Why a Dancer?

My amateur detective, Liss MacCrimmon, is a former professional Scottish dancer. She spent some eight years touring with a Riverdance-like troupe called Strathspey before her knee gave out on her, effectively ending her career. This happens in Chapter One of the first mystery in the series. Following knee replacement surgery, she works at (and later owns) Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, a small establishment selling everything from canned haggis to kilts to pewter figurines of pipers.

Given that I intended all along for Liss to live in Moosetookalook, Maine while she does her crime solving, some might wonder why I gave her such an elaborate background. Indeed, why make her a dancer at all, let alone a Scottish dancer?
The answer is simple, but requires a bit of explanation. Let me start with the Scottish part of Scottish dancer. Typical the perverse way my mind sometimes works, I knew what the title of the first book in the series would be before I knew anything else about it: Kilt Dead. I was encouraged to think this was a winner by my agent, who was so enthusiastic about the title that she assured me it would sell even before she saw a synopsis to go with it.

I knew the books would be set in a small Maine town. I knew there would be a hotel nearby that was being renovated in the hope of bringing new life to a depressed local economy. I knew that my protagonist’s family would have owned a small store selling Scottish imports for at least a generation, and that her father would play the bagpipes. In fact, the family surname would be MacCrimmon, after a family in Scotland that was famous for its pipers. My sleuth would return to town to help run the store. But why? To find the answer, I simply followed that well-known “rule” of writing—write about what you know.

Not long before I began working on ideas for this contemporary mystery series (having previously written two historical mystery series as Kathy Lynn Emerson), I had knee surgery. You can’t let an experience like that go to waste, but I needed to come up with some reason for a woman so much younger than I am to require a knee replacement. Liss is in her mid-twenties in Kilt Dead. The obvious answer was a sports injury, and since I was already committed to a Scottish “hook” for the series, that led me directly to the highland games and thus to competitive Scottish dancing. Anything that falls under the umbrella term “step dancing” is extremely hard on the knees. Of course, Liss was a dancer.

I’ve never been a Scottish dancer, but I have had experience with other sorts of dancing. I started tap and ballet lessons when I was six or seven years old. I was still taking ballet through my junior year in high school, and had graduated to playing a leading role in my last two annual recitals—the hero. This was inevitable, since I was not only the tallest girl in the advanced class but also the only one who refused to wear toe shoes. Here I am, in pink, as Prince Basil in The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Our teacher was a wonderful woman named Winona Bimboni (1916-1982) from whom I also learned to swear in Italian.

While I was still in high school, I started doing choreography for stage shows. Here’s a rehearsal shot from our school-wide production of The Music Man my senior year. I continued to dance through college, becoming a charter member of the Bates College Modern Dance Club (now Company) started by Marcy Plavin, as well as a theater major. I danced, acted, and directed in the Robinson Players production of Much Ado About Nothing in 1968. That’s me on the far right. The second dancing gentleman on the left is John Shea, who went on to a career as a professional actor and is probably best known for playing Lex Luthor in Lois and Clark on TV.

The last picture below was my farewell to active dancing and choreography, eleven performances in a production of The Fantasticks at the Little Theater of Virginia Beach in 1973 (my husband was stationed at Oceana NAS at the time). In my opinion, I had the best part—the Mute. I didn’t have any lines to learn and I got to mime all sorts of things.

Those experiences, although some considerable time in the past, are the sort that stick with a person. I found it remarkably easy to put myself in Liss’s shoes and go on the road with Strathspey. Her struggle to get back in shape after surgery is something also I understand. And when she watches her old company perform without her in Scone Cold Dead, I can relate to that, too. There are times when I miss being part of an amateur theater group. The trouble is, being involved in a theatrical production requires the same total dedication that writing a novel does. I don’t have enough energy to do both.

Anyway, to bring this post back to Liss MacCrimmon, her training in a rigorous physical discipline comes in handy in her encounters with villains intent on doing her harm. Her ability to kick proves especially useful. She may not be able to continue her professional career as a dancer, but she can move fast when she needs to.

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6 Responses to Why a Dancer?

  1. Barb Ross says:

    Great photos, Kaitlyn!

    It’s amazing how the stuff in our lives goes through the meat grinder of creativity and comes out as fiction.

  2. I had no idea you had this dance and performance background! It’s been very interesting to me to see the large number of writers I know who were involved in one aspect of the theater or another. You’d think the outgoing nature of performance wouldn’t mesh with the solitary nature of writing, but I’m beginning to think the creativity of acting/dancing/singing is closely connected with the creativity of word-crafting.

    I agree with Barb – the experiences go in and years and years later, they come out again, transforming into the fuel for fiction.

  3. Hah! Another dancer-writer. I’ve run into a number of them. Very interesting, Kaitlyn!

    My parents gave me piano lessons when I was a child, but I began taking classical ballet in college on my own and did time in a small dance company while in my mid-20s, learning a variety of dancing. I’m still dancing. Dance shows up in my novels. All of nature dances.

    Julia, my guess is that “the creativity of acting/dancing/singing” of which you speak is the outward expression of a dancer-writer’s creativity. If you’re an introvert, up on the stage, you can slip into your role and become someone other than yourself — and not be paralyzed by stage fright.

    • Hi, Suzanne
      One of my theater teachers used to call that Stanislavskying. I fought extreme shyness for years, but on stage it wasn’t me. I was someone else. Same in writing fiction, although I hadn’t really thought of it that way before.

  4. What fun, Kaitlyn! Our daughter was a bagpiper and Scottish dancer in college–she weven did the swird dance (which women aren’t really supposed to do) She was also a ballerina. I’ve used that background for my Monastery Murders heroine Felicity–found the skills very handy for avoiding lunges by baddies, kicking guns out of hands, etc.

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