Celtic Dance/Scottish Social Dances

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Introduction.[edit | edit source]

The history of Scottish social dancing, up until the year 1700, was not recorded. It was condemned by the dominant Presbyterian church and is only mentioned in reference to religious discrepancies. (Fletts, 153) Most of the history known comes from the work of J. F. and T. M. Flett. There was a large foundation of dance that had to be suppressed, as well as a sense of oral tradition in passing these dances down throughout Scotland. J. F. and T. M. Flett write on a confident foundation that the dancing took place throughout the oppressed regions of Scotland for centuries and dance took place for centuries before that. It stands that the reel is built on a long line of social dances before historical recordings of them.

Popular Types of Social Dances in Scotland.[edit | edit source]

In the 1700s, restrictions of the church in Scotland relaxed their views on such things as dancing and the Scottish people began to dance again. (Fletts, 154) The Scottish upper class adopted the English country dances such as the Minuet and the Country dances which were popular at that time. (Fletts, 154) These dances, however, were somewhat dull to the Scottish people in comparison to the reel. The reel, having survived the Presbyterian reform, entered into the Scottish social life once more. (Fletts, 154) The reel is the only Scottish dance indigenous to Scotland that survived. (Fletts, 2) The reel was the most popular social dance in Scotland and up until 1880/90 in the local lowlands and highlands, it was one of the only dances in their repertoire. (Fletts, 2) Country dances were slowly adopted from the upper classes throughout Scotland along with waltzes and quadrilles. In the 19th century, there was a puritan revival that once more oppressed many dances. (Fletts, 158) The enthusiasm surrounding the revival did not last long, and the social dances were saved, having been preserved in the more remote sections of Scotland. (Fletts, 158)

Below is a link to a dance called the Dashing White Sargent. It is filmed in an old castle and with an orchestra. This would not be the typical working class lifestyle but rather the upper-class might hold this dance. The video gives an example of a Scottish reel.


History.[edit | edit source]

Historic Oppression of Dance.[edit | edit source]

As stated above, Scotland was predominantly a Presbyterian religious country. The Lowlands and some highlands were under the puritan rule of the Scottish Presbyterian. (Fletts, 153) as the beliefs of puritanism placed dancing as a sin in the years prior to 1700. The Flett's tell us that the more remote Catholic areas of Scotland continued to dance through these years. (Fletts, 158)

Old Scottish barn that would host the Scottish Social Dances.

Social Dance in the 19th Century.Old 19th-century barn that would hold Scottish Social dance lessons.[edit | edit source]

There was a surge of dance teachers in Scotland at the beginning of the 19th century that brought dancing to a more definitive aspect of Scottish culture. Almost everyone took dance lessons during this era. (Fletts, 159) The dance instructors had some dance guide books for the dances they taught. These guides allow insight into the dances being danced and taught at this time. David Anderson’s ballroom guide has descriptions of the Scotch reel, "Reel of Tulloch" (which is an early version of the "Eightsome Reel") sixty-four country dances, fourteen circle dances, and many miscellaneous. (Fletts, 13) This wide range of dance shows the significance that dancing had in Scottish culture during the 19th century. Teachers also held classes in school, halls, or just barns if they could not acquire the latter. The teachers would cover a wide range of communities in each area. (Fletts, 13)

Below is a video of a barn dance that would look most similar to the 19th century dance. The dress and etiquette would be appropriate to the dance hall or barn dance balls that are spoken of in the Flett's chapters. The dance teachers encouraged their students, regardless of the fact they might have been in a barn, to dress and act their best. (Flett's, 7)


Social Dance in the 20th Century.[edit | edit source]

This era of widespread social dancing and dance teachers remained up until the first-world-war, at which point the men came home from the war and settled down. (Fletts, 4) Social dancing was soon replaced in the urban centers with couple’s dances to jazz music. Social dancing in rural counties died down as people moved from the rural communal lifestyle into the urban centres. (Fletts, 4). However, social dancing has been preserved throughout Scotland from this era to our current time as read about in the Flett’s interviews and probably seen in areas of Scotland or parts of North America which brought Scottish culture across the atlantic.

Social Dance as a Result of the Feadel and Crofting Systems.[edit | edit source]

Feudal System.[edit | edit source]

An interesting factor in the origin of the social dance is the relationship between societal laws of governance in Scotland and the development of the social dance. The history of the relationship between the governing judicial kings and chiefs and the peasantry is a long one dating back to the kingdoms that emplaced the feudal system in the 11th century, and most likely, prior kingdoms to these. Feudalism slowly entered, peacefully, into the Scottish governing system through the policies of Scottish kings. (Whyte, 86) The feudal system, in its most basic form, is structured where the land belongs to the lord or king who provides judicial protection, as well as protection from neighboring kingdoms, and in turn, receives shares of the food and goods produced from the peasantry. (Ganshof, 18) The feudal system created a whole class of people who worked and lived in a fluid economy. Ownership was defined in a much different way to these workers who belonged in this system compared to our modern understanding of ownership.

The Feudal Community.[edit | edit source]

The leisurely activities of the peasantry were not tied to or rooted in any place. The relationships between the the people in each community were integral for the day to day living and production of land and goods. (Whyte, 160) The growth of technology in agriculture gave birth to a new flavour of feudalism known as crofts. This is built on little rural settlements called hamlets or Ferm Touns. These were clusters of, between, six and seven houses that relied on one another for the production of their work and lively-hoods. The whole community would rent the land and work for the collective lively hood and payment of rent to the landowner. (Whyte, 123) This was due to the agricultural revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Whyte, 123) These types of communities were not permanent communities and would often be moved from one location to another depending predominantly on the agricultural development of a section of land. (Whyte, 123) With all these small communities moving frequently and owning nothing but what they take with them, it is no wonder they celebrated in the style of social dances. The following video is of an old ferm toun. It shows the layout of the blackhouses.


