Podcast celebrates Feisty Women in Traditional Dance

Natasha Khamjani and Kerry Fletcher of Folk Dance Remixed. Photo credit Krupa Chavda

Natasha Khamjani and Kerry Fletcher of Folk Dance Remixed. Photo credit Krupa Chavda


To celebrate Women’s History Month, the Pomegranates Festival (25-30 April) is launching a new two-part podcast series highlighting the role of women in traditional dance. 

Released on 8th March to mark International Women’s Day, the first part features author and dancer Dr Pat Ballantyne; and Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS) former chairperson Helen Russell. The second part features contemporary dance pioneers Caroline Brockbank of CeilidhKids; and Natasha Khamjani and Kerry Fletcher of Folk Dance Remixed.


Isabel Murray

Isobel Murray, courtesy RSCDS Archive

In part one, Dr Pat Ballantyne who is the author of Scottish Dance Beyond 1805 : Reaction and Regulation gives an insight into the fascinating lives of Isabel Murray and Betty Jessiman - two notable women from Aberdeenshire, who made significant contributions to the history of traditional dance. 

Isabel Murray was born in 1883 and trained at the Aberdeen Physical Training College where she was later appointed Principal in her 20s. Her father was a publisher and published a physical training manual written by Isabel which explained over 200 drills/dances and exercises for primary school teachers and was published in Aberdeen, London and Edinburgh. She also ran dance classes which were considered a little risky at the time, and taught a variety of skills including Eurythmics, Alexander Technique, shooting and corsetry. 

Betty Jessiman, who also features in part one, was born in 1921 and was a Highland dancer. She was the first female dancer to enter an all male dancing competition in the 1950s because on this one occasion the organisers had forgotten to stipulate this in the regulations. She was crowned World Champion at the World Highland Dancing Championships in 1961, and reformed traditional Highland dance dress entirely to a much lighter, more feminine outfit, better suited to women dancers.

Also featuring in the first part of the podcast is Helen Russell who explores the central role played by some remarkable women involved in the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS), which celebrated its centenary year in 2023. These women include the Society’s founders Ysabel Stewart and Jean Milligan who set up the first summer dance school in St Andrews in the 1920s where the infamous teachers Elizabeth West, Isobel Cramb, and Angela Young taught their students to ‘dance with their souls’. 

Natasha Khamjani and Kerry Fletcher of Folk Dance Remixed. Photo credit Krupa Chavda

Natasha Khamjani and Kerry Fletcher of Folk Dance Remixed. Photo credit Krupa Chavda

Part two of the podcast kicks off with more formidable women in dance and includes an interview with Caroline Brockbank, the founder of Ceilidh Kids who will also run a Family Ceilidh as part of the first Pomegranates Family Sunday on 28 April 2024; and a look at the work that founding Artistic Directors Natasha Khamjani and Kerry Fletcher do through their company Folk Dance Remixed based in the South of England. Their unique style fuses traditional and hip hop dance with live music and has been described as a remix of Maypole, Clogging, Ceilidh, Street, House and Breakdance with a hint of Afro and Bollywood … all performed to a live soundtrack of fiddle and beat boxing.

Trad Dance Cast Guest Helen Russell said: “Mrs Stewart and Miss Milligan gave us a very precious social and cultural gift, by reviving and spreading awareness of Scottish country dance and its associated music across the world. Today the RSCDS has branches across the world and champions the benefits of Scottish country dancing for our mental and physical wellbeing. Recent studies have shown how dance can improve our quality of life and help prevent dementia, improve cognitive skills and coordination, and reduce depression and isolation, which these great women pioneers already recognised back in the 1920s. I hope listeners enjoy hearing more about them in the podcast.”

Illiyana Nedkova, Co-curator of the Pomegranates Festival and Trad Dance Cast said: “I am very pleased that the first podcast episode of our Trad Dance Cast this year delves into the stories of the quines and bonnie fechters of Scottish traditional dance. In fact, we drew the lineup of interviewees - all tradition keepers and dance innovators in our contemporary world - as part of the 10th anniversary of the Harpies, Fechters and Quines festival in June last year during our first and now ongoing collaboration with Edinburgh Central Library. It was where our Trad Dance Cast presenter Eleanor Sinclair, a trad dance artist-activist herself, did a live video podcast interview with Margaret Belford, 85 - the legendary leader of the Edinburgh branch of the UK-wide Society for International Folk Dancing. I’d recommend this video on our YouTube channel as a companion piece to the new podcast - it also shines a spotlight on the traditional costume handcrafted by Margaret, herself. What is more, it is preceded by a set of colourful Ukrainian folk dances presented by the new generation of feisty female-identifying performers, including the new Scots Oksana Saiapina and Anastasiia Boiko. Our hopes? To encourage the trad dance scene in Scotland to increase the range and diversity of women’s voices by acknowledging the legacy of those no longer with us and by exploring the impact of gender on our dance culture

Trad Dance Cast is produced by Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland, curated by Iliyana Nedkova and Wendy Timmons, and hosted by Eleanor Sinclair, a trad dance artist, instructor and climate activist. The music theme is Mason’s Apron Reel by Mairi Campbell, fiddle player, dance caller and theatre maker.


Listen to the pocast


The Pomegranates Festival which runs from 25 -30 April 2024 is Scotland’s annual festival of international traditional dance. Initiated and produced by Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland it is presented in partnership with Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland, Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh City Libraries, Dance Base and the Scottish Storytelling Centre. This year, the festival features artists’ residencies and social dance sessions, exhibitions and tours, shows and workshops, plus our first Pomegranates Family Sunday. 

For tickets and more information click here

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