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Scottish Country Dancing

If we exclude International Folk dancing (gargling with your feet) and couples dances (man in charge), the most difficult kind of dancing a contra dancer will encounter is Scottish dancing.

There are a number of reasons why Scottish dancing is hard.

One reason why Scottish dancing is hard is the large number of dances one needs to know.  As with Irish sets, at a ball, the dances are not taught: you are expected to know the dance. True, some of the dances should be familiar -- they are the old standards -- but a great many of the dances are new. New Scottish dances are being created every day: there are thousands & thousands of Scottish dances.

Very often, before an upcoming ball, the local group, which has been given a list of the dances that will be danced at the ball, practices the dances. Nevertheless, once the ball begins, one needs to know ten to fifteen dances by heart. Again, at some balls they will give participants a verbal run through of the dance before the actual dance occurs, but for contra dancers who love the idea of not needing to know anything before a dance is called, the need to memorize a dance (fifteen dances!) is not a pleasant prospect.

But even more difficult than needing to know a dance by heart is the complexity of Scottish dances. Yes, some are simple and very similar to contra dances -- they contain ladies chains, heys (reels), half figure eights, right hands round, go down the center and back -- but many are far more complex, and far longer, than any contra dance ever written.

I seem to be saying only negative things about Scottish dancing but the complexity of a Scottish dance is often the beauty of a Scottish dance. For days now I have been envisioning a seemingly complex yet very beautiful move that is in several Scottish dances. The move is a hey for three people but with a twist.

You and your partner are in the middle of a square of four people -- one on each corner -- and you and your partner are "one person" in a hey for three people. You face one corner and with your partner in the lead you "two" start a hey for three on the diagonal. You and your partner pass the corner person by the right but as you & your partner start to loop back in to the middle of the square, the lead person in the couple hesitates and the second person in that couple comes back in first and leads the hey with next corner person. Once again, after "they" pass the next corner by the right, the lead person hesitates on the outside and they switch places as they come back in for the hey with the next corner.

Once you understand the principle -- you always switch positions with your partner & that is easily accomplished if the lead person simply hesitates before coming back in -- and the progression -- you always move one place to the right until you’ve danced a hey for three with all four people in the square -- the move is simple. But the move looks baffling, and it takes a few run throughs before you feel comfortable with this "unusual for a contra dancer" move.

But the preceding is only one of many complex moves in Scottish dances. I have yet to say that Scottish dances are usually for three or four couples, and although there are "active couples" -- a concept contra dancers can easily understand -- the number two and number three (and sometimes number four) couples are doing something totally different whilst the active couple are doing their thing.

I once had a terrible Scottish dance teacher and he often said things like "the number three couple who are now in second position dance a reel of three with number two couple who are now in first position while the number one couple who are now in third position...." My mind went into gridlock as I tried to remember what number couple I was and what position I was currently in. Good Scottish dance teachers try to avoid the concept of "what position" you are in and simply tell you what you need to do next.

Nevertheless, position, and what number couple you are, are important in Scottish dances. Unlike contra dances, you aren’t always couple number one or couple number two, and often one couple is doing something totally different from the other couples. Contra dancers encounter a little of that complexity in triplets where couples number two and three in the triplet are sometimes number two and sometimes number three.

I could go on and on about the complexity (and beauty) of certain Scottish dance moves and certain Scottish dances. Suffice it to say that there are many more moves in Scottish dances than there are in Contra dances and Scottish dances combine these moves into far more complex (and beautiful) dances than any contra dances.

There is still one more "complexity" that could put off contra dancers: the footwork is more demanding. Scottish dancing is closer to ballet than any form of folk dancing I know of. You should be on the balls of your feet and the toes should be pointed out as you move from place to place. Again, much depends on the Scottish dance instructor you encounter. Some are sticklers and demand that you dance in a certain way: they will stop you if your feet are not pointed correctly, if you are not up on your toes and gliding. Others are less demanding and simply let you get it "wrong" for a while as you learn the dance. Eventually they will tell what you need to be doing with your feet but basically, they want you to enjoy the dance and and they don’t worry about your footwork -- as long as you are where you need to be when you need to be there.

I feel that so far I’ve said many "negative" things about Scottish dancing. Why would you want to dance Scottish dances if the instructor is always "policing" your dancing & the dances are complex and you need to memorize so many dances?

Scottish dances are beautiful, and you get a heck of a workout in Scottish dancing. Most Scottish dances are fast reels. You move from place to place swiftly, and you are up on your toes. If you are doing it even half right you are flying around and you quickly get out of breath -- if you are not in shape.

I could go on & on & on about Scottish dancers and Scottish dances. You need to know that they are a little like English Country Dances: there is not much contact with your partner & what contact there is is hand contact, not long intimate swings. Although most Scottish dances are fast (reels and jigs), there are many "strathspeys" which are slow, extremely beautiful, but the footwork is different. Like Irish Sets, the dancers are often people whose roots are in the culture (they have Scottish blood) and they do no dancing other than Scottish dancing.

I highly recommend Scottish dancing to contra dancers. Like contras, the entire dance is "mapped out" for you; unlike couples dances, you do not have to think about what move you will choose to do next. Like contras, you are following "a pattern on the floor" and there is no fast and intricate pattern you must execute with your feet. Yes, it is a little more difficult than just walking from spot to spot, but once you master the two, three, or four basic Scottish dance steps, you will use those steps in every Scottish dance you do.

Finally, the dancing is energetic and the dances (and dance moves) are beautiful and immensely satisfying when mastered. You should try it; you are very likely to love it.

Copyright 2003   Henry Morgenstein

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