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Issue 35 - Everything you need to know about... Scottish dancing

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 35
November 2007


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Everything you need to know about... Scottish dancing

First it is important to separate Scottish country dancing from Highland dancing. The essential difference is that Scottish country dancing is social, danced by couples, and comprises reels (circle dances), jigs, and Strathspeys (long dances). Highland dancing is ceremonial, and performed solo.

The actual origins of Scottish country dancing are vague, but it has been noted that the Reel of Four has figurative associations with ancient Pictish/Druid symbolism. It is also known that Longwise dancing was popular in the Court of the Stewart kings, and in 1580, James VI is on record as making a payment to one William Hudson for ‘teaching us to dance.’ In the reign of his daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, a number of formal dances were introduced to the palace of Holyrood from the French court. At the same time, it should be noted that the ‘Ring’ dance was a great favourite with farming folk in the south of Scotland.

Scottish country dancing, as we know it today, began to emerge in the late 18th century, encouraged by the lairds as a form of entertainment for their house guests, and for formal balls held in their castles and mansions. Danced to accordion and fiddle bands, its popularity soon spread throughout Scotland, being not only enjoyed in the big houses, but at village ceilidhs, where an entire neighbourhood would turn out, old and young. That is the special charm of Scottish country dancing; it is classless, informal or formal as required, and can be enjoyed by all ages.

Moreover, it is good, healthy exercise!

There are currently 11,000 Scottish country dances and reels catalogued, but at most social occasions these are restricted to the favourites – The Gay Gordons, The Waltz Country Dance, The Dashing White Sergeant, the Eightsome and Foursome Reels, Hamilton House, The Duke of Perth (also known as Broun’s Reel), and the more modern Reel of the 51st Division, which was devised by a group of Second World War soldiers held captive in Colditz.

Each dance features variations on the various movements: setting and turning, casting off, pas de basque, figure of eight, swings and corners. The music creates the pace, and an interesting recent phenomena is that new generations have introduced new steps and ideas. The ‘helicopter-turn’ is a recent innovation, as is the ‘Aberdonian’ version of the Reel of the 51st, where, instead of waiting their turn, everybody taking part sets and turns at the same time.

The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS) was formed in Edinburgh in 1923, receiving ‘Royal’ status in 1947.

Arecent trend, but still within the remit of Scottish country dancing, has been ceilidh dancing, which has very much caught on with the younger generation. Fiercely uptempo, it often involves a caller and is great fun to participate in, but lacks the grace of the more traditional occasion.

With Highland dancing, which evolved during the 19th and 20th centuries, steps are standardised by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) and competitions are held worldwide. In the United States, six geographic regions hold a qualifying competition each spring from which the top three finalists from each region are selected to compete at the United States Inter-Regional Highland Dancing Championships. Traditionally danced to the sound of the bagpipes, the key dances are the Sword Dance or Ghillie Callum, the Highland Fling, the Seann Triubhas (which enacts the kicking off of the trews following the 1783 Act of Parliament which reinstated the wearing of the kilt), the Strathspey and Highland Reel, the Scottish Lilt, Flora MacDonald’s Fancy, Scotch Measure, and the Earl of Errol.

The SOBHD was formed in 1950 through a wish by the major Highland Dance Examining Bodies, plus other teachers and leading dancers in the UK at that time, to have a supervisory Board, comprising delegates from the many different organisations involved in Highland Dance. Since its earliest days the Board has maintained a worldwide judges panel to which entry is by examination.

A worldwide registration scheme for dancers is also operated. Competitive dancers register with the local SOBHD agents within their own country, i.e. ABHDI (Australia), OBHDA (SA) (South Africa), ScotDance Canada (Canada), and FUSTA (USA).

Dancers carry an SOBHD registration card which shows their current performance category or level and it entitles them to compete at all competitions within that category anywhere in the world.

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