Beyond Our Edges: Carolyn Dunn – Connecting to Her Roots with Dance
Carolyn Dunn is Community Planner in our Saskatoon office working closely with Saskatchewan communities to help them plan for vibrant futures. A little known fact, however, is that she often steps away from her desk to maintain her connection to her Scottish heritage and share her love of dance with her community and the world.
How did you get into Highland Dancing?
Originally, my mom tried to sign me up for highland dance when I was four. We have very deep Scottish roots on both sides of my family, so she thought that would be a good way to stay connected to our culture. But apparently, I said that I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to dance over knives – which are the swords used in traditional Highland Dancing. So she didn’t sign me up. When I was 11 years old, however, I saw a Highland Dance performance and fell in love with it. I watched the same performance three nights in a row, sitting front row-centre, just completely entranced by it. A few weeks later, I started taking lessons at the Wilson School of Highland Dance in Saskatoon. Starting highland at 11 years old is pretty late in the game – most kids start when they are 4-6. Luckily I caught on quick, started competing and was able to move through the levels.
Where has dance taken you over the years?
Through my dance career I was fortunate enough to have opportunities to perform and compete across Canada. I proudly represented Saskatchewan in our Canadian Championships on three occasions, and competed across Scotland, including the World Championships twice.
How did you get the opportunity to compete in Scotland?
Competing in Scotland is a very unique experience. Most of the competitions are held outdoors or as part of a Highland Games. You’re surrounded by lush green landscapes, quaint villages, and of course the sound of bagpipes. The first time I went to Scotland I was 16 and the idea was just to compete as much as I could before the World Championship at the end of the month. To compete in the World Championship, dancers of all caliber’s can register, then the top dancers are selected to compete in the finals. For me, it was all about the experience. You want to be able to say you danced on that platform and just being around the best highland dancers in the world was an incredible experience.
When did you start teaching dance?
I started teaching when I was 17 after going through a whole process of exams to be certified. Teaching was a big focus of mine throughout university, and was my source of income to finish two degrees! I sometimes joked about going to university on the side of my dance career, because I was putting so many hours into dance each week.
I was able to share my love of highland with countless dancers as a teacher with the Wilson School of Highland Dance. I also had the opportunity to return to the farming community where my Mom grew up and teach for the Quill Lake Highland Dance Association for five years. While I was teaching, I worked with dancers from age 4 to 40 and beyond! Teaching young dancers is all about the basics – jumping, pointing, rhythm and turnout – but I loved teaching them because I always left class in a good mood as they made me laugh so much! I found teaching the more experienced and competitive dancers to be the most rewarding as I helped many dancers achieve their goals and shared in their successes.
Why did you decide to step away from teaching to start judging?
Becoming a judge had been a goal of mine for a long time. I remember when one of my teachers passed her judges exam and thinking that was something I could see myself doing. I studied for about a year before I took the judges exam in 2015. The exam takes a whole day to complete and includes a written theory test, an oral question period, and a mock competition that you have to judge. I was lucky enough to pass the exam on my first try when many others end up taking it 3 or 4 times, so I feel very fortunate that I was able to do that.
Because there are some technicalities and rules around judging and teaching, I decided to take a break from teaching dance when I passed the exam. I hope to get back into teaching dance in some way shape or form in the future to continue to share my love of dance.
What kind’s of competitions are you judging?
I have been lucky enough to be invited to judge competitions in BC, AB, MB and NS so far. It’s really interesting to now be on the other side of the platform. As a dancer you spend so many years competing in front of the judges and now my role is reversed. I’ve realized the amount of thought, consideration and technical detail that goes into judging that sometimes you wouldn’t think of as a dancer. Judges have a really tough job, and I now have a strong appreciation for the effort that is put into every decision made in a competition.
Do you ever perform or compete yourself still?
I do still perform on occasion with our dance troupe in Saskatoon called the Glenlily Highland Dancers. I’ve also had the opportunity to perform in the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo in Halifax three times, and the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo twice, as well as the Basel Tattoo in Switzerland. A tattoo is essentially a variety show of performances with 1000’s of people in the audience that run anywhere from a week to a month in length. Performing in these shows were some of my most formative experiences in my dance career, through which I was able to meet people from across Canada and around the world. I really valued the experience of being exposed to so many different cultures, people and places. Performing has been a significant part of my dance career, but in terms of competing, once you become a judge you aren’t eligible to compete anymore, so that’s when I retired from competing.
Do you hope to keep dancing for as long as possible as long as you can?
Absolutely! I still take one dance class a week, which is about all my body can take–I’m older than most dancers now. But my hope is that I can stay involved in dance through judging for as long as I can. There are a lot of ladies out there that have been judging for 40+ years – I’m hopeful I can do the same!
I’m also on the board of directors for ScotDance Canada representing Saskatchewan. A lot of my role with the board is focused on building awareness of highland dance and promoting this ancient sport and art to keep it alive in Canada for many more years to come.
In the end, what is one of the best parts about your dance career?
It’s really about the connection to my family and our history. Spending time with relatives in Scotland and being able to see where my roots are has been very special. Being able to share dance with my family as well – my Grandmother made all of my costumes when I was younger – that connection to our heritage is very important to me.
Carolyn will at the ScotDance Canadian Championships June 30th to July 4th in Calgary at the Telus Conference Centre. If you want to see the largest Highland Dance competition in the world, you should check it out!