Born to Dance: Laura Carruthers on Scottish Highland Dancing and Art Through Collaboration

Laura Carruthers

Photos Credit: Laura Carruthers

Not to be confused with Irish Step Dancing (like Riverdance), Scottish Highland Dancing is a horse of a different color relying on different talents and feats of strength. A lifelong dancer, Laura Carruthers has been involved with various forms of dance, including ballet, throughout her life. With a prominent legacy, Laura’s family plays a role in her other pursuits as well, including her interest in filmmaking. It's only fitting that her latest project, entitled Grace Fury, is a film that blends choreography and other elements of her lifelong passions. Laura tells JustLuxe about her life in dance and the making of Grace Fury.

Laura Carruthers

How did you get involved with Celtic dancing?

Attending and participating in Scottish Highland Games was the norm in my family. My father competed as a Scottish athlete, throwing heavy weights, whirling hammers, and tossing cabers at Highland festivals, before I was even born. Inspired by any kind of live or televised presentation of dance, I was moved to hold entire concerts, alone in my room as a three-year-old. When I turned four, my mother registered me in basic ballet, tap, and tumbling classes at the Burbank Parks & Recreation Center. I advanced rapidly through the program, but my family also continued to attend and participate in California Highland Games, full of spectacular ceremony, concert, and contest in raw strength, bagpiping, drumming, and dancing: all in celebration of Scottish heritage. I officially started Highland Dance lessons at age seven, and within a year or two, it mostly dominated my identity. 

What is it that attracts you to this form of dance?

It’s not attraction as much as it’s simply an indelible part of me, of my history and experience. I have great respect for the challenge of it, especially now as an artist. In fact, perhaps more so than when I was dancing in the realm, “for things beside the point,” as I say in my upcoming project. Scottish Highland dancing is very difficult to perform well, particularly well enough to capture the awe and respect of an audience. It requires a level of physical strength, leg development, and hip rotation to carry out finely detailed footwork and controlled arm movements, all in a state of perpetual spring. A two to three-minute test of leg and lung power, offset by elegant, full-bodied coordination and technical detail, it takes patience and perseverance to grow into.

Most people think of Irish Step Dancing, or more specifically Riverdance, when then think of Celtic Dancing. How does Highland Dancing differ from that form?

It’s not as obvious as Irish Step dancing, most notably or popularly understood as an audible form of dance. Clogging, tap, hard-shoe Irish step dance – they basically come down to executing grounded, foot-rendered rhythm, and when you get forty dancers to do that in fairly good drill formation, you get Riverdance, or a thunderous, Irish dance “chorus line.”

In some respects, the kilted Highland dances move in the opposite direction, upward and against gravity. The harder and more advanced it gets, the slower it gets and the higher one must jump. It also demands more of the upper body than Irish step dancing, requiring arms to move sharply or at times, gracefully in sync with the legs, or to be held steadily overhead and at the waist which takes tremendous back strength, while rebounding to a slow and steady beat and executing precisely positioned footwork. An audience has to understand the physical challenges involved to stay captive. Otherwise, traditional Highland competitions can be quite tedious to watch, even in beautifully executed form; that’s been a promotional challenge for Highland dancing, in contrast to the other “louder,” Celtic dance tradition.

You’re also trained in ballet.  How has that informed your work?

Certainly, my time at Ballet Arizona, working with peers, directors, music, and the whole concept of performance for its own sake has informed my own aesthetic style, process, and philosophy.

In fact, my very first collaborative experience with Michael Uthoff, the artistic director of Ballet Arizona at the time, actually sparked my curiosity and confidence to pursue my own creative path. Together, with my Scottish Highland expertise and his concept for a solo, we built a captivating number that delighted critics and patrons, as I was called to perform it repeatedly, in studio and on stage. Then, Riverdance burst onto the scene shortly thereafter, and while the Celtic variety show included other traditions in the act, it neglected the Scots… I saw an opening, a new calling or mission on the horizon, which my professional experience, already working in dance theatre definitely made viable. Within a couple of years I rounded up musicians, singers, willing peers from the ballet, and Highland contacts from a more traditional Scottish dance company in Canada to launch my first attempt at exposing Highland dance in broad, uniquely integrative context. 

Ballet simply gives me more options and more depth, as a choreographer. Not only do ballet and contemporary dance provide framework and add colors to my palette, they also inform my collaborations.

Your work seems to break with what many would traditionally expect.  How do you describe it?

From the very beginning, all of my choreographies have largely reflected a breakdown of the Celtic, Classical, and contemporary techniques in my vocabulary and a reconstruction of them in new bond with each other - and always with respect to and for the music selected to bring out concepts and characters within a larger theme. Much of my signature fusion is very subtle, and in details or transitions that people might not immediately recognize, due to the links between these techniques. One might see a particular move and assume that it is entirely ballet, when in fact it also incorporates part of a move that is coming from a Scottish dance. 

