Performing in the Basel Tattoo
Hi! I’m Kate. I’m the studio manager here at Saorsa Studio, and I run this lovely blog you’re currently enjoying. I’ve edited many Dancer Diaries in the past, and I’m very excited to share one of my own. Buckle in for a bit of a long one (don’t worry, there’s lots of pictures).
Kate’s Dancer Diary
When I got the email notifying me that I’d been selected to dance with Canadiana Celtic Highland Dancers in Basel, I immediately jumped to my feet in excitement. Dancing at the Basel Tattoo in Switzerland has been a dream of mine for YEARS!! Not only have I always wanted to dance in Tattoos, Switzerland has always been high on my bucket list for travel.
I’ve known a handful of dancers who have danced with CanCelt in Basel in previous years, and I’ve been only mildly debilitated with jealousy of their experience.
The time between when I found out I was going to Basel and when I left was a whirlwind – with our studio recital, completing my final academic portfolio for university, a trip to Toronto, Nicole’s bachelorette trip to Arizona, and SDCCS all packed into a few short months. As I spent days attached to my laptop screen and barely getting everything done, Switzerland seemed like a very blurry and distant idea.
And then all of the sudden, I was leaving in a week.
I left for Switzerland with a large group of fellow dancers from Halifax following SDCCS. While most of the dancers leaving from Halifax were traveling directly to Basel, I was going to Zurich with one other person, Tina.
When we got to Zurich and met up with a few other dancers landing in that airport, we found out that everyone who went directly to Basel had their flight cancelled and their luggage was lost. An exciting start to the trip for sure!!
For the first bit of time, we ate our meals out of a local restaurant, as the meal hall wasn’t open. Those of us with dietary restrictions were treated to the classic vegetarian meal of a plate of vegetables <3 Did I go to bed hungry that night? Yes. Was I completely thrilled with my surroundings? Yes!!!
We dove into rehearsals the morning after our arrival. I was a little nervous to begin what was sure to be a physically challenging rehearsal schedule (this first bit is more commonly referred to as “hell week”), but those nerves were overshadowed by my excitement to throw myself into the experience. I enjoy the process of learning choreography, and I was already enjoying the company of my teammates. Plus, we got to wear our awesome new team merch to rehearsal.
For the first few days, we rehearsed in the morning, all afternoon, and all evening. Our rehearsals took place in a gym across town. It was completely blue, lacked air conditioning, and the dim lighting and countless hours spent inside gave it a sort of surreal detachment from reality. The blue sauna, as it was affectionately called by some, caused time and place to blur. I know that we rehearsed there for several days, but it all sort of blends together.
I remember the third day being the hardest for my body. Everything hurt. My toenails were bruising, my arches had moved up a notch from their usual level of anger, I was having weird nerve pain in my ankle, my shins were painful to the touch, and my achilles and hamstrings and hip flexors were all very sore. Whichever of my shoes I elected to wear, a different part of my feet was unhappy. And just for good measure, I smelled like I had never even been introduced to the all-in-one shower and hand wash supplied by the hotel.
Even so, I loved every minute. I loved the puzzle of putting together our main dance. Dancing in a group of 50 is a different game from the dances of 3-10 people I’m used to. There was a lot of sweaty hand holding and reverse engineering. Once we got to be more than 10 hours into the day, I would just really want to be sitting down. But each morning, I rolled out of bed excited for another day.
While this part of the trip was extremely physically demanding (did I mention it was 35 degrees all day every day?), we were all pretty focused on staying fed, hydrated, and reasonably rested. This soon changed for me, personally; and energy drinks became a staple in my diet. More on that later.
On the fourth day of rehearsal, we had our first run of the main dance through on the area. Entering the Tattoo grounds and the arena for the first time was surreal. It was an oppressively hot day, hovering around 40 degrees. As soon as we stepped out onto the black pavement of the esplanade, I began chugging water. I’ve been known to faint.
When we got into position to run the dance for the first time, I couldn’t help but smile. Even with my shoes sticking to the pavement as they began to melt, I was the happiest girl in the world. The lines were crazy as we adjusted to dancing in a new space, but it was still a highlight.
The next day and a half consisted of more rehearsals in the gym, rehearsals on the arena for the other acts in the show we were in, and watching the other acts rehearse. Seeing the other acts was so cool – even without costumes and lighting, I knew it was going to be a good show. My favourites to watch were the group from Mexico and the group from Ukraine. I really enjoyed listening to the band from New Zealand as well, but as they were on immediately following our main dance, I never got to watch it.
In addition to our main dance, us highland dancers were in the show opening, the massed pipes and drums, the Scottish act, and the finale. In the Scottish act, us dancers were responsible for opening a huge Scottish flag and then an even larger Canadian flag. The Scottish flag was a little nerve-wracking, as it just gets shoved in a box. Myself and 3 others grab the corner handles, and then we run backwards to open it as everyone else grabs on along the sides. The first several many times we tried it, the flag was twisted or flipped or sideways or any number of other issues that were undetectable until we started to pull it out.
