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About Traditional Dance

Vigorous · light · joyous · stomping · elevating · vibrant · wild · precise

Scotland is alive with traditional dancing. Thousands of people of all ages participate and watch traditional dance in Scotland and throughout the world.

Written material on Scottish dancing dates back to the 1700s. Over time, particular styles have evolved and many geographical areas of Scotland have their own unique dance variations. It is commonly accepted that the Reel is the only truly indigenous dance to Scotland. This was a dance for three or more people where steps were danced on the spot alternating with everyone doing usually the same travelling step around in a circle or in a figure of eight. Partly due to their location, The Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland all danced their own reels late into the 1800s before the introduction of more modern dances. Shetland has particularly invested in keeping their traditional Reels alive and many are danced today. Start tapping your toe to the sound of the pipes or fiddle and you are on the way to Scottish dancing.

For ease of description, Scottish traditional dance can broadly be described as four different styles, with certain techniques, moves, footwork, patterns common to all. Dances of the same name, for example Reel of Tulloch, can be performed in a different style, changing the feel and the look of the dance. Whether it’s ceilidh dancinghighland dancingscottish-country dancing or step-dance Scottish music on the pipes, fiddle, accordion and Gaelic song joins and celebrates it all.

Ceilidh dancing
People gather informally to dance popular dances like the Gay Gordons, Strip the Willow and Dashing White Sergeant. Ceilidh dancing is popular at weddings, celebrations and festivals and many communities have a ceilidh dance calendar. Most dances are done in couples or in sets of three, four, six, or eight. They are easy to learn and often there is a dance-caller at a dance to explain what to do or one can just join in and learn on the move. Ceilidh dancing has developed from a time when people gathered in a house and music was played or someone would ‘diddle’ the tune or sing puirt-a-beul (mouth music). Some of the dances back then were the Scotch Reel, Reel of Tulloch and Highland Schottische and versions of these are still done in ceilidhs today. Sometimes ceilidh dances with the same name are danced with variations depending on the geographical area. A Canadian Barn dance or Schottische is danced a little differently in South Uist than it is in Braemar. Ceilidh dancing has happened and still does, anywhere people want to get together and dance, from a kitchen to a large hall, and there has been  a tradition of dancing on bridges and roads. Fun, enjoyment and bringing people together with well-known dances defines ceilidh dancing. A great Ceilidh is not without a great Ceilidh band, as the music plays a fundamental part to the dancing with the right tempo and tunes suited to the dances. Old Time Dancing in Scotland is another social form of dance including dances like the Eva 3 Step, Waltzes, Swing and Ballroom.

This is probably both the oldest and youngest form of traditional dance in Scotland. Solo step-dancing developed out of the stepping on the spot from the old Reels. Until around 1992 step-dancing was rarely seen or danced in Scotland and few people knew about it. It’s rediscovery partly occurred through the visits and teaching in Scotland of Cape Breton step dancers, in particular Harvey Beaton and Mary Janet Macdonald. This dancing was kept very much alive in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada by Scottish immigrants who settled there in the late 1700’s. The style is exciting, percussive footwork, danced in hard-soled shoes to music played at a particularly tempo on pipes, whistle, fiddle or puirt-a-beul (mouth music). That is, beating ones heels, toes and feet in as many ways as possible and imaginable, keeping time with the rhythms of the music in strathspey, reel and jig time. There are many steps that can be learned passed on through family generations.  The style has never been prescribed, except dancing steps neat and close to the floor. Many dancers have their own individual style and steps they like to do to particular tunes. Scottish traditional step-dancing seen in Scotland today has been learned from Cape Breton step dancers, this in turn originated in Scotland. Some of the beats of the feet from step-dancing can be seen in many of Scotlands other traditional dances, for example in Highland (Flowers of Edinburgh), Hebridean (Till A-Rithist/Aberdonian Lassie), Ceilidh (Jacky Tar).

Highland Dancing
Highland dancing is possibly the best known of Scotlands dance traditions at home and throughout the world. Almost everyone has an image of a kilted dancer performing the Highland Fling or the Gille Callum/Sword Dance to the sound of the pipes. Gille Callum is known as the oldest of the Highland dances. Highland dancing was historically danced by men and was part of training in the Highland regiments. The dancing requires strength to perform with continuous jumps, high leaps, intricate arm and footwork, balance and poise. There are  many beautiful dances including the National dances, Blue Bonnets and the Scottish Lilt. Some of these are almost balletic, highlighting influences from the dancing of the French courts. Highland dancing plays an important part of Highland Games and at many games there are competitions.  Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon has been host to the Scottish and World Highland Dancing Championships since 1934.  The 'Hebridean Dances' named by their origin can be seen danced by Highland dancers and step-dancers. The style is more relaxed than Highland, with the arms held lower, the knees more bent and some of the steps are similar to the footwork in step-dancing.  They were taught in the Western Isles in the mid 1800s by the dance master Ewen MacLachlan. 

Scottish Country Dancing
Scottish Country dancing is slightly more formal than ceilidh dancing.  Care is taken to preserve the technique of the dances whilst still enjoying the social aspect of the dance. In the 1700s, many Country Dances were held in grand, elegant halls and attended by prosperous members of society. Techniques were influenced by the dance styles of the period and the traditions of the reels danced in the Scottish countryside. Scottish Country Dances are still held in castles and stately homes and in city, town and village halls with dances like the Reel of the 51st, or the Duke of Perth/Broun’s Reel. The dances are made up of four or five couples facing each other to form sets and are characterised by the top couple in a set progressing to the bottom with the dance repeated for everyone to come back to their starting positions. There are numerous intricate formations in Scottish Country Dances and the setting and travelling steps, use of hands, and patterns are danced with a respect for the fine details of the dances. There are also dances in the formation of a square set danced by four couples, the Quadrilles, introduced from France in the 1800s with originally four, five or six figures. The Quadrilles danced in South Uist are greatly enjoyed today. There are thousands of Scottish Country dances and new dances are being created all the time. The music of strathspeys, jigs, reels, waltzes, polkas, and hornpipes all play a significant part in Scottish Country dancing.