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Scottish country dancing at the 2005 Skagit Valley Highland Games in Mount Vernon, Washington

A Scottish country dance (SCD) or "reel" is a form of social dance involving groups of mixed couples of dancers tracing progressive patterns according to a predetermined choreography. Country dancing is often considered a type of folk dancing although this isn't strictly true because it has its roots in the courtly dances of the Renaissance.[citation needed]

When it first became popular around the 18th century, it filled the niche that is occupied today by ballroom dances[citation needed] such as the waltz or tango, as a fairly refined form of entertainment. Related dance forms include English country dancing and contra dancing.[citation needed] The connection to styles like ceilidh dancing, "Old Time" dancing, Irish set dancing, or square dance is more tenuous.[citation needed]

Also, Scottish country dancing should not be confused with Scottish highland dance, which (today) is closer to a sport rather than a social pastime, mainly being danced in competition and displays. There is a certain amount of cross-over in that there are Scottish country dances that include highland elements as well as highland-style performance dances which use formations otherwise seen in country dances, but other than that the styles do not really have a lot in common today.





Scottish country dances are categorised as reels (including hornpipes), jigs, and strathspeys according to the type of music to which they are danced. The first two types (also called quick-time dances) feature fast tempos, quick movements and a lively feel. The third type (strathspey) has a much slower tempo and a more formal, stately feel. There are also 9/8 jigs, minuets and waltz-time dances although they make up a very small part of the repertoire.

Dancers and Sets

Scottish country dancing is generally done in organised formations referred to as "sets". Sets usually consist of three or four couples, but some dances call for larger sets of five, six or even more couples. Couples are usually mixed, but women will dance with women or men with men depending on the make-up of the assembly.

The usual set shape is "longwise"---each man opposite his partner with all the men in one line facing a similar line of women. The leftmost man and his partner are called the "first" or "top" couple, and sets are generally formed such that first couple is closest to the stage with the band, CD player, or other source of music. In larger rooms several sets form a longer line running down the hall. Other, much less common types of sets include triangular sets (three couples on the sides of a triangle), square sets (four couples on the sides of a square) or square sets with extra couples in the centre. Larger formations include the "circle" where couples form a closed chain around the room and also "round-the-room" dances for couples facing couples, groups of three dancers facing each other, and so on.

Phrasing and formations

Scottish country dances are made up of figures of varying length, to suit the phrasing of Scottish country dance tunes. For the most part, figures are 2, 4, or 8 bars of music long; there has been some experimentation going on with unusually phrased music (e.g., 6-bar or 10-bar phrases) but this remains highly unusual. There are various kinds of figures ranging from the very simple (like a couple changing places across the set giving right hands) to fairly intricate evolutions involving three or four couples at the same time. These figures are combined to form a sequence of (normally) 32 bars---there are dances which are as short as 16 bars or as long as 64 bars. This sequence is then repeated several (often 8) times to form the complete dance. Dances of much longer than 64 bars exist, but are only danced through once. Dances are described by their music type, length and number of repetitions. A 32 bar strathspey danced 8 times will be described as "an eight by thirty-two Strathspey", and this will often be shortened to 8x32 S, to fit on a dance card or programme .

Steps and Technique

Unlike céilidh dancing or English country dancing, which are mostly done using walking steps, Scottish country dancing calls for special footwork according to a dance's choreography. Travelling steps include the skip-change of step in quick-time dances and the Strathspey travelling step in strathspey time, while setting steps include the pas de basque in quick time and the common schottische or Strathspey setting step in strathspey time. Some dances also involve special setting steps from Highland dancing, such as the rocking step, high cuts, or Highland schottische. In quick time, there is also the slip step for quick sideways movement, e.g., in circles.

In SCD, there is often a certain focus on "correct technique", and this applies especially to footwork and the positions of the feet at various points during the steps. While well-executed steps do look quite impressive, their mastery involves some time and dedication and also a certain level of physical fitness---but with SCD being an inclusive type of pastime, the dance community does not discriminate against those who do not match the highest standards. In fact, in many places the main object of SCD is having fun, and while for many dancers "proper" footwork is an important part of that, others can apparently do without perfection in this respect.

A much more important aspect of good SCD technique than footwork has to do with space and time, i.e., ensuring that one is at the proper location at the proper time. It is vital not to stand in other dancers' way as well as to be in place in time for the various formations involving several dancers or couples. "Phrasing" means to execute a figure appropriately timed to the music, while "covering" means for several dancers to move in unison, forming split-second lines, squares etc. Many SCD groups like putting on "demonstrations" showing near-to-perfect dancing involving all aspects of technique.

Finally, SCD is social dancing. Hence interaction with one's partner and the other dancers, such as smiling and giving hands, is an essential part of SCD. SCD is very much a team effort, and attempts at self-glorification through unconsidered "embellishments" are often frowned upon by others. The general feeling is that "extras" are fine when the time and place are right, but should be left out when less experienced dancers in the set might be confused, or during classes.