The finale was another point of interest. I had heard jokes from other dancers about the difficulties Tattoo finales can pose for dancers. While each show is different, most seem to contain several minutes of standing in first position and smiling. While this is a simple task, it is not an easy one.
The first few times we rehearsed the finale, I was shocked at how difficult I found it. My arches ached, my smile twitched uncontrollably, and my knees wouldn’t stop locking uncomfortably. Once the show started, we were instructed to stand in fifth position rather than first position. This made it easier to shift in place undetected as we tried to keep the blood in our feet moving, but it was tough on the knees and ankles. My fifth position quickly became a barely-turned-out third.
When timed, the finale was around 15 minutes of standing. During some shows, it felt like 5 minutes; and during others, it felt more like 45 minutes.
Show Week: The Dress Rehearsal
The dress rehearsal/media preview show arrived quickly and I was thrilled to present what we’d been working on. We wore our costumes for the first time – gorgeous dresses designed by Veronica MacIsaac in the classic red, white, and black colour palette of CanCelt.
The energy in the dressing room (an attic above the cast bar occupied by a large, wooden, pirate ship-themed play structure?) was electric as we dressed for the first time. The moment that made it feel real was putting on the red lipstick.
As a dancer and as a human who loves drama, nothing sets a more powerful mood for me than a strong red lip.
Doing our main dance for an audience for the first time – albeit mostly photographers and a few VIPS – was thrilling. The best part about our main dance is how moving and interactive it was. Throughout the course of the dance, we made our way across most of the esplanade, and danced alongside a diverse set of our fellow performers. My favourite part, as I believe was the favourite part of many others, was our “crazy 8” formation. While two groups form small circles, most of the group moves in two snaking lines to create a flowing 8. It’s a bit of a sprint, but you get to circle the entire arena, coming face to face with your fellow dancers, and around to a few thousand audience members.
The crazy 8 inspired one of our CanCelt sisters, Sophie, to design a tattoo on a dinner plate from the meal hall. As of my writing this, 13 dancers have gotten the tattoo (6 of them having gotten it while in Basel!) I haven’t gotten it – yet.
The Show Begins
I was never very nervous to go on stage in Basel. I was always too excited to be nervous!!! The only time I experienced something close to stage fright was on opening night. Before the show even started, the sound from the thousands of people in the stands above was enormous. As we waited in the tunnels before our numbers, the energy was always high. We danced our way around the arena to Mexico’s set, and always managed to keep each other hyped up (special shoutout to Ashley for ALWAYS keeping the vibes at 100!!)
The first show was a blur. Our main dance begins with all of us facing outward in a large boat formation. As the dance begins, we all turn to face inwards, and the enormity of the performance came into context for me. Not only am I out in front of this audience, dressed in a costume that makes me feel like a DANCER, doing this dance I know like the back of my hand in SWITZERLAND – I’m doing it with an amazing group of friends. When I turned in and saw the faces of so many people I had been sweating beside for the past week, I started to sweat with my eyes.
But then the beat kicked in, and I had a dance to do. My eye sweat dried up.
Crying in Finale (Parts 1 Through 6)
I already mentioned how physically taxing the finale was, but that’s not the only notable thing about it. One thing about me: I am a crier. When we first rehearsed the finale, there was one song in particular that I KNEW would be getting me: Celtic Crest. Something about that song – from the instrumentation, to the choir, the melody, the lighting, the physical and emotional exhaustion, to the cool breeze that always managed to find us at that point – the atmosphere was perfectly crafted to make me cry.
Of course I cried on opening night and finale night. Also the 2 shows leading up to the finale. Also a random show on like the Tuesday night that I had no business crying for. Sometimes I was crying tears of joy, or sad because it was nearing its end, or I was just very tired.
By far the best Celtic Crest though – and maybe one of the highlights of the entire trip for me – was at the first Saturday matinée.
There are two matinée shows in the run of the Basel Tattoo. Matinée shows create a bit of a different atmosphere than the evening shows. The sky is still bright, so there aren’t any lights or fireworks. I felt a little naked standing in the finale in broad daylight with such a sweaty face.
We were worried throughout the show about the rain, as it was overcast all day. It held off throughout the show, but as Celtic Crest began, a light sprinkle came. I watched the front sections of the stands as audience members donned rain ponchos. As the song reached its halfway point, the rain had come on in full. At this point I couldn’t contain my laughter at having to stand still and get absolutely soaked. I could hear the girls behind me laughing as well. I could see people in the audience who failed to bring a poncho laughing as they got just as soaked as us.
During the final section of the song, when all of the bands come together in the soaring melody, the rain became a torrential downpour. I was soaked from head to toe and giggling like a maniac and letting the music hit me in full force. It was from a movie. For someone who has songs from their favourite movie scores in their Spotify top 50 at all times, this was a magical moment. Art and nature in perfect harmony for a few fleeting moments.
Yeah, I cried.
Experiences Outside the Show
In addition to the show itself, the Tattoo offered many amazing opportunities. I got to explore a bit of Switzerland on some day trips during show week. This included getting up to go to on a wine tasting trip when I had gotten back from the cast bar a handful of very short hours earlier.
