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Thursday, March 17, 2011 05:50 am

The pipes are calling

Tom and Beth Ogilvy, Springfield’s keepers of the Celtic culture


Tom Ogilvy warms up the St. Andrew’s Society pipers before the St. Patrick’s Day Marching Band Parade in downtown Springfield on Saturday, March 12.

In our contemporary world of instant change and constant flux, generational pastimes are a lost presence, seemingly passed by for the latest and greatest new thing, barely becoming rooted before being cast aside for another practice. Will you share a Wii moment with your future grandchildren, pass on the family iPod for generations to cherish, teach the ways of proper blogging to appreciative youngsters for heritage safekeeping?

There are no immediate traditions or instantaneous customs. By definition, these things require an indefinite but undeniably lengthy amount of time to pass before becoming established long enough to achieve such a title. Beth and Tom Ogilvy, a middle-aged Springfield-based couple, have dedicated themselves to passing on the music and dance traditions of Celtic culture through teaching and doing. In keeping these customs alive for another generation to experience and possibly prolong, they’ve discovered a joy produced from giving knowledge and helping others while improving personal talents in the process.

 “Piping and dancing aren’t a hobby for us,” says Beth, who started dancing at the tender age of 3 and became a certified teacher as a young adult. “It’s not what we do, it’s who we are – daily.”

With dance classes and bagpipe lessons nearly every weekday and performances or competitions most weekends, their life together is a whirlwind of Celtic culture and that’s just how they prefer it.

 “I don’t remember not doing it. My parents emigrated from Scotland,” added Tom. “I started learning the drums and bagpipes together, at about 6 1/2 or so, and stuck with the pipes.”

Their story is not only one of kindred spirits bound by national and cultural heritage, but of an honest and sincere romantic love separate from, but kindled by, the love of Celtic traditions. The couple got together in late 1998 and married in December of 1999, but before that admired each other’s talents from afar. Tom, an established and well-respected piper in the Chicago area, played for Beth and her student dancers at area gatherings and competitions. The two naturally gravitated toward each other, drawn by the obvious mutual connection of culture. He now works at the Department of Corrections, playing the bagpipes for official functions, among other duties, while she teaches and organizes the various aspects of the family operation.

The Ogilvy enterprises originate on the home front as the couple teaches from their house and property on Old Jacksonville Road just a few miles west of Veterans Parkway. A remodeled garage in the backyard serves as the home of Ogilvy Studio (www.ogilvystudio.com) for Beth’s daily dance classes and Tom generally gives evening lessons on the bagpipes in the house. For band rehearsals they find larger and less occupied places, such as local churches, to accommodate the 10- to 20-member group of drummers and pipers.

Tom Ogilvy practices with a student on the chanter.

The former garage is soundproofed for the neighbors’ protection with a special floor designed to give with the movements of the dancers. With ages ranging from toddlers to seniors and averaging some 70 students weekly, the various levels and types of dance classes are set for different evenings of the week. Beth, a certified dance instructor, runs the only Celtic dance studio between Chicago and St. Louis and families come from Jacksonville, Litchfield, Bloomington and other areas for lessons, though most of the clientele is local.

From the Illinois State Fair to the Festival of Trees, the St. Patrick’s Day Marching Band parade to the Highland Games, small town festivals in central Illinois to national competitions in Florida, Michigan and wherever, the dancers of Ogilvy Studios get plenty of exposure and chances to practice and perform. The colorful kilts and costumes, along with the boisterous bagpipes and stylistic dancing, attract attention from an interested public.

“Recently we just got back from a competition in Florida and they want us to come back and bring the group to Daytona Beach next year,” says Beth. “I want to get us on the Queen Mary, take us all on the ship to dance and play. We have fun and people really enjoy us, you can just see it when they watch.”

Sometimes it’s not easy letting pupils go once they’ve moved on, partly because of just missing someone who has been a big part of your life for many years and partly because students get involved in other things and leave without fulfilling possible potential. The Ogilvys’ dedication brings students close, and most stay on as friends as they move on through life, but it’s all a process of change while teaching traditions.

