Dancing in the teeth of the gale

Cranbrook’s Royal Stewart Highland Dancers sailed straight into Tropical Storm Sandy

The Royal Stewart Highland Dancers had an unusual and difficult competitor at a recent dance competition: Hurricane Sandy. Left to right: Back Row: Parent chaperones Rosmarie Saffin

The Royal Stewart Highland Dancers got a little more than they bargained for when Hurricane Sandy literally rained on their parade during their cruise vacation.

Katie Saffin, Emily Balfour, Katie Macleod and Alexandra Demarchi were set to leave from Miami for the Sadie Simpson Scholarship competition aboard the Majesty of the Seas.

Hurricane Sandy – then a tropical storm – was in Miami wreaking havoc on the usually sunny destination when the girls arrived by airplane. Instructor Jane Nixon and parent chaperones were with the girls the whole way. Nixon told the Townsman it wasn’t exactly the vacation they had all looked forward to.

The cruise was in danger of being cancelled as the storm pounded the city. The dancers decided to brave the weather and explore Miami as best they could.

Nixon said she and the girls took a tour around the city, stopping at famous landmarks like South Beach. Nixon said something was amiss though, as they tried to enjoy the scenery.

“The manhole covers were popping out of the ground,” she said.

Back in their hotel rooms, Nixon said they watched the path of the storm as it ripped through Jamaica. On the Thursday before they left, 12 people had been killed. The death toll grew to 41 by Friday.

“It was really frightening,” she said.

The cruise line decided the show must go on, so the girls boarded the vessel and off they went into the tropical storm.

“We took off on the boat into the hurricane,” Nixon said. They soon began questioning whether the cruise line made the right choice as sea swells up to 11 metres (36 feet) smashed against the sides of the ship.

“It was a bad decision.”

Back home, the families worried about the girls as they did not have constant communication. The boat rocked back and forth in the swells, and many of the passengers — including the Cranbrook dancers — became seasick. The wind was so high that no one was allowed to go outside or enjoy the pools. Nixon said the dancers spent much of their time battling seasickness in the safety of their rooms.

“They didn’t really sell us on cruises,” she said.

One of the destinations of the cruise had been Cococay, Bahamas, but the ship was forced to pass it by. Many cruise lines reported damage to their private beaches and resorts in the region.

Unfortunately for the girls, the cruise wasn’t the only thing that had to go ahead. The highland dancers still had to dance in their competition.

Nixon said many dancers were unable to perform, but the girls from Cranbrook had worked too hard to quit.

“They couldn’t see not doing it,” Nixon said, adding that all girls put in an incredible affort to train and their parents had committed to funding their trip.

All three girls danced even though they were sick to their stomachs and the boat continued to rock in the waves. Nixon said it was extremely loud as the waves smashed the ship.

Cranbrook’s dancers were able to perform, but many were not so lucky. Some attempted but ended up vomiting and abandoning the attempt. Nixon said at one point a judge was attempting to deliver her feedback and was sick.

“It was kind of surreal,” Nixon said. “We all wanted to go home.”

But with so many odds against them, the girls more than outdid themselves. MacLeod placed first in the Senior North American scholarship Written Paper competition, besting 50 other dancers, and as Nixon cheekily notes, the hurricane itself.

Saffin came in fourth place in the Junior North American category over 55 other dancers.

“This is a huge achievement in the world of highland dancing, for both Katie Macleod and Katie Saffin and for the Royal Stewart Highland Dancers.” Nixon said.  “Not only did the dancers study hard for this trip but they also trained and worked to perform on a cruise ship rocking in the wake of hurricane Sandy with swells up to 11 metres.”

After leaving the area of Cococay, Nixon said the ship headed for calmer waters south of the island towards Nassau, Bahamas. The storm was moving its way north behind them. Finally, the girls got the chance to get off the ship and enjoy some fun in the sun.

“It was phenomenal just to be on land again,” Nixon said.

The girls enjoyed the beach and the hot sand before heading back to the ship bound for Miami again. Looking back, Nixon said her first hurricane experience will hopefully be her last.

“I don’t care to see it again,” she said.

The girls will all return to school this week after some rest to recover from their big adventure. Nixon said the girls will have a lot to tell their classmates.

But the single thought that is running through all their minds?

“We are all so happy to be back home in B.C.!”