Four young women celebrate 10 years of performing as Highland Dancers

Star Staff Writer

The 110th annual Burns Night celebration held by the Miles City Caledonian Society on Jan. 19 was filled with dancing, bagpipes and a little bit of haggis.

Four young women had a little more reason to celebrate the annual dinner.

Madison Friend, Haley Harding, Sage Zook and Annamarie Caruso all celebrated their 10th year of performing as Highland Dancers during the annual observance. The Miles City Caledonian Society hosts one of the largest Burns gatherings in the world, with more than 800 people attending the event held in the Centra at Miles Community College each year.

The night commemorates Robert Burns, a poet and lyricist born is 1759, who is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. Dinners to celebrate his life and contribution to Scottish tradition and heritage take place across the world, wherever Scots are found. Hallmarks of the event include dancing, bagpipes, poetry, and haggis, a Scottish dish consisting of a sheep’s or calf’s entrails boiled in a bag made from the animal’s stomach and mixed with suet, oatmeal and seasonings.

Highland Dancers wear fairly traditional garb, consisting of a tartan kilt, often in their family colors, with matching tartan hose. The more traditional style, which most of the girls sported, is a velvet vest over a white shirt that often has frills. During their solo dances each girl wore a black top accented with various amounts of tartan, but were required to wear a variety of different, and traditional, outfits throughout the night.

According to the Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association, the roots of many popular Highland dances date back hundreds of years, often with several folk tales for each dance’s origin. The many different steps each 10-year dancer brought together to create her own solo vary in vintage, but all have been brought together in a way that pays homage to the rich history of Highland dance. The Highland Dancing Association claims that the style is “the best-known form of national dancing in the world.”

Highland Dancers that have performed each year at Burns, as Caledonians like to call it, get to dance a “10-year dance,” which is an opportunity for them to perform a solo with choreography of their own creation. The ladies that marked their 10th year in 2018 each chose music that was as diverse as they were, yet all the songs and performance were tied together by a common thread: bagpipes.

“I wanted to do something different,” Friend said about her music choice.

Her song came on with a recognizable, but unexpected beat: “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes played, with a complement of pipers lending it a distinctly Scottish feel more fitting for the occasion. The song is performed by The Red Hot Chili Pipers, who create bagpipe-infused covers of popular songs in addition to more traditional bagpipe numbers.

Friend said that she started dancing at age 7 and that she plans to continue dancing. She explained that she was the only person to arrange the choreography for her performance, but said that the last step, her favorite, was created by Catherine Woods. Friend said she was inspired by Woods, who passed away in 2008. Catherine was the daughter of Sonja Woods, a Highland Dance instructor who continues to teach boys and girls in the community.

Friend credited her grandmother, Flora (Dodie) Paxson, for inspiring her to dance. She represents the fourth generation in the family to perform not only Highland Dance, but to dance in the Miles City Burns night celebration. Her family has been attending since 1920.

The second 10-year dancer of the evening was Haley Harding, who chose a more traditional song for her solo — “Hooligans Holiday” as performed by Albannach.

The song is rich with drums and bagpiping, and actually helped Harding to get back on track when the unexpected happened.

“I froze up. Right at the beginning [of the solo] I had a moment, blanked,” she said. “When I heard the music that pulled me out of it. The preparation really helped.”

She explained that she started dancing when she was 5, and was inspired by her aunts, Teniel and Mary Lynn. All of Harding’s extended family makes it down to Burns in January each year. Her choreography combined a number of her favorite steps, including her favorite, a double leap near the end of her dance.

 “There were some steps I really liked, but Sonja [Woods] helped put it all together to the music.”

The third dancer to celebrate her 10th year was Sage Zook, who represents the third generation of Highland Dancers in her family. Zook brought two friends, Zoe Beardsley and Carly Roberts, up for a portion of her routine.

“Dancing with Zoe and Carly was my favorite part,” Zook said.

Zook danced to “Roundtable Rivals” by Lindsey Stirling. The song is fast-paced and features some parts that had a heavy metal feel with

distorted guitars. Zook said she doesn’t normally listen to that kind of music, but really liked that part when she heard the song and decided to use it for her solo.

She said she began Highland Dancing after she was inspired by her grandmother, Tootie Zook, who was the first in the family to begin dancing. The younger Zook started when she was 4 years old. She came up with the choreography in her solo by working with Woods, her dance instructor.

The final dancer to celebrate her 10th-year was Annamarie Caruso, the second person in her family to take up Highland Dance. Caruso’s sister, Courtney, got into Highland Dance when she was 3, and calls it “the best thing [she’s] ever gotten into.”

“I just came across music that I liked,” Caruso said of the song she chose: a Red Hot Chili Pipers cover of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.” The song features bagpipes and a mild electronic beat.

“My sister inspired me to start, and keep, dancing,” she said. “Sonja Woods helped me to put together my favorite steps.”

Instead of the pair of swords that is typical for a sword dance, Caruso’s solo featured four swords placed facing outward like a compass. This was so she could dance with her sister, Courtney, whom she brought on stage part-way through the dance.

“When [Annamarie] was 8 or 9, that was how I taught her the sword dance at home,” Courtney said.

“I was really surprised she remembered that. It made my day.”

All the girls who danced, and especially those who celebrated their 10th year, said that Burns Night is an opportunity for their families to get together, if only for one evening a year.

(Contact Austin Lott at or 406-234-0450.)