Dancer Embraces Tradition to Build Scottish Highland Dance Studio in East Lansing

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018, 8:41 am
Ann Kammerer

Above: Allie Gibson Murad performs at a recent competition for Scottish Highland Dance wearing her family tartan: Dress Red Buchanan.

When Allie Gibson Murad opened her dance studio in East Lansing, one of the first things she did was to ask the landlord to take out the drop ceiling.

“It was hard to find a place where my taller dancers wouldn’t hit the ceiling,” she says. “When you’re jumping with your hands above your head, those few inches make a difference.”

Gibson Murad teaches her students to spin, bounce and jump in a traditional style of Scottish Highland Dance. She is a Member Highland Dance Instructor through the British Association of Teachers of Dancing, and a former Midwest Highland Dance Champion. As far as she can tell, she is the only instructor of the centuries-old dance style within the Tri-County area.

In 2012, Gibson Murad married and moved back to Michigan from New Orleans where she attended Tulane University. Originally from Metro Detroit, she and her husband settled in Greater Lansing to be close to their jobs at the State of Michigan. A dancer all her life, Gibson Murad wanted to continue her passion, but couldn’t find a studio. The answer? Form her own.

She started out slow, teaching one or two students in her home, then at local churches. Word spread fast about the unique, athletic art form choreographed to bagpipe music and rooted in cultural storytelling. Today, Gibson Murad teaches about 20 students through the Gibson School of Highland Dance, located in the Court One Training Building on Old M-78.

Her students are a mix of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. Most opt to compete and perform, while others simply attend for exercise, fun and to learn a little Scottish culture. Ever-passionate about her artistry, Gibson Murad encourages anyone and everyone to try Highland Dancing, and affirms that you don’t need to be a dancer or Scottish to leap onto the floor.

“I’ll take anyone who is willing to work,” says Gibson Murad. “The one thing is, you can’t be afraid to jump. Other than that, I’ll teach anyone who is willing to give it a shot.”

Taking the highland road

Gibson Murad started dancing when she was 10. Her father was first generation Scottish, and her grandparents immigrated to the Detroit area in the early 1900s. Her dad's cousins were dancers. When she said she wanted to try, her dad found her the best teacher he could. After one lesson with instructor Tracey Walton, Gibson Murad was instantly hooked.

“What really got me then and what I still like now is that it’s a solo art form,” she says. “You might not be on stage by yourself, but you’re performing individually. Every dance also has a story that is rooted in history. So that’s cool, too.”

Gibson Murad flourished as a dancer. Her family took her to Scotland where she met her Scottish relatives and competed in three different venues. Back home in the U.S., she went on to qualify, compete and bring home medals from high-level national competitions, including four consecutive appearances at the United States Inter-Regional Championships for Highland Dancing. After dancing her way through high school, Gibson Murad received a partial Scottish arts scholarship to Alma College, where she competed as a Kiltie Dancer and studied with Christie Freestone.

“I’ve always been a ‘want-to-do-everything person,’” Gibson Murad laughs. “Doing multiple things in high school and college really helped shape who I am today, and taught me how to balance all different aspects of my life.”

Doing the hustle

Lisa Lemanski understands Gibson Murad’s drive to achieve. A life-long Irish dancer, the East Lansing business owner wanted to up her dance activity by adding a different discipline. She had seen dancers from Gibson Murad’s studio paired with Lansing’s Glen Erin Pipe Band, and decided to check it out.

“I Googled Highland Dance and found Allie,” says Lemanski. “She taught adults which was really important to me. I just thought I would give it a go.”

That was three years ago. Today, Lemanski is taking classes and competing. She’s donned kilts and special costumes for Michigan competitions including the Alma Highland Festival, the Saline Celtic Festival and the Spartan Tartan Highland Dance Competition on the MSU campus. She’s also stepped out during the holidays at the annual Silver Bells in the City in downtown Lansing.

“I love Allie and her patience with me,” says Lemanski. “She makes it fun. We put enough pressure on ourselves as adults and adult dancers. It’s a big stress reliever and it’s great to have such an encouraging environment.”

Lemanski persuaded her husband, Will, to take a class with Allie, too. Once a week, the Lemanskis put on sweats and gym shoes for Highland Hustle—or essentially, Scottish Zumba. Gibson Murad is one of just a handful of people certified to teach Highland Hustle in North America, and offers it Monday evenings at the drop-in rate of $5.

“We throw in some Highland Dance stuff, put on some Scottish dance and pop music, and have a Highland Hustle party,” she says. “You don’t need to know any dance steps at all. It’s a fun way to work out.”

Want to check out the Gibson Highland School of Dance? You can also find more information about classes, competitions and events at Dancers will also participate in the 34th Annual Silver Bells in the City on November 16.

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