Health and Wellbeing at the Tattoo
Leading up to the Tattoo, I was a little worried about my physical wellbeing dancing every day. As I mentioned earlier, everything hurt. We had access to a team physiotherapist during show week (I <3 the volunteers of the Basel Tattoo!!!) but I didn’t end up seeking her help as I was actually faring better than I’d expected. After the fourth day of rehearsal, I was worried – if we kept going at that pace I don’t think my feet would have made it. Luckily, it ramped down little by little after that, and I felt mostly good for the rest of the run. Although my shins and achilles didn’t appreciate the pavement as a dancing surface.
What did suffer, however, was my sleep schedule. 2 weeks in Basel is just short enough that you want to be go-go-go and make the most of every single day, but it’s just long enough that you have to suffer a bit to keep that going.
About 4 days in, I bought my first Red Bull of the trip. Many followed throughout the show run. I am not trying to endorse the lifestyle I am about to describe. I do not recommend it. But whenever I would worry about the fact that I was drinking an energy drink at 7pm, I would remember the words of my teammate: “you’re only 21 and in Switzerland once”. I simply had to do what I had to do!!!!
During the first few days of rehearsals, I was getting 8 hours of sleep every night. That soon became a solid 6. Then shows started, and I was lucky to get 4 hours. With the cast bar, and the aforementioned 7am wakeups for wine tours and the like, I was booked and busy. At the very end, I think I got a total of 5 hours over three days (this included what was essentially an all-nighter following the last show, which left me spectacularly brain dead at a Subway for lunch on Sunday afternoon with my mom) (after Subway, Gen and I and Zaira, our new friend from BC, took the train to Kandersteg, a village in the alps. We slept for 14 hours on hostel bunk beds with French backpackers and awoke reborn as rested humans).
Like I mentioned before, I actually did a good job taking care of myself earlier in the trip. I had single-minded focus on keeping myself fed and hydrated. But as rehearsals ramped down, and I could ease up a little on my intense hydration scheme, I soon let all that go down the drain in favour of odd meals and liquid “nutrients”.
Migros-brand energy drinks (HUGE shoutout to Migros), protein drinks (the best I’ve ever had – why don’t they sell them in Canada!!), and vitamin water (shout out to Vitamin Well – iykyk) were on the menu every single day by the end. Other staples in my diet included veggie burgers (often the only vegetarian option at the meal hall that wasn’t pasta), ice cream (Gen and I ate ice cream perhaps every single day of the trip), and croissants from the breakfast bar at the hotel.
Once again, I’m not recommending my lifestyle during the latter part of these 2 weeks. Actually, I would strongly discourage anyone from ever treating their body like this. Luckily, being 21 has its perks, and I managed to bounce back pretty quickly with a little mountain air.
Living like an absolute insane person for a few days was tough on the body, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. If I had a month there, I certainly would not have lived at that pace – I simply could not have survived. But for 2 weeks, I could keep it up. And I ended up making some really sweet memories. I made mistakes and I developed a mild caffeine addiction and I wouldn’t change a thing. I danced in the huge arena AND on a table in the cast bar with new friends. I ate a Migros cake on the floor with my roommates in our tiny room AND a Migros cake on the floor with Gen in her room.
My favourite part about my experience in Basel was, of course, the people I spent it with. I spent time with other Maritime dancers whom I’ve danced with in competition for years but may not have gotten to know in all that time. I made friends from provinces I’ve never been to. I traveled around afterward with Gen, who was my fellow NB sister going in; and Zaira, who I had never even met until SDCCS. When I parted ways with them in Edinburgh days later (them to go dance in the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, me to go to approximately 73 pubs with my friend from school), I knew that we’d shared a trip we’d remember forever.
The team bonds we formed are what made this experience so magical. As this was my first Tattoo experience, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when it came to making friends. If the matching tattoos don’t say enough, we liked each other.
Dancing in Basel under the leadership of Stephanie Grant and Stephanie Turnbull/Julliard was unlike dancing anywhere else, due to their singular focus on building a strong team relationship. There are lots of places you can go, and lots of amazing dances to perform, but it’s hard to find another team which genuinely attempts to uplift all members, and support an environment of mutual respect. In the dance world – particularly in highland dance, a highly individualized discipline – being a team player isn’t often a sought after trait. Even less common is a professional dance setting where all dancers are made to feel like they are valued, they deserve to be there, they are beautiful, and their wellbeing matters. Particularly during our last few shows, I felt what it was to dance not as an individual among other individuals doing a dance together, but as a part of a team dancing as one.
I always smile when I dance, but it’s a conscious thing. I go on stage and I think “okay, smile”. But when we did our dance for the final time, my smile came from a very real place: overwhelming gratitude and happiness for an incredible experience.
I won’t soon forget the feeling of being on that arena.
A million thank yous once again to the Stephanies, Veronica, Brent, Rachel, Allie, all of the amazing volunteers at the Basel Tattoo, my parents, Nicole, and my SISTERS! ♾️
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