(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Scottish country dancing is a social dance by groups of several couples usually facing each other in two lines. It developed from the reel dance of the Scottish Highlands and some 17th century dances from Europe, and was popular by the 18th century. Three types of dances or moves come under the umbrella of Scottish country dancing: reels, jigs and strathspeys. The first two feature fast tempos, while the latter is much slower and more formal. A Scottish country dance will usually include all three types in equal numbers.
The dancing is performed in organised formations or ‘sets’. A set can comprise three to six or more couples, depending on the dance. The usual formation is two adjacent lines, one of males and one of females, with partners facing each other. The front couple is nearest the band or CD player. There are several less commonly used sets. A triangular set is where three couples stand on each side of a triangle. For a square set, couples start on each side of a square. At large gatherings, variations of a circular set might be used where many couples form in a circle around the room.
Figures or moves vary in length depending on the tune played, but are generally two, four or eight bars long. The figures range from simple through to quite intricate. One of the simplest is where partners swap places across the set. A complex move might involve a number of couples weaving in and out of one another at the same time. There are several figures to a sequence, which is usually 32 bars in length but can be 16 bars or 64 bars. A complete dance comprises a number of sequences, often eight. Dances are categorised by their type, length, and number of repetitions. For example, a slow tempo dance of 16 bars repeated eight times is called an eight by 16 strathspey, which might be abbreviated to 8×16 S on a dance program leaflet.
The steps in Scottish country dancing are quicker than those in English country dancing or Gaelic ceilidh dancing, which are generally walking steps. The two main types of steps in Scottish country dancing are ‘travelling steps’ and ‘setting steps’. Travelling steps are called ‘skip change of steps’ for the faster reel or jig dances and ‘strathspey travelling steps’ for the slower dance. Setting steps are known as ‘pas de basques’ for the quick dances and ‘common schottisches’ or ‘strathspey setting steps’ for the slow tempo dance. Other steps include ‘rocking steps’, ‘high cuts’, and ‘highland schottisches’, borrowed from Scottish highland dancing. Another one is the ‘slip step’, a quick sideways movement sometimes used in circular sets.
Good technique is an important aspect of Scottish country dancing. In this regard, good timing and keeping an appropriate distance from other dancers are more important than actual footwork and location of a dancer’s feet at the various stages of a sequence. If a dancer gets in another’s way or collides with them, the whole dance may be interrupted and have to start again. However, footwork and where a dancer puts their feet are important too, and take time and patience to master. More significant though is the fact that Scottish country dancing is a social dance with emphasis on aspects such as smiling and giving hands.
Progression in Scottish country dancing is where couples change places in their lines or other types of sets. This usually occurs after each sequence and means that every couple will get a turn at the head of the lines. The couple who starts off at the front will drop to the back after the first sequence, and the couple who were second in the lines moves to the front. Thus in a set with four couples in lines, they will start off in a 1234 formation. For the second sequence, the formation will be 2341. This will be followed by 3412 and 4123, before finally returning to 1234. There are many variations, including some where couples take turns to drop out for a sequence and then rejoin.
Reels are the most common form of Scottish country dancing. These are performed in 2/2 time and involve several dancers following an interweaving path around one another. A reel of three is the most usual set, where three dancers complete a figure 8 pattern by weaving in and out of each other. They all follow the same track, but start at different points, with one at the middle, front and back. The dancers begin their series of figure 8s at the same time, all moving either clockwise or anticlockwise, and finish each figure 8 simultaneously. This dance is done to a quick tempo and participants complete a figure 8 in six or eight bars.
There are many variations of reels. ‘Parallel reels’ are danced by two groups, usually a line of males and a line of females. The two dancers at the front will take the same path in their respective reel, staying the same distance from each other throughout, thus the term ‘parallel’. Likewise, the middle dancers will stay level and parallel with each other, as will the two people at the back. A similar variation is ‘mirror reels’, except the dancers mirror each other’s moves rather than staying parallel. Here, one group needs to move clockwise and the other anticlockwise. In crossover mirror reels, a dancer from each reel crosses to the opposite line. Other variations include Inveran or sausage reels, tandem reels, reels of four and closing reels.
Jigs are less common than reels, though still popular. The light jig is the fastest, performed in 6/8 time. The main step is known as the ‘rising step’. A dancer does this by lifting their right foot off the ground and hopping twice on the left foot, before bringing the right foot behind the left foot. This move is then repeated, hopping on the right foot. Other jigs include slip jigs, hop jigs and treble jigs. The strathspey is done in 4/4 time and is more leisurely than reels and jigs. Its steps are slower and more stately than the skip-change steps of the other dances.
By the early 20th century, Scottish country dancing appeared to be heading for oblivion, until the Scottish Country Dance Society was formed in Glasgow in 1923. Its aim is to preserve the various forms of country dancing performed in Scotland. The society researched old manuscripts and published several books. It now has 20,000 members from all over the world and conducts teacher training and a yearly summer school at Scottish town St Andrews.