The Tartan Terrors:
The evil twin of Riverdance

An interview by Tom Knapp,
July 2000

Once upon a time, Ellen Irmisch had her future laid out in her mind. Her course was set, her career goals were certain and nothing was going to get in her way.

"I was planning to be a Shakespearean actor at this point in my life," she said during a recent telephone interview from her Ontario dance studio. But things didn't happen the way she expected. Instead, Ellen and her brother, Ian, are the artistic directors of the Tartan Terrors, a no-holds-barred, in-your-face dance troupe which mixes Highland traditions with modern highjinks and a high degree of contemporary showmanship.

A typical Terrors performance includes plenty of physical humor, innumerable bad jokes, a fair share of Scottish bagpiping and lots of good dancing. There's traditional stuff in there to be sure, but watch for quirky variations on those traditional themes. Amid familiar tunes, including sets of hornpipes, flings and other dance styles from Scotland and Canada, be prepared for some surprises, including songs, skits and a few costume changes which capitalize on the unwavering appeal of flying skirts and flashing legs. (To be sure, that's a significant threat from the kilted men in the troupe.)

For the Tartan Terrors , the formation of their troupe was something of a lucky accident.

"It was kind of a fluke," Ellen recalled. "My brother and I were hired for the Ontario Renaissance Festival. He was hired as a juggler, I was hired as an actor who danced." But her dance number at the festival's daily Pub Thing led to more requests to dance -- and that led to the Tartan Terrors.

"It's one of those thing that just fell into our laps," she said. The Irmisches, whose mother was a dance instructor, have performed Highland dances since they were children. Ellen can remember dancing before she was tall enough to wear a traditional kilt.

That's not a problem for the Tartan Terrors during one popular number; in the Highland Swing, the female dancers rip off their long kilts to reveal colorful plaid mini-kilts -- the Scottish equivalent of short-shorts -- underneath. "The ending always changes to whatever's in vogue," Ellen noted. "It was hip-hop for a while. Sometimes it's been filled with disco moves. But it's a lot of fun. It's something different. ... We like to take the traditional and put a twist to it."

A recent Terrors show, for instance, led into the well-known gestures of the macarena, as well as bits of swing and disco. One member of the troupe stepped out during a tune by the Texas bagpipe band, the Rogues, for a distinctly nontraditional form of interpretive dance.

The troupe's line-up changes somewhat from show to show, Ellen said -- sometimes growing as large as 10 performers for any given engagement. Dancers range in age from 20 to 31 and spend most of their year on stage with the Terrors, Ellen said. Some also pursue other interests; one, for instance, spends time in a ballet company, while another works in fashion design. Ellen, when she's not touring, runs her mother's dance studio in Toronto.

Now entering their fifth season on the road, the Tartan Terrors owe a debt of gratitude to groundbreaking dance shows like Riverdance.

"Riverdance has opened a lot of doors worldwide for multicultural groups to step forward and show their stuff," Ellen said. "It's historical dancing that's brought to life again, and we can all connect to that rhythm. ... It's very primal." But cultural ramifications aside, Ellen said, people should come to their shows with a plan just to relax and enjoy themselves. "You don't have to analyze it, you don't have to think," she insisted. "You just enjoy it and have fun ... and we like rowdy people."

[ by Tom Knapp ]