A mid 1970s student tabbing on SAS Selection.
When I undertook Selection as a student way back in the mid 1970s, there was no such thing as the Fan Dance.
However, I have to admit that when it was introduced a few years later, it was nothing but a good thing.
Selection numbers back then would range from approximately 80-120 students, depending on how busy and committed to operations around the globe British military units were. It wasn’t so much the release of individuals to attend Selection, but the time available for those individuals to get in some quality training as a lead up to Selection. My Selection course for example was under the 100 mark, with only 6 of us passing at the end.
So, why did I say that it was a good thing?
Well, here’s why: On my Selection, the first couple of weeks definitely had students who were in my opinion not up to the mark, still being retained in the early stages, while they had no chance of actually passing the physical phase. They struggled just to keep up with the group that they were in. We would all spend days on the hills as groups of 30 or so with an instructor, showing our navigation skills (or not), to ensure ultimately that we could all then be broken down into smaller groups, before being set off in pairs then individually for day and night exercises onward, then ultimately on to Test Week as individuals.
Without being derogatory to any one individual, those “hangers on” were taking up valuable 4 tonner (truck) space every day, when space to stretch out was a premium to each individual travelling to and from the exercise area for up to 2 hours at a time, sometimes in freezing conditions. In cold damp weather, stretching out in our “fartsacks” was paramount. Especially on the return journey after changing into dry kit after the tab, remembering that this method of transport to and from the exercise areas takes place day after day.
A few years after passing the Selection course, I became an instructor on Training Wing. I would now see and be part of the Fan Dance. I love tabbing with a bergen…even today, many moons after retiring from the military. My forte was to be the hare at the front of the group going over the Fan. I would carry about 4 or 5 pounds more than the students…in order to lead by example.
I’d brief the students to enjoy the moment, and stay on my shoulder if you want to. As for those students who have prepared correctly for Selection, you can now afford to give it a blast…well give it a blast they did!
One such student a young Royal Engineers’ Captain, was on my shoulder right from the start at the Story Arms. He talked with me all the way over, and all the way back. I kept asking him if he was fine? He most certainly was, in fact in truth…I was holding him back. We did the Fan Dance in 2 hours and 47 minutes with what was supposed to be 45lb bergens. When we finished back at the Storey Arms, he said to me that it was all very well for me, as I’m tabbing with a lighter bergen than his! I took him over to the scales hanging on the side of one of the 4 tonners, placed my bergen on it, and the needle swung around to 49lbs. He was stunned, and apologized profusely, saying that he couldn’t believe that an instructor would carry the same or in this case more than the student. I reminded him that it’s the SAS that he’s here to get into. Leadership, no matter the rank is all by example, and indeed that hopefully he’ll find out that once into the Regiment, the loads only get heavier. He was no doubt an absolute flyer. I always prided myself in the ability to tab over the mountains with heavy loads at speed (just a shame I couldn’t soldier), however this individual was arguably the fittest and fastest man I’d ever get to see on Selection. Needless to say, he flew through the remainder of the Selection course, but sadly piled in on the jungle phase later on. His body had trouble adapting to the damp and hot clammy conditions of the jungle interior, and he had to leave the course. He was a wonderful individual, had proven already to be a good soldier and leader, and therefore, yet another statistic that would become a great loss to the Regiment in my view. I would see some awesome individuals leave courses early due to injury or hidden health issues over the years…a great shame for us, but a greater shame for them…I’m sure.
I’d always had between 1 and maybe 4 students come in on my shoulder…others in small groups straddled out behind…followed by the “non swimmers,” those who took longer than the extremely fair cut off time allowed. Way back then, it was 4 hours or a wee bit over, depending on ground and weather conditions…my granny could do the Fan Dance with 45lbs in 4 hours.
Today, I see that there are civilian events that raise funding for good causes by organizing a controlled version of the Fan Dance. Well, that sits really well with me…money for good causes, while individuals who pay, can test themselves on the hills…all good, and a win- win in my mind.
So, here we are…the truth and brief history of the Fan Dance. Although it’s a great day’s blow out on the hills, please remember just why it was added to the SAS Selection course…to give more 4 tonner space to those students that prepared realistically to attend Selection…that’s all!