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Playing for Dance

Guest Blog by Pat Ballantyne

In my recently completed PhD thesis, I considered the attitudes of Scottish traditional musicians towards dance and dancers towards music, and assessed how these attitudes might have evolved. A common theme emerged from the musicians and dancers I interviewed: to play successfully for dance, musicians should also be dancers.

I interviewed musicians and dancers involved with Highland dancing, percussive step dance and ceilidh dancing. These styles of dance share a largely common musical repertoire through the use of strathspeys, reels and jigs. Each style places different requirements on how the music is performed in relation to tempo, style and rhythmic emphasis. My respondents identified that there is very little available in the way of training for musicians in any of these styles – other than developing their own awareness of the different requirements of each dance style.

Highland dancers concentrate on achieving technical excellence in their performance of each dance. This means that they concentrate on the beat of the music rather than on the melody. Two dancers described their experience at a competition where the piper ‘started playing a tune that we’d never heard of, and we couldn’t work out where the beat was [...] And then the judges saw we were completely lost, and stopped the piper to get him to play a different tune’.

Dance piping and solo competitive piping are very different disciplines. One piper, with experience of both, explained that Highland dance piping is ‘a very different way of approaching the music’. He continued:

I could understand why I had been told not to [play for Highland dancing] because it’s actually quite difficult to change your musical mind set. You have to pass aside a lot of the things you’ve been told, especially in terms of tempo. Marches, strathspeys, reels and jigs – these are the kind of tunes that solo players play in competition. Although they have the names of dances – the strathspey, the reel, the jig – there’s no way that a dancer could dance to the performance of a solo [competitive] piper playing these tunes. They’ve been altered beyond danceability.

Not only is it difficult for pipers to adapt their style of playing, but many pipers may not even be aware of the need to adapt.


Some percussive step dancers I interviewed felt that the music performed in Scotland was not suited to their style of dancing. It can be difficult to fit the often complicated footwork to it. One dancer noted that when preparing for teaching, he would choose recordings from Cape Breton over Scottish recordings, although, he explained, ‘occasionally you might find one or two tracks on a Blazin’ Fiddles album, but not everything [is suitable for dancing]. You would really be hard pushed’.

Another dancer made a similar observation after experiencing disappointment trying to step dance to Scottish music. She had expected that ‘almost any traditional Scottish music should be suitable [and] you could step dance to it. But I’ve found that that’s not the case’. It appears that a problem for step dancers in Scotland is that not many musicians are aware of the rhythmic emphasis and impetus that the dance style demands.

Musicians have different conceptions of what constitutes excitement and interest for ceilidh dancers but perhaps excitement and interest may not be what the dancer requires. Some novice ceilidh dancers told me that what they needed most from the music was a steady beat. They were so concerned with the physical geography of the dances that they were not particularly aware of melodic or key changes and changes in tempo could throw them right off track. A steady pulse meant that ‘it’s easier to keep with the music for dancing’ as one dancer explained. As dancers became more familiar with the dances their musical awareness increased, but even experienced dancers noted that they needed a strong, steady beat from the band to ‘hold everything together’.

It seems that the more understanding the musician has of the needs of the dancer, the more successful the experience will be for both dancers and musicians.

If you are a musician who aspires to play for dancing, get yourself along to a dance class!


Pat Ballantyne is a dance scholar at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, researching traditional Scottish music and dance. She has a particular interest in Scottish dancing masters and the influences that have contributed to the current state of traditional music and dance in Scotland.

Pat has been dancing, teaching and playing in a cèilidh band for a number of years and has taught step dance in schools, at fèisean, and at community workshops. She has performed in Scotland, Europe and in Cape Breton Island where she has learned from some of the best contemporary step dancers.


The Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland and Traditional Music Forum together with fiddler, Iain Fraser, are hosting a Playing for Dance workshop for musicians at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Saturday, 17 September. Find out more.