Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

The Dances of Scotland! This column for a number of years now has dealt with the Highland dances and dancers of Scotland. However there are more than just the few Highland dances covered monthly in "Dancer". Around the world in every place where the heritage of Scotland has landed there are others dancers and dances being performed and enjoyed. These dancers and dances fall under the category of "Scottish Country Dance" Since I am unfamiliar with the "ins and outs" of Scottish Country dance, I have asked those that are very knowledgeable to bring their "dancing and dances" to readers of this column. One such person is Anselm Lingnau, RSCDS teacher and instigator of the Strathspey e-mail discussion list on Scottish Country Dance. Anselm is in Frankfurt, Germany. Anslem has graciously agreed to allow me to print the article

Neville Popes dancers from Australia

What Is Scottish Country Dancing, Anyway?

Scottish country dancing (or SCD, for short) is a modern form of the `country dancing' popular in England and Scotland in the 18th century. It involves groups of six to ten people (most of the time) of mixed sex (most of the time) -- a "set" -- dancing to the driving strains of reels, jigs and strathspeys played on the fiddle, accordion, flute, piano, drums, etc. (no bagpipes, mostly!).

The dance often combines solo figures for the "first couple" in the set with movements for all the dancers, although there is considerable variation -- there are over 7000 different dances catalogued, of which maybe 1000 or so are of lasting and non-local importance. Many of these dances derive from traditional sources such as old manuscripts and printed dance collections, but a lot have been devised in the fairly recent past, say the last fifty years or so. This fusion of the traditional and the modern as well as its ongoing evolution are part of the attraction of Scottish country dancing.

Think of SCD as a cross between square or contra dance (although there is no caller) and ballet; there are about a dozen basic figures which will get you through quite a number of dances, although many dances have their own quirks and specialties which make them unique and fun to dance. There is also more emphasis on "steps" than in, say, ceilidh dancing, but the basic technique can be learned at a week-end workshop or through a couple of months' worth of practice evenings once a week. Even though there are so many dances, you don't have to learn any of them by heart if you don't want to -- the program for balls and social evenings are usually published well before the event, so everybody can check their crib sheets. Also, at the event itself dances are often recapitulated or even sometimes walked through slowly before the music starts (although local custom may vary).

SCD is a very social form of dancing, not only because you get to dance with seven or so people at once instead of just with one partner (smiles and eye contact are almost mandatory, and if you want there is a lot of opportunity for relaxed "flirting") but also because there are workshops, balls and social dances being held in places all over the world. It is nice to be able to travel and join a SCD group for a night nearly everywhere you go.

When country dancing came to Scotland in the 18th century, it was at first popular among the townspeople in places like Edinburgh, but spread throughout Scotland (at varying pace) and thrived there even when, during the 19th and early 20th century, more modern dances like the waltz, one-step etc. became fashionable in other places. Country dancing in Scotland was also influenced by other Scottish dances such as highland reels and so acquired a particular "Scottish" flavor.

In 1923, the Scottish Country Dance Society (SCDS, later "Royal" Scottish Country Dance Society or RSCDS) was founded in order to preserve traditional Scottish country dancing. Its patrons went out to watch people dance and collect the dances for publication. In the process, they also tried to reconstruct and publish dances from old manuscripts that were no longer actually danced, and standardized technical points like steps and footwork (which the common folk rarely bothered a lot about). It is debatable whether this standardization was actually a good thing as far as preserving the tradition of Scottish country dancing was concerned, but it has certainly done a lot for making SCD into something that can be enjoyed internationally. In fact, Scottish country dancing is probably more alive today than it ever was in the past, and this is to a very large extent due to the efforts of the RSCDS.

Today the RSCDS numbers about 25.000 members and has "branches" in various countries all over the world. Lots of SCD group's worldwide are affiliated with the RSCDS even though they aren't actually branches of the Society, and even more people enjoy SCD without being members of the RSCDS (or any group) at all.

This brings "Dancer" across the English Channel to David Hynes, David writes:
"I'm not at all sure how much you know about the country dancing world so I'll tell you something about our forthcoming trip to Peru.

I'm going with a team called Dunedin Dancers from Edinburgh. www.dunedindancers.org.uk They have a long history of sending teams to perform abroad and hold their own festival every 2 years when foreign teams are invited to Edinburgh for a week.

Most of the members come from Edinburgh but some are pretty far flung and meeting for practices is always a problem. We have 26 dancers going to Peru, 12men and 14 women and in addition we are taking a piper an accordion player and a fiddler. The youngest dancer is 21 the oldest is 60, so we're a mixed bunch!

We're a pretty cosmopolitan crowd as among the Scots and English are 2 Frenchmen a German and a Spaniard. They all took up Scottish dancing while studying in Britain. I myself have visited 10 different countries with various dance teams but this will be the first time that I have danced in South America, and I have yet to meet any other dancer who has performed in Peru.

We're going to perform in a big folk dance festival based in the city of Trujillo in Northern Peru, there are 3 other European teams plus a whole array of South American teams. Our program consists of a mixture of Country and Highland dances as well as a few dances that belong to both camps.

The country dances consist of groups of social dances (usually written for 4 couples) woven into choreographed sets of 3 or 4 dances. Some of the dances are very old traditional dances; some are very new, including 1 or 2 written by the team members themselves.

I don't know if you are aware, but Scottish country dancing is very much a living tradition - there are literally 1000s of dances based on about 30 different figures. I would think that at every hour of every day, somebody somewhere in the world is devising a new dance! We dance the 3 basic dance tempos, reel, jig and stathspey - these are exactly comparable to the corresponding highland tempos. We have audience participation dances and expect to run a few dance workshops for the general public.

We are also going to perform some highland dances, looking at the dance performance list, I see the Highland Fling, Highland Laddie, the Seann Truibhas, Lilt, Foursome reel and Hullachan. Only one of our dancers - one of the women -is an ex-competition dancer. However 5 of the men and a few of the women will also be performing highland - the 4some reel/hulachan teams will be all male as will the Fling performers. As I said, only one of the dancers is competition trained, but really does it matter?

You may ask how come so many of the country dancers can dance highland - well many country dances contain a few highland steps. These are usually based on 4some reel steps such as balance/PdeB, cuts and points and so on. Having learned these, many of he dancers go a step further and find a class where they can learn the highland dances. These classes are sometimes, but not always taught by an ex-comp dancer.

Many of the bigger Scottish country dance clubs offer weekly highland or ladies step-dance classes Because the dancers are usually adults, virtually none of them has the inclination to go in to competition dancing. As adults, they learn the dances quickly. They don't have the precision of competition dancers, but again, does this really matter?

When we dance displays, we are imparting the culture of the country and also demonstrating it's traditions and to my mind there is very little that is traditional about modern day competition dancing. Competition dancing is, to my mind, only a part of the Highland dance world, which includes Scottish Country dance groups, International dance groups, the Army, university dance groups etc. all with their own style, but all carrying on the tradition.

Incidentally, all these opinions are my own and not necessarily the opinions of Dunedin dancers!

You may contact Anselm through the website http://www.strathspey.org


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

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