This week’s blog comes to us from local historian of Scottish Country Dancing in Vancouver, Rosemary Coupe. Rosemary is an active Scottish country dancer and the author of Scottish Country Dancing in Vancouver: A History (Printed by Minuteman Press, Burnaby 2016).
Another blog featuring Lady Aberdeen appeared last October by Professor Marjory Harper of the University of Aberdeen: ‘Pleasure and Pain in the Okanagan Valley: The Adventures of Lord and Lady Aberdeen.’
In both Scotland and Vancouver, energetic women led the early twentieth-century revival of Scottish country dancing [SCD]. Ysobel Stewart and Jean Milligan founded the Scottish Country Dance Society [SCDS] in 1923. Only seven years later, in 1930, Ella Bingham (a recent immigrant from Glasgow) brought this traditional form of social dance to Vancouver, and in fact to Canada. Ella organized public performances and started dance groups throughout the city, traveling throughout the city by electric streetcar to teach them. The first books published by Miss Milligan and Mrs. Stewart drew on the repertoire of nineteenth-century dancing masters in Scotland, and Mrs. Bingham introduced the dances systematically through demonstrations which she insisted should be “perfect.”
One of these Vancouver groups eventually became the longest-running SCD group in Canada. It stemmed from another of Mrs. Bingham’s passions: the Vancouver Council of Women, a confederation of women’s groups which discussed social and political issues. Mrs. Bingham served as president of the council in 1938-39, years during which the council, among other things, passed resolutions urging the establishment of vocational training schools, a cancer clinic, and a degree-granting school of home economics at UBC. Early in 1938, possibly at Mrs. Bingham’s instigation, the Recreation Committee of the Council of Women started its own SCD class. In May 1938, when the Vancouver Council organized the National Council of Women convention at the Hotel Vancouver, Mrs. Bingham seized the opportunity for publicity, arranging a dance demonstration at the reception. Attendees also listened to a broadcast message from Lady Aberdeen, who, as wife of the Governor-General, had founded the National Council of Women.
By 1939 the dance group had become so well established that it became independent of the council. It held its first Tea Dance at the Hotel Georgia on 22 April 1939. A few days later, the death of Lady Aberdeen was announced from Scotland, and so the newly-fledged dance group was named as a tribute from one energetic and practical social activist to another.The Lady Aberdeen Scottish Country Dance Club held classes continuously from 1938 to 2010. The group was at first intentionally all-female, and this may have helped SCD in Vancouver survive the dearth of men during World War II. Through the 1950s, the club held Tuesday classes at the Moose Hall on Howe Street. It also sponsored two annual events: a Christmas dance and an Armistice Day Tea Dance, an event which still continues every November 11.
True to their name, group members followed a tradition of philanthropy. Following World War II, they supported veterans: the proceeds of their open party in 1956, for example, enabled them to donate a ninth wheel chair to Shaughnessy Hospital, and in 1957 their Tea Dance proceeds brought four table radios for the Hospital. Later, however, they supported a broader range of social causes, including “the Poppy Fund, the Salvation Army, rape relief and women’s shelters, cystic fibrosis, leukemia research, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation” (Pete McMartin, Vancouver Sun 10 November 2010). Such causes reflected the mission of the Council of Women and the humanitarian concern of Lady Aberdeen herself.
By 1960, the club had 36 members. Mrs. Bingham was succeeded as president by Mrs. Anne Brakenridge, then in 1963 Mrs. Nellie Forbes (later McKenzie) followed. Nellie Forbes was a woman of great vivacity who continued to dance into her 90s; she also taught the Lady Aberdeen class and chaired the Provincial Executive Committee of the SCDS from 1957 to 1961. Her daughter Pat was also a dancer. In 1984, the club had 43 active members taught by Eileen Bennett, who was succeeded by her husband Ken.
While the Lady Aberdeen Club ceased its classes in 2010, the annual Armistice Day Tea Dance tradition continues, with proceeds continuing to be donated to charity and sponsorship rotating among different Vancouver dance groups. The stress is on continuity: favourite dances reappear on programs from year to year. One frequent dance is Nellie McKenzie’s Jig, devised by Ken Bennett. The high point of every program is The Reel of the 51st Division with its formations bravely representing the Saltire. To commemorate its devising by Scottish prisoners of war in occupied France, it is danced by men only before the assembled crowd joins in.
The dancing starts at 1 pm every November 11 at the Scottish Cultural Centre, 8886 Hudson Street. All are welcome. Tickets are $10.
© Rosemary Coupe
Mellish, Doris. Vancouver’s Women 1894 to 1986: Based on a Brief History of the Vancouver Council of Women. Vancouver: Council of Women, 1986.
Provincial Executive Committee, Scottish Country Dance Society of BC. Minutes, 1954–64.
Vancouver Branch of the Scottish Country Dance Society of BC. Minutes, 1930–41.
Vancouver Council of Women Fonds. UBC Rare Books and Special Collections.
Vancouver Branch RSCDS. Archival scrapbooks.
Vancouver Branch RSCDS. Newsletter, 1965 to present (became The White Cockade in 1996).