Scottish Country Dancing

Scottish Country Dancing has developed over many centuries as native Scottish folk dances absorbed influences from the elegant European courts. During the reign of Henry VIII of England the folk dances of the English and Scottish countryside captured the fancy of the sophisticates at Court. The furor over the "couples" style of dancing which was then in vogue on the Continent was beginning to die down and the "avant garde" were looking for something new. By the time of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, various formations, the teamwork of two or more couples and specific names had become associated with some dances. Longways sets, square sets, two-couple sets, circles, even single-line sets made for interesting variety. The longways form was most suited to long halls in castles and public buildings and gradually, the longways form displaced most of the others. This was the style of country dances at Court as well as in the Lowlands of Scotland and in England until the end of the 17th century.

In 1650, John Playford published The English Dancing Master, which included many tunes and dances accompanying them as well as the illustrations of figures (combinations of movements) used in the dances. The book was so popular that there were 18 editions. The eighteenth edition contains 900 country dances.

The Scots made the country dances their own by incorporating intricate and precise steps and figures from their Highland reels. The Scottish dancing teachers, trained in France, taught the dances using French terms, such as allemande, pas-de-basque and promenade. Many of today’s favorite dance combinations date from the 18th Century when Scotland’s relationship with France (the Auld Alliance) was particularly strong. With foot and leg positions similar to ballet and the spirit of ballroom dancing, Scottish Country Dancing is both graceful and elegant.

Characteristically, Scottish Country Dancing consists of two lines of dancers, men in one line facing women on the other line. Most dances are dances of progression in which each couple executes a series of figures with one or two of the other couples and progresses along the line to repeat the figures with each participating couple. Couples move up and down the line until each has been in the lead position.

There are three dance types, distinguished by their tempos; lively reels, moderately fast jigs and slow strathspeys. There are only five steps in the traditional dances; the skip change of step (for traveling), the slip step (traveling in a sideways direction) and the pas de basques (for setting) are used in jigs and reels. The other two steps appear only in the strathspey. There are dozens of patterns which are combined in various ways and new dances are being created every year.