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Relatively Speaking: We catch up with Michelle and Betty

By Joanne Sweeney

Michelle Johnston is the choreographer of the Highland dance troupe at next week’s Belfast Tattoo at the Odyssey Arena while her mother Betty makes costumes for the dancers. Michelle lives in Crossnagreevy on the outskirts of Belfast and has four brothers William (30), Richard (29), Graham (23) and Jeffrey (17).

Name: Michelle Johnston

Age: 25

Occupation: Highland Dance teacher

Relationship to Betty: Daughter

I choreographed the Scottish dancing at last year's Belfast Tattoo and this year I can promise that the dancing will be bigger and better.

I had 25 dancers last year, we have 44 this time, and we will be dancing four sets compared to two.

We will be doing traditional Highland dancing in our kilt costumes for our opening set, followed by some Scottish national dancing.

I've been dancing since I was three and went to classes for ballet, tap, jazz and Irish dancing – and loved them all.

I had been doing very well at Irish dancing, but Highland dancing came along much later. I got involved as part of a cultural project linking Scotland and Ireland when I was 12. My granny, Sally Irvine, would take me over to Scotland for weekends where I would enter two or three competitions.

I started my own dance class when I was 17 and was probably the youngest dancer in Northern Ireland to get my associate diploma in teaching.

I'm now full-time and have 40 students in my own dance school, but teach many other young dancers in schools and community groups. I could be teaching as many as 100 students each week and have classes every day of the week, sometimes several in one day.

Mum has really developed her skills at costume-making over the years. She has made mine since I was starting out at 12. She's now known as Auntie Betty to the young dancers. As I started to teach other dancers, she would make costumes for others just to help out. Now everybody goes to her because her work is so good.

The demand for classes and costumes is so high, both mum and I could be even busier.

Mum is so good and friendly, everybody loves her. She really enjoys the buzz of the atmosphere backstage at the competitions. Mum has been there to support me every step of the way and I couldn't manage without her."

Name: Betty Johnston

Age: 53

Occupation: Costume maker

Relationship to Michelle: Mother

When Michelle had just turned three, I heard about a ballet school in Cregagh that had opened. I took her to it one day and was told by the teacher that she didn't start any pupils until they were four, but that she could sit and watch the others dance.

Well, Michelle couldn't sit and watch as her feet just kept going so she got up and joined in. As Michelle had been toilet trained very early, the teacher agreed to take her so she was at ballet class a year before her time. Dancing for Michelle just took off after that, it was just one form of dance after the other for her.

I'll be working behind the scenes each night of this year's Belfast Tattoo, although this time I hope to get to watch Michelle and the troupe dancing as I was so busy the last time that I missed seeing her on stage.

I used to love the sewing class at school and would have made my own children's fancy dress costumes for school for Halloween – it was a challenge as every year we had to come up with something original!

Making their outfits was my pride and joy, and they were always winners in the competitions.

Highland dance has become Michelle's job and it seems it's going to be my job now since the family has all grown up.

If I have to, I'll stay up through the night working on the costumes as I just love doing it.

Michelle and her troupe recently had a four-day practice session for the tattoo at the Lough Moss Centre in Carryduff. Since they were going to be put through their paces for such long hours, Michelle asked me if I could help out with the catering and I was happy to do so – when it's for the children, I would do anything for them.

Our involvement in Scottish dancing and Michelle's dance school can take over the house and everybody ends up doing their bit.

Michelle is just an absolutely super girl and always gives 100% no matter what she's doing. She's very dedicated to her students and her dance. She takes pride in everything she does and she always likes things to be perfect."

Centre stage at Belfast Tattoo

Michelle Johnston and her dance troupe will perform in three segments of the Belfast Tattoo, Odyssey Arena, from September 4-6 (; For Highland Dance lessons and costume enquiries, please visit

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