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Scottish Traditional Dance & Clothing

Updated July 20, 2017

Vigorous, social Scottish traditional dance lives on in Scotland and across the world. The dance is kept alive in boisterous evening parties, ballroom dance halls and Highland festivals. The bold tartans, the most recognisable aspect of traditional Scottish attire, share the spotlight and attract admirers of their own. Dancers, Scottish people and Scots at heart, tartan fanatics and anyone looking for a challenging new workout routine can find something to love in Scottish dance.

Types of Scottish Dance

Scottish dance breaks down into three main groups: ceilidh dancing, country dancing, and highland dance. The Gaelic word "ceilidh" (pronounced "kay-lee") refers to an entire event: an evening party with music and revelry as well as group dance. Ceilidh dancing is thus the most casual of the three forms, focusing on sociability and fun above technical precision. Scottish country dancing is more regimented than ceilidh, though it is still a social dance. Its choreography involves elaborate patterns, and the dancers must follow a rigorous code of proper poise and technique. Unlike ceilidh and country dance, highland dancing is essentially a competitive form, consisting primarily of virtuosic solo dances.

Attire

Costumes worn in Scottish dance are a subset of Scottish formal attire. Men wear a kilt and sporran (the large leather or fur-covered pouch that weighs down the front of the kilt) and women wear dresses with a tartan sash, or white blouses with calf- or ankle-length tartan skirts. Dancing shoes are essential. Most Scottish dancers wear black leather flats, often called "gillies," which are similar to ballet slippers but distinguished by criss-crossing laces down the foot. Certain dances require speciality shoes, such as jig shoes, which have a sturdier structure and higher heel.

Technique

Scottish traditional dance stresses footwork and energetic execution. Though the level of demand placed on the dancer varies between the three types of Scottish dance, a focus on the balls of the feet and spring in the step is common to all three. Beginning dancers are advised to focus mainly on footwork and to practice the seven main dance steps until they become automatic. This necessary (if gruelling) practice enables the dancer to move on to the full-body choreography -- the "figures" of the dance -- with relative ease. While the figures of Scottish group dances often resemble those of its relative (English country dance), Scottish dance's focus on footwork ensures a higher level of intensity and a thoroughly effective workout.

History and Continuation of Scottish Dance

The reel is believed to be the oldest form of Scottish group dance, mentioned in writing as early as the 16th century, and the jig, still a prevalent solo dance, is similarly historic. Presbyterian influences suppressed traditional dance in the Scottish Lowlands until the 18th century, though it survived continuously in the Highlands. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Scottish country dancing rose in status, parallel to English country dance, to become a courtly tradition. Its popularity was threatened in the early 20th century by competition from the waltz and other ballroom dances. The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society was founded to preserve and promote the dance form, and this effort succeeded on a grand scale. Kept alive by communities around the globe, Scottish traditional dance is more widely practised now than at any time in its history.

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About the Author

Emily Howe began work as a freelance writer in 2005 and her scholarly work has been published in the journals "German Life and Letters" and "Monatshefte." She holds bachelor's degrees in music and German from Swarthmore College and a master's degree in German literature from the University of Pennsylvania. Howe has been awarded Fulbright and DAAD Fellowships.