Scottish Dance: A Rich Mix of Cultural Influence
Posted on 15th October 2015 at 16:00
Scotland is internationally renowned for its traditional music and dance, in particular the unmistakable sound of the highland bagpipes. But the pipes are only one aspect of Scottish music: They are often used to accompany solo and competition dancing, but music for social dancing is more likely to be performed on instruments including the accordion, fiddle and flute.
The folk music of Scotland, like that of other cultures, centres predominantly around songs or ballads and dancing.
Traditional dance in Scotland has a more formal history than that of England, which is reflected in the strict conventions of Scottish reeling. Just as the music of Scotland was heavily influenced by art music from other countries, and fiddlers aspired to the same technical expertise as violinists such as Paganini, dance was, to some extent defined by the upper classes as much as by the working people.
There are four main categories of Scottish Dance:
The Country Dance
Scottish Country Dancing is mostly used at social gatherings, although it is also sometimes performed. Dancers complete each dance in sets of three, four or five couples, arranged either in two lines with the men facing the ladies, or in a square. During the course of the dance, the dancers complete a series of figures enough times to bring them back to their opening positions.
In England, the idea of the formal country dance is thought to have derived from the French contra danse, where couples dance opposite each other in a square, round or longwise set. This originated in England during the 17th century, although its roots go back as far as the Court of Elizabeth I. In 1651, John Playford, a bookseller to the Inns of Court in London, published a collection of country dances, the tunes for which were predominantly Irish and Scottish. By 1728 the book had run to its 18th print, and it is still available in various editions today!
During the 18th century, the Scottish city of Edinburgh rose in status. Formal balls became an important part of society life. Formal dance styles were also developing in the French court, and these were held by the English and Scots to be the highest form of the art in formality, gentility and style. The French dance style called the contredanse or cotillon formed the basis of the quadrille, which superseded the country dance in 19th century England. It is also considered to be the root of some styles of ceilidh dance.
The Scots, inspired by influences from Europe, began to modify the country dances, introducing more intricate steps. This precision of character and virtuosic footwork and figure became the hallmark of the many Dancing Masters in Scotland at the time.
Dancing Masters were travelling teachers who taught all of the current forms of dance; country dance, minuet, highland reels and highland dancing, which was known as ‘high’ dance. They would work in grand houses, instructing both the upper class residents and the servants.
The Dancing Masters of 19th century Scotland were professional dancers who had generally studied ballet in either London or Paris. They would create their own dances or dance steps, often dedicated to a wealthy patron. They introduced the five ballet foot positions into both the country dance and the high dances, creating the pointed feet and straight legged positions familiar to anyone who has watched Highland Dancing.
Here’s a great clip of a country dance jig:
And here is a video of dancers in the Eightsome Reel:
Highland Dancing is a solo style of dance. It is very flamboyant and colourful and has become a very competitive art. Here is a performance of the Highland Fling:
Cape Breton Step Dancing
Another form of solo dance, Cape Breton dancing is mainly used for stage performances. It almost completely died out in Scotland, but was preserved in Nova Scotia by Scottish emigrants. Cape Breton is a hard-shoe dance similar to those danced in Ireland.
Scottish Dance has remained popular in England, though it went out of fashion towards the end of the 19th century and during the First World War. It’s slide into extinction was to some extent prevented by the determination of Mrs. Stewart of Fasnacloich and Miss Jean Milligan, who set about collecting the dances, and formed what was the become the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS). The dancing has since seen a huge resurgence thanks to the popularity of the ceilidh and various reeling societies.
Ceilidh dances are easy to learn and often look more difficult than they actually are. Musicians and fellow dancers are always happy to help beginners, and the dance is normally led by a caller who teaches the steps before it is danced. Ceilidhs are great social events and have become a popular choice of entertainment at weddings. The dances themselves are similar to those of the country dances, but less formal. They are distinct from the organised reeling balls in that they are suitable for total novices. At reeling balls, dancers are expected to have learned the dance and mastered the steps. The refinement of the art of reeling was such that clubs still exist in schools such as Eton.
Here are some examples of popular ceilidh dances:
The Gay Gordons
Formation: Dancers form couples in a circle , facing anti-clockwise with ladies on the right and gentlemen on the left.
Music: Tunes including The Gay Gordons or Scotland the Brave, march time (2/4 or 4/4)
With right hands joined over the lady’s shoulder (the man’s arm behind her back) and left hands joined in front, walk forward four steps, starting on the right foot
Continuing in the same direction, without letting go of the hands, pivot on the spot and take four steps backwards
Repeat in the opposite direction, four steps forward, four steps backwards
Dropping the left hands, raise the right hand above the lady’s head. She pivots or spins on the spot
Join hands in a ballroom hold and polka around the room
Reform the circle in your couples and start again
The Flying Scotsman
Formation: Longways sets of four or more couples, men on the right and ladies on the left as viewed from the band. Couples number from nearest the band
Music: A 32 bar reel
The first lady, followed by the second and third ladies, dances across the top of the set weaving behind the first man, in front of the second man, behind the third man and across the bottom of the set back to her place
The same pattern is repeated by the men starting with the first man
The first couple join hands and gallop (slip step) down the room for four bars, then gallop up to finish at the bottom of the set
All couples join hands and gallop down the room, coming back to arrive in order 2, 3, 4, 1 when the dance starts again with couple number 2 now in the top place
The music for different dances includes a variety of reels, strathspeys, hornpipes and jigs.
Reels, strathspeys and most hornpipes are counted in four, that is, they have four beats to a bar. Jigs and waltzes are in three, although the speed, style and dance for a jig is completely different to a waltz. The sound of the strathspey is very different to that of the reel or hornpipe.
Reels are played quickly, with all the fast notes having the same rhythm. Hornpipes and strathspeys are usually slower. The main feature of a hornpipe is it’s dotted rhythm where the strathspey uses the Scotch snap, a clipped short/long dotted rhythm. Sections of the music will be repeated and the tune structured to fit the number of bars required to make the dance work. The name of the dance is often the same as the name of the tune, for example, The Dashing White Sergeant is both the name of the dance and the tune that accompanies it. This tune, a reel, will be played at the top of the dance and then followed by other reels of a similar structure, sometimes coming back to finish with the first tune within the strict structure of bars.
Here’s a video of a strathspey dance. You can see the hop movement that accompanies the scotch snap rhythms in the tune.
November 30th is St. Andrew’s Day; a perfect opportunity to explore Scottish culture. If you would like to talk to us about booking one of our Scottish Dance Workshops, please contact the Music Workshop Team.
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