Most Scottish country dances are "progressive", i.e., after one repetition of the figure sequence the couples end up in a different place in the set. This serves to let every couple have a go as "top couple" (or active couple), and the number of repetitions is adjusted accordingly. For example, in a four-couple dance the order of couples at the beginning of each turn could be 1234, 2341, 3412, 4123, 1234 (at which point the dance would stop). The most common arrangements are dances involving two or three couples danced in four-couple sets for eight repetitions—this means that on some turns couples may be "standing out" to watch and have a breather. For example, the order of couples in a two-couple dance would be 1234 (top two couples dancing), 2134 (middle two couples dancing), 2314 (all couples dancing), 3241, 3421, 4312, 4132, 1423, 1243 (at which point the dance would stop, couples 3 and 4 having missed out the first turn). There are also "set dances" which go through only once (e.g., Round Reel of Eight, Bonnie Anne, MacDonald of Sleat), but many of these are mostly used for displays rather than socially. They often consist of a sequence of non-repeating "figures" that add up to much more than 64 bars.

In fact, the figures and arrangement of modern Scottish country dances, while derived from a 300-year tradition, make it difficult to generalize because many newer dances feature unusual ideas such as partner changes (you get a new partner on every new turn of the dance, as in "Nighean Donn" (Nut Brown Maiden), by Peter Hastings, or "Caddam Wood" by John Mitchell), palindromic structure (the sequence of figures is similar seen from the end to the beginning as it is seen from the beginning to the end, as in "The White Heather Jig" by Cosh), fugues (the sequence of figures for each couple is intricately intertwined to resemble the structure of a musical fugue), canons (a new couple begins their turn even though the couple before haven't finished theirs yet) and others, such as John Drewry's "Crossing the Line", where the bottom of the set becomes the top for the next time through. It is very entertaining for dance devisers to "play" with the tradition and to try new ideas, although the results do not always seem to catch on!



During the early 20th century, SCD still had a part in social entertainment especially in rural Scotland, even though the number of dances within the active repertoire had gone down to only a few. Country dancing was in danger of dying out, when in 1923 the Scottish Country Dance Society (SCDS) was founded in Glasgow with the goal of preserving "country dances as danced in Scotland" (this was only recently changed to read "Scottish country dances"). The SCDS began to collect and publish the remaining dances as well as reconstruct (or reinterpret) dances from old sources that were no longer being danced. In the process, the dances and technique, which might differ considerably depending on where in Scotland a dance would be collected, were strictly standardized, which from the point of view of preservation was of course a terrible thing to do, but which paved the way for universal "compatibility" among dancers from (eventually) all over the world. The efforts of the SCDS became quite popular, and its influence on the training of physical education teachers meant that most Scottish children would be exposed to at least a minimum of SCD during school. The Society achieved Royal patronage in 1947 and henceforth became known as the RSCDS (for "Royal" Scottish Country Dance Society).

Fairly soon after the inception of the SCDS people started inventing new dances in the spirit of the older ones, but also introducing new figures not part of the "traditional" canon. Today there are over 11.000 dances catalogued, of which fewer than 1.000 can be considered "traditional". Anybody can come up with a new dance, but many dances are of local importance only; the RSCDS does publish collections of new dances every so often but does not try to control the invention of new material. Neither is it in a position to dictate how dances are danced and who may teach them, but the Society does hold significant influence since they teach the majority of Scottish country dance teachers, and their canon of dances makes up a very large proportion of the "global" repertoire that one can expect to meet wherever Scottish country dancing takes place.

Modern SCD has evolved considerably from the early 1700s, with the constant devising of new dances, new concepts, informal variations and entirely new ideas appear. As a pursuit, Scottish country dancing is no longer confined to Scotland. Active communities can be found throughout the world - in the rest of Britain, continental Europe, Canada and the US as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, with occasional groups in places as diverse as Russia, South Africa, Argentina and Hong Kong. Gay and lesbian Scottish country dancing groups, first being organised in London and now in Manchester and Edinburgh aptly named The Gay Gordons offer same-sex Scottish country dancing, and the London group uses "leaders" and "followers" instead of "men" and "ladies" .

See also

External links


  • Cope-Robinson, Lyn, Beginning Scottish Country Dance, A Dancer's Manual (edited by June Milton). Canmore Press, Melbourne Beach, Florida, 1995. ISBN 1-887774-00-9.
  • Emmerson, George S. Scotland Through Her Country Dances. 2nd ed. London, Ontario: Galt House, 1981.
  • Emmerson, George S. A Social History of Scottish Dance: Ane Celestial Recreatioun. Montreal, Quebec, and London, Ontario: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1972.
  • Flett, Joan, and Thomas M. Flett. Traditional Dancing in Scotland. 1964. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.
  • Foss, Hugh. Notes on Evolution in Scottish Country Dancing. Dumfries: S. & U.N. Ltd. (Standard Office), 1973.
  • Hood, Evelyn M. The Story of Scottish Country Dancing: The Darling Diversion. Great Britain: Collins, 1980.
  • Lockhart, G. W. Highland Balls and Village Halls: A Look at the Scot and His Dancing. Barr, Ayrshire: Luath Press Ltd., 1985.
  • Thurston, Hugh. Scotland's Dances. Reprint edition. Kitchener, Ontario: Teacher's Association (Canada), 1984.


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