Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

Charlie Mill as an adjudicator for Highland dancing often receives the "What if "and "I wonder" questions. He has given me permission to share some of the most common with you. Mr. Mill is an adjudicator with the SOHDA and you will find other of his articles on this articles page. Loraine Ritchey

"I WONDER………" by Charlie Mill

I'm sure that at some time or other, while attending Highland Games or dancing competitions, you have all overheard fellow spectators asking each other questions on various aspects of Highland Dancing. Surely you have heard the dancer's mothers inquiring as to "She touched the sword- shouldn't she be disqualified" or "she ended up in the wrong place at the Reel- what's the ruling on this?" As a dancing adjudicator for many years at most of Scotland's top games "Braemar, Aboyne etc." I have been asked many many times to settle judging points regarding every aspect of Highland Dancing. So I've gathered together just "some" of the basic queries that are often requested along with their solutions, which will hopefully clear up some of those doubts that may have been on your mind and you've never thought of delving deeper into!

Q. This first simple query was put to me by a piping colleague who asked what procedure should be taken if a piper, say, plays three steps instead of four and stops before the end of the dance?

A. Obviously, as it is no fault of the dancers, then they would be requested by the adjudicator to re-dance, if possible after a short resting period. If the adjudicator has already made any decisions or awarded marks then these should be retracted and a new set of marks awarded for the redance.

Q. On the other hand, if a dancer makes the mistake of executing only three instead of four, and stands while the other competitors continue, then what penalty should he or she pay?

A. The individual is automatically disqualified

Q. It was the parents of Nicola Souness (the present British Open Professional Senior Highland Dancing Champion (Dancers note this was at the time of the article) who asked me about a particular step from one of our most graceful solo dances. During the "leap step" in the "Shean Truibhais" what should the adjudicator's reaction be to a dancer who performs a leap three or four inches off the platform while another dancer doing the same step, leaps three or four feet off the ground?

A. The principle point to remember here is that the counting of the first bar of this step is 1,2,3 and 4. This means that the leap movement "landing" in 5th position should be executed on the first count-1. So the adjudicator should look for the dancer to land on the first count, whether he or she attains a "low" leap or exaggerates (as most dancers do nowadays!) with an enormous "over" leap which often technically puts them out of time and so causes the remaining counts (2,3, and 4) to be rushed.

Q The progressive Strathspey and Reel formations can often be confusing to a very young and inexperienced dancer, and lots of mums often inquire as to the ruling in event of dancers (a) colliding or (b) over swinging into the wrong place at a Highland Reel and so causing confusion in the set?

A. It is up to each individual dancer to ensure that he or she has plenty of space between dancers on either side before the commencement of each dance. In the two cases mentioned, both competitors may be disqualified, unless in the adjudicators opinion the action was deliberate to disqualify the offending dancer.

Q. At most games and dancing competitions the adjudicator is often confronted with a steward who has gracefully stepped in at the last moment but unfortunately hasn't a clue how to place swords on a dancing platform! "Is there a definite method of placing the sword and scabbard on the platform?"

A. When a sword and scabbard are used, the open end of the scabbard should be placed on the left hand side with the blade of the sword crossing on top to make four equal quarters. When two swords are used, the first sword is placed as described for the scabbard, the hilt being to the left.

Q. At traditional Highland and Hebridean dances the adjudicator looks mainly at the footwork, positions, deportment and overall execution of each dance. Lee Anton, a dancing teacher from Australia asked of me that at character dances like the Sailor's Hornpipe and Irish Jig, what are the adjudicators actually looking for and how are the marks evaluated?

A. Well, Lee, during the Sailors Hornpipe the everyday tasks of a deckhand should be displayed, such as swabbing decks, climbing ropes, etc. In other words, the dancer should "look" like a sailor! The Irish Jig is a dance "supposedly" performed by a "mad" woman! Hence the wild skirt movements, shaking of fists, etc. So the adjudicator should study each dancers "character" as well as the footwork and armwork during each performance and mark accordingly with all aspects in mind.

Q. Dancer Jaime Reynolds from Halifax, Nova Scotia inquires as to the most popular question concerning the "Sword Dance" What is the rule as to a dancer touching, moving or totally "scattering " their sword during a performance of this traditional dance.

A. It may appear to many that when a dancer's foot comes into contact with the sword the instant disqualification is the answer, but there are many factors the adjudicator has to take into consideration. The severity of the "touch" can be broken up as follows- in the event of "tipping" or "rocking" of the sword, 5 points should be deducted from the final mark. In the case of displacement of the sword then the dancer should be disqualified.

By using the above guidelines, a dancer who has performed well but has tipped the sword can sometimes be placed in 3rd or 4th place, obviously depending upon the standard of the other competitors. Many adjudicators already use the above method or one of similar standing to give the dancer every possible chance during their performance of the "Sword Dance"
These are some of the questions that are fired at me throughout the dancing calendar. I am sure there are many more queries on Highland Dancing you would like explained in detail. If so please feel free to ask away and I will do my best to reply.

NOTE: I will forward any questions to Mr. Mill that you may have : Loraine August 2001

As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at

Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.