Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
There are three kinds of Scottish dancing: Highland dancing, step dancing, and Scottish country dancing. Scottish country dancing is a social activity. Many Scots will know enough steps to get up and join in one or two Scottish country dances, but only trained dancers would attempt Highland dances. Step dancing is preserved by only a few dedicated practitioners who are doing their best to revive the art.
Scottish Country Dancing
Scottish country dancing is Scotland’s version of social partner dancing. It’s always danced in groups. Today when we think of social dancing, we think of dancing in couples, but that was not as common in earlier centuries.
If you've ever watched Pride and Prejudice you'll have seen people performing the dances from which Scottish country dancing emerged. Originally, Scottish reels were step-dances (where the dancers shuffled and stamped their feet), but when country dances from England became fashionable, the steps became more refined and the emphasis shifted to the patterns of the dance rather than the footwork. A couple of centuries later, and Scottish country dancing has become very much part of Scottish culture. No doubt some Scots would be surprised to learn where it came from!
Scottish country dancing is a great hobby, because it’s good exercise as well as being very social. If you don’t have a partner, you have the chance to dance with a number of different people. And if you do have a partner, you have to cooperate with and talk to the other couples in your group, so it’s a great ice breaker if you’ve just moved into a new neighborhood.
Danced properly, Scottish country dancing is energetic, though less so than Highland dancing. Usually, only one or two couples are dancing at any one time, so there is a chance to take a breather while you wait your turn! However, while in motion, the dancers are on their toes at all times, skipping and hopping in a variety of bouncy steps.
The dancers form into lines (or for a reel, a circle), each dancer facing his or her partner. Most dances follow a similar pattern: the top one or two couples dance with each other for a few bars, then move to the bottom of the group so the next one or two couples can have their turn.
Within that simple pattern there is scope for a huge range of choreography: for instance, the top couple can peel off and dance down the outside of the group, or weave in and out of the other dancers, or dance down the middle. Sometimes the other couples simply take a couple of steps to move up the line, and sometimes the whole group breaks into dance, crossing over or changing places multiple times until they settle down into a new order.
I should mention that some Scottish country dancers make a distinction between Scottish country and the kind of dancing done at ceilidhs (a ceilidh is a Scottish social dance). To the purists, Scottish country is dignified, courtly dancing, which adheres strictly to the correct patterns and steps. Ceilidh dancing, although using the same routines, is relaxed and even uncouth: no one worries too much about technique or doing the exact steps, the emphasis is on having fun.
Highland dance is a performance art. Like ballroom dancing, it's also recognized as a sport in Scotland. If you dance Highland dancing, you’ll probably attend classes, take exams and perhaps compete at Highland Games. It's usually danced solo, except for a few dances which are done in a duo or quartet. Sometimes you’ll see Highland dancers en masse at places like the Edinburgh Tattoo.
Like most traditional dances, the origins of Highland dance are unknown. Until quite recently, the dance was done mainly by men, and many of the dances are associated with war or conflict. The sword dance is an obvious example (said to be danced by warriors before battle - if they didn't touch the swords, it was a good omen, whereas if they cut themselves, it was bad luck). Some say the Highland Fling was danced on a shield. When you recall that a Highland shield had a sharp spike in the middle, you can imagine why the dancer jumps so high! Unfortunately, there's little documentary evidence to back up the stories.
Highland dancers wear a lighter version of full Highland dress. Outside Scotland, you'll see other costumes being worn - but to the purist, all dances except one (the Seann Triubhas) should be danced in a kilt or (for women) tartan skirt.
Other costumes are allowed in the national dances, which are a separate class of dances created in the 19th century for women, because they weren't allowed to take part in Highland dancing at the time. The national dances include Blue Bonnets, Flora MacDonald's Fancy, Scotch Measure, Scottish Lilt, The Earl of Errol, and The Village Maid. They are more delicate and balletic than the Highland dances. In the video below, you'll notice the dancers are allowed to step on the flat foot, whereas in Highland dances, it's rare for the heel to touch the ground.
Highland dance requires similar technique to ballet, including a turnout (though not as extreme as ballet), pointed toes, and curved arms.
The hand position differs from ballet, though: the middle finger and thumb are held together, with the other fingers pointing upwards. There's a lovely story associated with this position. It's said that a young man, out hunting, spotted a stag so magnificent that he couldn't bear to kill it. Instead, he came home and danced in its honor, imitating the stag's antlers with his arms and hands. It's more than likely that's a myth, but others have suggested the hands are meant to imitate a deer.
Personally, I doubt it. I've studied both ballet and belly dance, and in both those dance styles, I've seen teachers making their beginner students keep their thumb and middle finger together. It's a way of training the fingers to be quiet. In ballet or belly dance, students progress to an open-hand position. In Highland dancing, they've chosen not to.
Highland dancing shoes are soft, like ballet shoes, but secured with laces instead of ribbons or elastic. It's worth noting that soft shoes weren't used until the early 20th century, so prior to that time, dancers wouldn't have been able to point their feet, which would have had a major impact on the style of the dance. The sword dance would be much more difficult, for one thing.
Highland dancers become very fit and toned, because the dances are energetic and are danced on the balls of the feet. Because the heels almost never touch the ground, the calf muscles become large and over-developed, which girls can find embarrassing (I've never met a female Highland dancer who can wear knee-high zip boots!).
Scottish Step Dancing
Growing up in Scotland, I had no idea Scottish step dancing even existed. We danced Scottish country dances at weddings and parties, and watched Highland dancers at the Highland Games.
However, although step dancing had died out in Scotland, it had survived in Nova Scotia, especially Cape Breton, where an astonishing 30,000 Gaelic-speaking Scots settled in the 19th century. Because of the region's isolation, that community was able to preserve its traditions, including its music and dancing. In the last twenty years or so, dancers have traveled to Cape Breton to learn the old dances and bring them back to Scotland. Those teachers have been heartened to find older people in Scotland who learned to step-dance in the 1920s in Scotland, and were able to confirm the authenticity of the style.
Step dancing is a relaxed style of dance, usually improvised.
Scottish dancing has spread throughout the world with Scottish migration. Like other national dances, it's now danced by many people who have little or no connection with its country of origin, simply because it's enjoyable and challenging. Why not give it a try?
© 2017 Kate Swanson
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on December 26, 2017:
Excellent article. I enjoyed reading about these dances;. I was drawn to your article because I am a fan of the "42nd Scotland Street" series, and occasionally, the characters dance or talk about dancing.
Thank you for providing me with information about some of the different types of dances in that part of the U.K.