 “We typically can get someone for five years, then they move on to other things, especially with teenagers, there is just so much to do these days. Some students have stuck with it and gone on to get college scholarships. And some have gotten married, had kids and brought the kids back to class,” says Beth. “I think the students who are the best challenge for us as teachers are from 14 to 25. If they decide they want to do this in that age group and they give themselves to this art, they are pretty unique individuals. When grandparents drop kids off, that’s great, but if they are of an age to choose it, they want to do it and practice.”

Lest one think that playing the Highland-style bagpipes or learning the steps of the Scottish and Irish dances are something any yokel can claim to do, rest assured that organizations abound and officials are in place to properly regulate these forms of ethnic self-expression. Beth belongs to the British Association of Teachers of Dance, Scottish Official Board of Highland Dance and Federated United States Teacher Association and Tom is a member of the Midwest Pipe Band Association. Both are certified by these groups and attend necessary classes and meetings to continue the memberships and confirm qualifications. The rules are there more for creating the consistency necessary to establish and prolong customs than for enforcement of protocol or insistence of etiquette.

“You have to do what the traditions require. Irish and Scottish dances are different in that regard. Irish I make up the steps, but Scottish I have to go by the book they wrote 800 years ago,” says Beth. “It is what it is. It’s a bit more than an art or a sport, with reasons for the movements. Like the Sailor’s Hornpipe tells the hardships of the sailor.”

Tom marching with the St. Andrew’s Society in the parade.

Much of the importance of learning the proper dance steps is explained in the literary aspect of the dances. Like many actions in the artistry of the folk world that appear simple or haphazard, they aren’t just random movements strung together by individual performers. There is rhyme and reason and much more.

“It’s like the Hula, each dance tells a story,” explains Tom. “There’s history behind each one too.”

“We’re ambassadors to our culture as well as dancers,” says Beth. “I try to get that across to our dancers, that when you go out there and do this dance you’re not going out to just compete or because of the athletic challenge, but because you’re carrying on the traditions of our heritage.”

As with other culturally based pastimes in our society, the Celtic ways of dancing and playing music attracts those of varying ethnic backgrounds. As in African drumming or Tae Kwon Do, belly dancing or French cooking, Sitar playing or cricket, this American montage that we are offers the opportunity for acquiring various ethnic traditions to all members of the populace willing to take lessons and learn.

“Many but not all of our dancers are of Scottish or Celtic heritage. As a matter of fact we have several people in our organization of Polish or German backgrounds,” says Beth. “But there’s something about the bagpipes that we dance to, you either love them or hate them.”

“The thing is the bagpipes are not native to Scotland or Ireland, they were brought by the Celts and the Romans,” explains Tom. “The bagpipes probably started somewhere in the Middle East or Egypt where there were sheep or goats and the hard wood needed to make the reeds work. They spread with the movement of the Celts from the Caspian Sea, who took their pipes with them. They’ve found traces of them in the Gobi Desert. Then they moved through Europe ending up on the edges, like in the British Isles, Spain and Northern Africa, after getting pushed out by the Romans.”

Actually many different cultures use bagpipes, or more literally bags with pipes and reeds, or even more literally sheep or goatskins with hollowed bones and wooden reeds. All bagpipes jokes aside, most of us automatically associate the Highlands of Scotland with the stereotypical bagpipes, but there are many types of pipes associated with different cultures. Nearly every country in Europe and many in the Middle East and Northern Africa has a variation on these common folk music instruments. Most historians agree the bagpipes traveled with the Celts developing variations from cultures where these roaming people settled. In turn these societies mingled and intertwined, leaving many common bonds among peoples of the world, including, perhaps, the certainly unique and seemingly ubiquitous sound of the bagpipes.

Beth marching with the St. Andrew’s Society in the parade.

“Lot of people might have some Celtic in them and they don’t even know it,” Tom says. “They hear the bagpipes and it stirs something in them that draws them to find out about their heritage.”

As educators and performers, Tom and Beth bring a particular charm and noticeable experience to the teaching realm, not the least of which is a huge respect for what the arts can do for students, and for people in general, beyond the simple act of artistry, delving into the psyche and persona for improvement on many levels.

