Friday, 16 November 2012


None of my students know what a ceilidh is and I can't get over this. None of them have even noticed the posters plastered all over the hallways.

"How pronounce?" one of them asks, pointing at the board where I have written CEILIDH in big block letters.

"Kay-lee," I tell them. "Surely somebody has told you about them?"

Blank stares all around.

"Seriously?" I ask them, exaggerating my shock by opening my eyes wide and holding my hands up. "Nobody here knows what a ceilidh is?" They shake their heads and knit their brows. Most of them are sitting, slumped, at their desks, mobile phones in hands, thumbs clicking away. Technically, they're still on their break and I'm just setting up, pulling books and papers out of my backpack. But I use this time to try and engage the livelier ones.

"And you've been in Scotland how long?"

"Since September," Gan says. Gan will answer any question, no matter how rhetorical. He lines his pencils up on his desk and breaks my heart by coming to class every single day in neatly ironed shirts and trousers with creases in them.

I hold up the poster I've swiped from the corridor so that everybody can see it. "Then you have got to go. You can't live in Scotland and not got to ceilidhs!"

"Dance?" one of the girls asks, pointing to the poster. I nod.

"Yes, but it's not just a dance, it's a whole experience. There's music too, and I'm pretty sure there'll be free food at this one."

This finally gets everybody's attention, especially the boys'.

"Free food?" a boy called Jiang asks, sitting up straighter.

"You bet. It won't be great, but it'll be there. And afterwards you'll dance and listen to music and have fun."

"But I can't dance," Jiang says, his face falling.

"Neither can I," I tell him, "but I still love ceilidhs. They're more fun if a few people can't dance." This is entirely true. People who don't know what they're supposed to do at ceilidhs provide a source of innocent merriment for the ones who do. I've done my bit as a graceless klutz at ceilidhs, and it won't hurt Jiang to do the same.

"But it is raining," a girl called Lin says, gesturing at the window.

"Ceilidhs are indoors!" I say. "And come on, this is Scotland. You can't use rain as an excuse for not going to ceilidhs." In fact, rain is one of the reasons people go to ceilidhs in the first place. What else are you going to do on cold, grey, wet days? Whooping it up to fiddle music is just the thing to revive your spirits.

Since everyone seems interested, I decide to show them a ceilidh video on the internet. The first YouTube clip I find is from our rival university. It shows a group of students being instructed in basic ceilidh dance steps. This isn't what I'm after, so I fast forward until the students are actually dancing. But the dancing is so careful, so earnestly, precisely executed and well-behaved, that I immediately abandon this clip.

"Okay," I say, clicking through YouTube videos, "this is going to take me a little time. Just hang on."

The students don't care: this is keeping them from reporting verbs and transportation graphs. We're near the end of term and they're exhausted. I could tell them we were watching a how-to taxidermy clip and they'd be okay with it.

And then I find the perfect YouTube clip. It shows a ceilidh in full swing, the fiddles merrily playing, the dancers' faces lit up, their hair plastered to their heads as they strip the willow. You almost feel the steam in the air. You can spot the ones who don't have a clue, but when they aren't tripping over their own feet or running into others, they are smiling.

"I will go," Jiang says, watching a boy run smack into another one. "Free food?"

"It says so on the poster," I tell him, fervently hoping it's more than potato chips and coleslaw this time.

After the class, the minute I open the door, I see one of our Asian students in a full kilt, obviously planning on going to the ceilidh. He is a strapping, good-looking boy. I can hear Lin behind me, saying something in Chinese to her friends. I wheel around and manage to catch her eye.

"We are going to the ceilidh too!" she says.