Highland Dancer Diary
Nicole Odo with the International Highland Dance Team at the Belgium Tattoo
I started Highland dancing when I was 7 years old, and very quickly became someone who found joy in the competitive aspects of dance. Competition became my primary focus throughout my dance career, and performance opportunities were more secondary to me.
Now that I’ve retired from my competitive career, and begun to pour focus into performance opportunities, a bucket list item for me has been to perform in a Tattoo! This is a different type of tattoo than what you may be thinking of – I’m talking about a Military Tattoo, which is a show filled with performances that includes music, dancing, and more.
This past September, I got to cross this off my list when I was accepted to the International Highland Dance Team to perform in the Taptoe Belgie in Oostende, Belgium.
The Auditioning Process
The application process for the Belgium Tattoo included an application form which asked for some basic details about myself, followed by video submissions of the Highland Fling, a national dance of your choice (I chose the Lilt), and a choreographed solo dance.
The application was due in March, and we heard back a few weeks later if our applications were successful or not. I was so excited to be accepted into my first Tattoo, along with a dancing friend and fellow New Brunswicker, Lindsay Gaunce!
There were 24 (or 25?) dancers selected from the auditions, including dancers from Canada, the US and Scotland.
Common Tattoo Q
I recommend following @int.tattoohighlanddanceteam on social media!
As the Tattoo neared, us dancers were sent videos of the dances we’d be performing. We learned the choreography in advance, and had a few virtual practices together before travelling to Belgium.
The one thing I didn’t fully think through when applying for the Tattoo was that I was writing my Judges Exam (stay tuned for a blog post all about this!) the weekend before leaving for Belgium. So, trying to allocate time for both studying and learning the choreography was a challenge that I probably wouldn’t recommend trying, but I survived!
Thankfully, Lindsay was willing to practice in the airport with me en route to Belgium. While we certainly got some weird looks, it was worth it to feel a bit more prepared for rehearsals.
Arriving in Belgium
Thursday, September 29
Our flight from Fredericton to Belgium was overnight (and not direct), and had us arriving the morning of Thursday, September 29th – the first day of rehearsals. Pro tip: don’t do this. Don’t take the red eye the day before rehearsals. 10/10 recommend arriving at the destination of the tattoo at least 1 day before!
We flew all night, and both scored full rows to ourselves to lounge in on the flight. But between the time change, and a 5-hour flight, we weren’t exactly what you could call well-rested.
We landed in Brussels, took the train to Brugge, and explored the city for a bit. We met up with the other dancers and took a bus to our accommodations; kicking off a jam-packed weekend of dance.
We arrived at the hotel, and immediately dove into rehearsals for the day. For this tattoo, we had half of Thursday and all-day Friday to rehearse before it was show time on Saturday and Sunday. It’s a very condensed Tattoo, and we had 4 choreographed dances to pull together in that short period with a group of dancers that hadn’t danced together before.
I was truly in awe of every dancer’s brain because the memorisation and execution were next-level. Thursday rehearsals went from early afternoon until 6PM when we got to take a break for supper, followed by a couple more hours of rehearsals before bed. Although it was a tiring day, it was fun meeting everyone, getting to know people who were beside you in the dances, and getting really excited about performing the dances for an audience!
Friday, September 30th
Friday was our longest day of rehearsals as we had the full day ahead of us! We left the hotel around 8AM to drive to the Tattoo venue, and spent the whole day in and out of the stadium, rehearsing. Another pro tip for anyone doing this Tattoo: it’s cold in Belgium in September! They’ll tell you to bring layers which is important, but I often wanted a hat with me to cover the ears when rehearsing outside!
The dances were really starting to come together on this day, and we were working out all the kinks before the first show. Rehearsals went until 10PM, and then we hung around the venue for a bit before heading back.
Even though Belgium is a very short Tattoo, spending the full day with the dance team really lets you get to know people. I loved chatting with everyone when we weren’t practicing, about all things Highland dance, life, and more.
Saturday, October 1st
We had two shows on this day, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. We rehearsed for a while in the morning, and then we had to get dressed and ready for our first show!
Performing was obviously a highlight of the whole experience – it’s so exciting to be up in front of hundreds of people with the venue lit up – we even had pyrotechnics! Overall, Saturday was a successful day, with our second show being one of our best. The crowd at our evening show was also incredible.
During the finale of the show, I was one of the dancers up in the audience hold a light-up torch, so I could always see the reactions of the crowd. The audience on Saturday night gave us a standing ovation and were so appreciative of the performances – it was very heart-warming!
Sunday, October 2nd
We had our final show on Sunday, and at this point, my body was certainly feeling the fact that I was dancing on concrete. But the good news is once you get out on stage, you don’t feel it at all!
Someone brought a massage gun with them to Belgium, and after this experience, my pro tip: BRING ONE. I will never travel for a Tattoo without one ever again. You’ll thank yourself! Our Sunday show was super fun, and we really had the dances down pat by this point, so everything was running smoothly.
After the Final Show
Just like that, the Tattoo was over! A group of us dancers went into Brugge on Sunday night to explore, check out some local eateries and pubs, and recap about the whole weekend.
I was so grateful to get to meet new friends and experience this whirlwind of a weekend with the group that I did! It was equally exhausting as it was enjoyable. I think the group we had really made it such a positive experience.
A big thank you to Crystel, the dance director of the Tattoo (who also ended up being the director of the entire Tattoo), Evelien, who took over for Crystel when she was leading rehearsals for the other groups, and to all my new dancing friends who I got to know and who made the weekend so fun.
I would recommend that all dancers do a Tattoo at least once in their life, and get to live this challenging but exciting opportunity! I was so inspired while I was there, and I loved making connections with people from around the world.
It served as a reminder that this challenge and camaraderie is what dancing is all about. Tattoos are unique to Highland dance, and I’m grateful to be a part of this amazing community that provides opportunities to dancers in all stages of their dancing career!
Highland dance is filled with opportunities in competition, performance, travel, leadership, and so much more. There are very few other activities you can get involved with that connect you to friends from all over the world.
If you’re looking to join the best dance family there is, let’s connect! Your first class is on us. We’d love to welcome you into our studio.
Did you enjoy reading about this Tattoo experience?
Story edited by Kate Francoeur