Duncan Studio of Celtic Dance

storyIt’s no secret that Irish and Highland dancing is practiced in parts of the planet other than Europe. However, some may be surprised to learn the craze has reached as far as South Africa.

Susan Theron established the Duncan Studio of Celtic Dance in the Johannesburg area 27 years ago.

“I am South African, born to South African parents, but their parents and grandparents originally came from the UK and Scotland – our family names being Goldsmith and Duncan,” she says, with a nod to the studio’s moniker.

Theron began her Celtic dance journey at the age of 12 after a teacher came to her school to offer classes. “I had always wanted to dance, but I had working parents who could not ‘ferry me around’ to classes so I’d never had the opportunity before that,” she recalls. “I have always been passionate about dancing and rhythm. Highland is special to me because of my roots, but I have been passionate about Irish dancing since it was first introduced to me in my early teens.”

She began teaching in 1988, once she “felt ready to make a start and share my love of dance.”

Theron is one of the founding members of Being Irish Dance, which was established in 1998. She is also proud to be involved with other elements of South Africa’s Celtic community. “I am connected with members of Johannesburg Chapter of the Irish South African Association, and we make ourselves available to perform at any Irish functions where possible. We are particularly busy on St Patrick’s Day! We also participate in numerous Irish dance, Highland dance and piping and drumming competitions throughout the year, so I have a very busy calendar in this respect.”

At her studio, all dancers are formally trained in the traditional methods of Highland dance technique, in which they compete and are graded – including both solo and team dances. The dancers are encouraged to test their creativity by choreographing special exhibition items of a more contemporary nature as well. Since 2008, the Duncan Studio Highland dancers have participated in the South African International Military Tattoo at the Monte Casino each September.

When Theron was first learning dance, Irish dancing was a much smaller part of her repertoire compared to Highland. She credits popular performances such as Lord of Dance and Riverdance with Irish dance’s global revival. As such, she teaches Irish dance through a series of specially choreographed performances. “I am also one of the few studios that offer recreational classes to adults,” she adds.

Theron coached her daughter, among other students, who has performed Highland dancing at the world-renowned Edinburgh Tattoo on two occasions. She was also one of the first dance instructors in South Africa to take solo and team dancers to the World Championships in 2007, and taught the first South African dancers to recall at both the All Ireland and World Championships.

“I have boys and girls of all ages attending my school and I believe they dance because they love it as much as I do.”

Her daughter, Megan, now also teaches at the studio. Megan is an eclectic dancer, with training in ballet and Spanish dancing, as well as Highland and Irish. Although she retired from competitive dancing in 2007, she continues to be involved with the studio by assisting her mother with teaching, training and choreography. Now a qualified Highland dance teacher, Megan is currently preparing to undertake her Irish teacher’s exam.

“I also train dancers to become both Highland and Irish teachers,” explains Theron. “I now look forward to having one of my own teaching alongside me as a colleague in my Irish classes.”

Teaching dance can be challenging, but Theron aims to “assist dancers in reaching their goals while maintaining a positive and realistic outlook.” While competition is a core part of the Celtic dance curriculum, she wants to make sure it is balanced with social aspects of the art in a healthy way also.

“It is rewarding to help pupils develop into well-rounded, skilful and confident dancers and people.”