Thanksgiving morning, as many were putting their turkey in the oven or loading the car for a trip to visit relatives, eight-year-old Audrey Hopper was downtown, participating in the Thanksgiving parade as a Highland dancer.
Audrey is in second grade in Oswego. She began Highland dancing just three months ago.
“She was tired of ballet and thought it would be fun to learn Highland dancing since I started taking bagpipe lessons,” said her father, Sam Hopper.
“I’d been seeing it for a while and thought that is so cool and so cool how fast they go,” Audrey said of wanting to learn Highland dancing.
Sam Hopper searched the internet for Highland dance lessons and found Thistle and Heather Highland Dancers of Chicagoland.
Nancy Strolle is the founder and director of Thistle and Heather Highland Dancers. Strolle has enjoyed Highland dancing since age five and has taught in the Chicago area for more than 30 years. Strolle currently teaches 60 students varying in age from three to mid-forties.
Thistle and Heather Highland Dancers introduced a new location in Plainfield two years ago. There are currently eight students at this location. Lessons are also offered in North Riverside, Glen Ellyn and Chicago.
Audrey participated in this year’s nationally televised McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade in downtown Chicago. Sam Hopper also participated, dressed as Nessie, the Loch Ness monster.
Audrey described performing in the parade:
“I was nervous and worried I’d mess up but I did very good and had fun,” she said. “It was really different from a ballet recital since the lights are out at a recital and you can’t see the audience. At the parade, I could see everyone.”
Performance opportunities this holiday season include: performing in Daley Plaza, participating in the Museum of Science and Industry’s Christmas Around the World, and performing at Brookfield Zoo.
Strolle described Highland dancing as aerobically intense and said the dancing was originally done by soldiers and includes “a lot of power, grace, poise and ability in order to make it look effortless.”
Audrey especially enjoys the Sword Dance, which is the prediction dance, said to have been done prior to battle.
“It’s legitimately a real sword and they dance around it and jump all over it,” said Sam Hopper in amazement.
Strolle explained that she has taught champions and students who the dancing has come easily to but said, “The true joy is to work with a child without natural ability and watch them progress and succeed.”
Many of Strolle’s students participate in competitions but Strolle stressed that students learn on their terms and don’t have to compete. She said she has an open door policy for dancers who have moved on and want to return and enjoy dancing.
Sam Hopper described Audrey’s dance classes:
“Girls ages 7-9 are teaching each other, working with each other and critiquing each other. There is so much teamwork. They have fun but they work hard,” he said.
Audrey has taken tap, ballet and jazz classes since age 3. She is now committed to only Highland dancing, taking classes twice each week and working towards competing in about one year, said Sam Hopper.
Many of Strolle’s students have Scottish heritage but there are many with no Scottish background and all are welcome, she said.
“We are a very small community. There are only 60 Scottish dancers in the Chicago area verses thousands of Irish dancers. We are a well-kept secret,” Strolle said.
“We have a lot of fun. The kids care for each other and share in each other’s successes,” Strolle said.