When and where I can, I work to create a truly hybrid dance form that befuddles and betrays, blurs and bends “the rules” of all of them. In general terms, I guess you could say my work is disciplined, daring, and deliberate.

It all started from a simple mission to expose the Scottish arts in concert with other larger cultural dance traditions and technical skills. So there is a celebration of foundation or reverence for longstanding, collectively designed establishment in all that I do.

However, my mission to defend what it means to be a genuine artist – a ground-breaker or pioneer, willing to question and stretch those boundaries, defy them at times, and ultimately bring them together in new form – has also grown stronger with every project.

Your art form is a truly collaborative process.  How do you pick your projects and who you work with?

Broadly speaking, my projects and themes have evolved, as I have evolved in awareness, thought, and skill over the past two decades. This evolution in mission and method, determined by circumstance, practical realities or limits, and past experiences has diversified my artistic portfolio and shaped the kinds of productions that I have rendered. They’re all connected, as if a part of one giant experiment and expression.

All of my ventures have emerged in many ways from my very first production of Fire & Grace. Following this premiere and tour, I realized very quickly that I was going to have to develop technological skills, like editing and graphic design, for very practical reasons, which, in turn, sent me off to venture across realms. That journey has had a ripple effect, bringing more perspective to every project, grounding me in a larger reality. Every project pushes me to re-evaluate my circumstances, my methods, my results, and my reasons – to preserve what “works” and to discard what doesn’t - and to find new ways to grow and to communicate. So I “choose” my projects relative to that critique – where I am at that moment, what I’ve learned, what can be done again, perhaps differently, and what else needs to be done, what I want to try, and of course, what I can afford, who is willing and available to join me, and what I can offer in exchange. 

Trust is also a very important factor when reaching out to artists and technical craftsmen for collaboration. I try to choose professionals based on how things worked in the project before and what the new one is going to require.

My whole journey has been one of genuine experimentation, of desire to “find the good and praise it”, in the inspirational words of Alex Haley. I seek to urge others, even fellow artists, to resist and to look beyond the usual channels of art and entertainment, of questionable metrics and credibility, and to support those both inside and outside of our familiar, established bubbles.

You’re a performer, director and choreographer. How would you describe yourself?

Yes, technically I am a director, a choreographer, and performer, but I see myself more as a thinker, a builder, and “a painter” …and perhaps even more deeply an explorer, a researcher, and an activist through art and by example. For me, it’s no longer about the thrill of a moment on stage or winning a competition. It’s about constantly checking and maintaining perspective. It’s about building and revealing a bigger picture and purpose: making a “full-bodied” contribution and inspiring others to make one too, without reducing ourselves and each other in the process.

Laura Carruthers

Tell me about Grace Fury. How did the project come about? Has it been released or is there a release date?  Are you currently working on other projects?

Grace Fury is the most comprehensive reflection of my artistic 'evolution' to date. I actually conceived of her about seven years ago, when a couple of producers from New York asked my company to be a part of a festival of productions that unfortunately never materialized. Nonetheless, it got me thinking about how to pull everything together in one beautiful statement.

Grace Fury marks the culmination of twenty years of experience and experimentation building complete works on stage or on film or both, from the ground up. Some aspect of every project made to this point comprises some part of her. Choreography, music, themes, and footage, deconstructed, rearranged, and blended with new work give her unique character and form, rolling in and out of elemental chapters of my journey, from traditional dancer to the very point of making this project. She draws us into performances on stage and then moves us through a mysteriously romantic, but critical, revealing of my observations, thoughts, feelings, and challenges at key, transitional moments along the way.

Technically speaking, she’s a special film project, shot in 1080 24p with five Panasonic VariCams, including one for documentary/behind the scenes footage. I utilize scenes from her own making and also weave clips from past projects. Musically and choreographically she’s my ultimate expression of raw, rebellious and refined – Celtic, contemporary and Classical.  Poetically, she’s the brainchild of my fire and grace, representing both my call to action and my peace with this ongoing struggle, only realized upon her completion.  And we certainly look forward to delivering Grace Fury and her message to the world with a screening this Fall.

As for projects beyond this one – I always have others in mind and am always working on a new choreography to keep the wheels turning and the engines firing. I have also been talking to some musical contacts about possibilities down the road, but officially and for now, I’m focused on the completion of Grace Fury.

Laura Carruthers

Learn more about Laura and her upcoming projects at

Carly Zinderman

Carly Zinderman is a Senior Staff Writer for JustLuxe, based just outside of Los Angeles, CA. Since graduating from Occidental College with a degree in English and Comparative Literary Studies, she has written on a variety of topics for books, magazines and online publications, but loves fashion and style best. In her spare time, when she?s not writing, Carly enjoys watching old movies, reading an...(Read More)

Around the web