“If someone is in music, I think their grades do better in school, it gives them more confidence,” says Tom. “From the outside it seems we’re a strange lot or we’re just a small group of people, but we’ve made friends throughout North America, in Scotland and other places. And the students get that too. When you’re in it, it’s amazing how many people are really into this. This pied piping has taken me all over the world.”

When Tom was “12 or 13” he and other young pipers and dancers left Michigan on a “world tour by bus” of the Expo ’67 in Montreal, West Point, Red Bank, N.J., Washington, D.C., and then finished with a show at Gettysburg. He moved to Chicago in 1982 from Michigan to play in one of the best bagpipe bands in the Midwest and still continues his musical journey that included shows with celebrity performers such as Rod Stewart, the Chieftains and others. During the recent earthquake in Christchurch, Australia, Beth checked on Facebook to inquire about Tom’s piping friends there and found out they were fine.

Considered one of the finest pipers anywhere, he now leads a local group, belongs to a world class competing band in Chicago and teaches all comers, including students from as far away as St. Louis, Galesburg and Bloomington, or as close as right down the road. Under his leadership, the St. Andrew’s Society of Central Illinois Pipes and Drums won awards at several competitions all over North America. He’s known for being a demanding teacher, but both he and Beth work their students hard to achieve results, expecting only what they expect from themselves.

“I believe if you’re not learning you’re standing still, so I have to teach my students as if they’re competing,” says Tom. “We do several competitions but it’s only 20 percent of what our band does – 80 percent is parades and performances.”

“That’s one of the things both of us do and is part of our basic philosophy as teachers. Whether a student wants to compete or do it for fun, we teach you as if you are going to compete, because that is the judging standard of excellence,” explains Beth. “Sometimes we might lose people over that principle, but it’s our way.”

Beth Ogilvy, left, shows her students traditional Celtic dance steps at Ogilvy Studio.

One of the most obvious byproducts of the Ogilvys’ passion for teaching and performing is the camaraderie among the pipers, drummers and dancers and their families involved within the circle of Celtic culture. From all walks of life and whether they come, go or stay until the last drink, dance, song and step is done, there’s a noticeable bond of familial friendship formed that goes beyond lessons and learning.

“We don’t do any advertising so they search us out. I don’t consider my dancers as clients or just students, they’re family,” says Beth. “It’s not uncommon for us to have several kids and families staying with us before driving to St. Louis or Florida or wherever for competitions. We’ve got three couches, four bedrooms, blowup mattresses – there’ll be bodies everywhere. We live together and travel together like being in the circus.”

The most hectic time is right now during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations that nearly cover the entire month of March. The pipe and drum band and the dancers are in demand all over central Illinois as everyone of whatever ethnicity shares in the Irish heritage commemoration. From bars and clubs to parades, schools, nursing homes and wherever the call comes, the kilts get swinging, the pipes stay blaring, the drums keep beating and the dancers go stepping out, allowing the world to experience the ancient Celtic ways for a few fleeting moments.

“We have nine nursing homes and senior centers on St. Patrick’s Day. We go to them because they can’t get out,” says Beth. “Tommy pipes, my father tells stories and the dancers dance. We also go to small towns all over for parades. Tommy calls it St. Patrick’s Day week. This year we started on March 4 and end on March 19.”

They sacrifice time for producing art and preserving culture, missing holidays and weddings, family birthdays and graduations, attempting to make them up later when the performance schedule permits. It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but the Ogilvys see it not from the perspective of working, but as a life’s work that continues on a link from time immemorial to forthcoming generations, preserving a past for the present while creating the possibility of a future with tradition. And one more thing: they really enjoy what they do.

 “What else could we do where we could meet the people we meet and have the experiences we have and have so much fun?” says Beth. “We are quite unique in that the St. Andrew’s Society of Central Illinois is one of the only societies that get together for a Robert Burns dinner, host Highland games, have a pipe and drum band plus Irish and Scottish dancers, and an Ancient Athletics organization all in the same place.”

 “We don’t do it because we’re trying to do it all for the power or the glory, but we love what we’re doing,” says Tom. “We’re still here and we’ll stay because we believe in what we’re doing.”

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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