dancing as much as Oakland does." The title of the club in those days was "The Reel & Strathspey Club of Oakland" (in minutes). Oakland also provided this nice amphitheatre in the pine trees above the Mormon temple for Summer Folk Dance Festivals until they started doing light opera in the 1960's.
Also in 1948, they gave a demonstration at Stern Grove (pictured), where Phil Aldrich and Bob Lamont demonstrated Highland dancing, and by popular demand literally, they taught "Road to the Isles" so that everybody could participate out on the lawn in this lovely setting. While retaining the costumes pictured in the last issue of the Reel & Strathspeyper, they also used the costumes pictured here where the man's kilt shirt and lady's dress were made out of the light green matching material. Pictured are Millie & Vernon Von Konsky. This is what the Club looked like and did in 1948.
In January 1949, change set in. Millie and Vern felt that they could not devote enough time to the R&S Club as well as their many other Folk Dance groups, and they left the Club. Millie recounts the lesson she learned form this experience. "All through the years I have never allowed my dancers to belong to another performing group. There was alot of controvery over it until they understood why. The costuming for more than one group, the socializing, the rehearsing time, the expense of traveling and eating out: all that makes it very difficult. Von and I were just a couple of crazy people to belong to so many performing groups. I felt my (Dance Arts) dancers that were in the R&S Club were dividing themselves." Also in October of that year, Margaret Lamont had "several heart attacks" and she retured to Guerneville. Gerry Munoz took over the direction of the Club and the Club moved to San Francisco where most of the remaining members of the club lived. Here the focus of the group was no longer on Oakland or strictly exhibitions. Some social dancers were allowed into the club. The only remaining original members were Phil and Juanita and Ada Harris and Marvin Hartfield. But throughout all this upheaval the yearly exhibitions at Woodminster continued.
Reel and Strathspey Club - First Contacts with Scotland
Early in 1948 the Reel and Strathspey Club was in a strange predicament: it was being undone by its own success. In its year and a half of existence it had become one of the most popular exhibiton groups in northern California, but in the process it had just about exhausted its limited repertoire of dances (how far can one stretch Petronella, Glasgow Highlanders, Dashing White Sargeant, the Eightsome Reel and a few Highland dances?). Also, questions of styling continually arose and with no trained instructors the club had to rely on intelligent guess-work. Clearly, outside help was desirable, but it was only available in Scotland, 7000 miles away.
Luckily for the club, Margaret Lamont wanted to visit Scotland - to see her native land again and show it to her husband, Robert. While there they would contact the Scottish Country Dance Society and get as much information as they could. In May the couple said goodbye to their friends and we have no record of them until they appear in Edinburgh in July.
The first night in Edinburgh they attended the Music Hall on George Street where the Folk Dance Festival of the British Isles was in progress. Robert Lamont relates: "After introducing ourselves we added the magic touch: 'We're folk dancers from California'." They found themselves immediately accepted as friends and spent 5 days attending the festival, observing everything from fertility and sword dances to the courtly patterns of the Scottish Country Dances. Among those that the Lamonts met at the festival was Miss Muriel Hadden, Secretary of the Scottish Country Dance society (from 1942 to 1967). They could not have met anyone more helpful. Miss Hadden invited the Lamonts to her home several times and took them on the train to St. Andrews for a day at the Scottish Country Dance summer institute where they were put into a class that was "embarrassingly advanced."
Back in Edinburgh the Lamonts were invited to a practice session of Mrs Florence Lesslie's exhibition team, which was practicing for a night time performance at Holyrood Castle for the Royal Family. They saw the actual performance a night later:
"While the Royal Family watched from a balcony the dancers - men in full highland dress, women in flowing white evening gowns with a splash of plaid at their shoulders - became the very epitome of gracious gallantry and graceful beauty, capturing the romantic feel of the past so well that, when they finished we were startled to hear the toot of auto horns and the clang of trolley bells."
It would not be surprising if one of the dances done that night was the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh. Mrs. Lesslie along with Miss Anderson (also of Edinburgh) had written the dance that very year to commemorate the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip the preceding November. The Lamonts were very interested in this dance, and the many photographs of it in our own archives, some from "its first performance during a broadcast from Edinburgh", apparently date from the 1948 trip.
The Lamonts wanted to see some Highland as well as country dancing and went to Princes Street Gardens one day to watch a performance by Jean Reynolds, the woman's Highland champion. Judging from the photographs, she was in her early 20's, high spirited and charming. Talking to her after the performance, the Lamonts met her family, discovered common interests and were invited to stay at their home. Jean Reynolds put them throgh an accelerated dance class in the next 4 days - Highland dancing all day long (oh, those sore muscles!) and then off to country dancing in the evenings.
Toward the end of the Lamonts' stay in Edinburgh the 2nd International Music and Drama Festival was under way. One of the 1948 photographs shows the Castle lit up by searchlights and a performance at Princes Street Gardens far below. The festival sold 237,000 tickets that year but the Lamonts did not get lost in the crowds. They were off visiting Ayr, the Lochs and other sights with their new dancing friends.
The Lamonts retuned home in mid-September, loaded with records, books, photographs and notes. The Reel and Strathspey Club reacted in a typical fashion - it had a movie party. With Margie Lervik selling tickets and acting as usher, Bob Lamont selling peanuts and popcorn, and Marvin Hartfield running the projector, they showed the movies made in Scotland, talked about their adventures and made plans for the future. Then they settled down to work. Margaret Lamont replaced (temporarily) Phil Aldrich as dance director and the club began rehearsals of the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, which they performed for the British Empire Day celebration in Golden Gate park the following May. The Scottish connection was beginning to pay off.
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