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About > A History of the New York Branch

A History of the New York Branch

The New York Branch is one of the oldest U.S. branches of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, second only to the one in Boston, which was founded in 1950. Our history begins with a Scottish Nationality Weekend at Folk Dance House in March 1954. A key figure in that event was Jeannie Robertson Buchanan Carmichael, who had played a leading role in founding the Boston Branch a few years earlier. Jeannie had come to New York to give a workshop in Scottish country dancing, bringing with her a group of her Boston dancers. Wearing kilts and white dresses with tartan sashes, the Boston team performed for an enthralled audience. A festive Scottish meal capped the weekend.

Years later, in 1965, New York dancers Freddy Sverdlove and Bob Gruskin recalled that "The haggis was delicious, and we enjoyed the rest of the Scottish food, but most of all we remember the dancing of that demonstration team. Never had we seen such grace, such beautifully precise footwork, or such feeling of flight. The impact of that weekend has not yet left us." Freddy also remembered that "it was the warmth, spirit, and enthusiasm of Jeannie that persuaded me to try this form of dancing."

Eager to build on that memorable experience, about 20 New York dancers began to meet. Besides Freddy and Bob, the group included Stanley Greenberg, Harry Hersh, Frances and Harry Holtzman, George Kerr, Sadie Lapiner, Claire McCartin, Olga Meyer, Midge Priddle, Norman Shimkin, Ben Schnayerson, and Ida Stern. In fall 1955, they started their own Scottish country dance class at Folk Dance House, and Jeannie Carmichael came down from Boston every other week to teach. The group soon moved to the Downtown Community School, with Jean Tufts alternating with Stanley Greenberg as teachers. In September 1956, the class began meeting at the McBurney YMCA, where it remained for over four decades. Jeannie was teacher and director, and Stanley was president and problem-solver.

The doyenne of Scottish country dancing, Miss Jean Milligan, first visited New York in the fall of 1957. The New York dance group sponsored a Thursday evening workshop at Folk Dance House, which was open to all dancers; at the Y.M.C.A. the following evening Miss Milligan conducted a special class for the members.

The year 1959 was momentous. In May, the New York group became the second official Branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in America. Also that spring, the Branch held its first New York Dance Weekend at O'Shea Junior High School, with teaching by Miss Milligan.

Miss Milligan together with Mrs. Ysobel Stewart had formed what would become the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in Glasgow in 1923. Freddy recalls that "In 1959, Miss Milligan traveled around the world testing candidates for the Preliminary as well as the Teaching Certificates. The rigorous test included a written exam, talking through a dance, performing the required dances, and teaching a class. Miss Milligan was impressed with the N. Y. candidates and awarded the five successful ones [Stanley Greenberg, Bob Gruskin, Harry Hirsch, Ida Stern, and Freddy herself]--full certificates." Now in her 90s, Freddy is still teaching!

In 1963, the Branch held its first spring weekend away from New York City at Holiday Hills, in Pawling, New York. The Pawling Weekend is still going strong, now at Circle Lodge, in Hopewell Junction. We celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2003 with some of the dancers who had attended the first Pawling Weekends. Held the third weekend in May, when spring is at its peak, Pawling offers dancing on wooden floors beside Sylvan Lake, to Bobby Brown's driving rhythms, with classes offered by top Scottish dance teachers from Canada, the U.K., and elsewhere in the States. See our Photo Gallery for this year's festivities.

Since its beginnings in 1954, the Branch has grown into a thriving presence on the New York Scottish dance scene. We hold regular classes in New York City from September through June, and even in the summer we dance weekly. Our Calendar lists the full range of our activities and those of Branch affiliates in Brooklyn and on Long Island. In addition to our Pawling Weekend, special events include a Burns Night Celebration every January, the spring Island Fling in Mineola; an annual John Drewry Night in Brooklyn in December; and SUMMERDANCE in the UN General Assembly Lobby, for the benefit of UNICEF.

Perhaps the most splendid event we sponsor is the annual Jeannie Carmichael Ball, held each November at West Point. It is the namesake of Jeannie, who was born in Edinburgh and came to the U.S. in 1923. A mathematician, she retired in 1960 from a career in space rocketry at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge. As a dancer, Jeannie played a seminal role in the development of Scottish country dancing in America. In 1947, she had been asked by English country dancers in Boston to form a Scottish dance group. Through her affiliation with the Country Dance Society, Jeannie obtained space and initiated the Monday night classes that have continued for over 50 years. When Jeannie came to New York in 1954 with her dance team, she sparked the enthusiasm that led to the founding of our Branch. We gratefully recognize her inspiring leadership at the annual Ball that bears her name.

Compiled by Anne Lowenthal. Thanks to Sally Freedman, Freddy Sverdlove, Hiroyuki Ikema, and Masaaki Obata for help, photos, and information.

The New York Scottish Country Dancing Meetup Group
Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, New York Branch