The people of these communities built and lived in black houses. (Sparling, 16) Throughout the 17th, 18th, and, 19th centuries, the land was owned by an appointed landlord. The landlord made the policies and controlled the flow of work in his area. Substantial portions of farmland were worked through lease and payment which was held accountable to the whole community and thus made daily life a communal effort.

Benefits of Social Dancing.[edit | edit source]

Interpersonal interaction where a group would all link arms and dance through one another, creates a cognitive bond between each person. (O'Conner, 6) Physical touch is beneficial to the health and development of a human. (Alpert, paragraph 3) There is no doubt that the coordination of the community that danced with each other was beneficial to understanding one another and created a good sense of place in the community.

Connecting through interactions.

The dance makes the dancers know how to work as a unit. In ancient Greece, soldiers would train using dance as a method of producing coordination in a troop. (Wheeler, 8) No doubt dancing played a similar function in the coordination of work in Scottish communities. The social dance gives the dancers the means to connect and created a foundation of togetherness and unity.

Interpersonal touch has been proven to relieve pain and stress in people. (Alpert, paragraph 3) Dance has always been associated with leisure and maybe the pain and stress relief is why dance may be done in a celebratory fashion at the end of a workweek or at the end of a harvest. The dance would be a key means to unwinding and resting from the stress or pain of the weeks labours. When people experience stress they often seek others for support. (Alpert) When one faces either interior or exterior challenges, being close to others offers a feeling of safety and comfort. The exercise of dance is medicinal for both the psychological and physical. (Alpert) The Scottish communities that gathered and danced were fulfilling a significant role in support of the psychological and physical, along with the renewal of relationships within the community. If other communities gathered, the social dance would be a platform for creating connections and relationships between groups. The social dance was thus an integral part of the lifestyle for a working-class, crofting society.

           It seems that the social dances were multipurpose and evolved around the strengthening of a community. The dance created mental and physical health care as well as pain and stress relief with the benefits of knowing the members in the community who participated.

Scottish Dance from Environment.[edit | edit source]

Scottish Social Dance as Indicative of Scottish Social living.[edit | edit source]

The Scottish social dancing was a direct result of the lifestyle Scottish working class lived. As stated above, social dance was a product of the feudal system and the demand for communal foundation. The social dance was cultivated from the lifestyle or can be said, was the culture of the working class. Culture comes from the Latin word ‘Cultus’ which translates into care. (Entics, 11) The French derivative translates into till or to build from. (Cotgrave) Both translations are founded on the idea that there is something to care for or a product in which to build from. The word culture is a reflection of something that is within or from a place, such as a community of people and their demand for one another. The social dance, as part of the Scottish culture, was taken from the product of the Scottish community the interdependence on one another, as seen in the previous paragraph. The material that the dance was created from was the community and the structure of the feudal/crofting systems that placed so much emphasis on the community as a whole. Social dance, then, was not simply created for a social pass-time but was birthed as necessary leisure that supplied the means to relax, unwined, renew relationships, and, seek support. These demands were all cultivated from the living conditions of the Scottish working societies.

The Effects of Environment.[edit | edit source]

The environment of the dance itself was small houses that had either a dirt or stone floor. This made any sound of steps not heard. (Sparling, 16) The fire in the center of the house meant that the dance had to be danced around the fireplace creating a circular pattern. (Sparling, 16) Who the dancers were is unknown to us, but it is suspected that it was anyone in the community who wanted to join in and from the research provided in the benefits of social dancing it is most likely that all were encouraged to dance. The structure of social dance was created out of all these factors literally being a product of the physical environment.

Environment of Modern Social Dances.[edit | edit source]

In modern social dances, the hall is large. The dancers are present in a recreational capacity. The dance is not necessarily integral to the health/wellbeing of the culture, even though the benefits of social dancing remain the same. The venue of the social dance has changed and so the social dance has changed as well reflecting the surroundings. Sparling shows the impact that the venue has when she writes about the history of the Scotch Foursome Reel. She makes the point that the dance was danced in crofting houses (Sparling, 16) and when it was brought to Cape Breton the venue for these dances changed. They were brought into a wooden floored and walled house where the fireplace was along the wall. (Sparling, 16) The wooden walls reflected the sound and the houses could be much larger and more permanent than that of the blackhouses (Sparling, 16) that, historically were built temporarily and were constructed from stone, straw, and, clay. The social dances started to evolve from the change of environment they were danced in. The dances were being formed into lines and the style of solo step dance crept into the dance due to the crisp sound of the steps on the wooden floor. (Sparling, 6) This change in the environment even produced the dances to become so evolved that they were then very intricate and became stage spectacles that were viewed rather than danced by the larger part of a gathering. (Sparling, 16)            

The relationship between past and present social dancing.[edit | edit source]

We can see many similarities between the reasons that social dances are danced today and social dances were danced of old. In O’Conner’s article on Safe Sets, Women, Dance and, Communitas she presents Turner's idea about the modern approach to community and applies it to modern social dance. Turner's theory is through the fluidity of our interactions we can have communities that are not as directly tied to geographical areas that of the previous eras. Because of the technology today we can pick and choose our communities and create communities at will. As seen in the previous paragraphs and the history of Scottish people, they were tied to each other through the social conditions of the economic system as well as the geography. O’Conner says that social dance, both in ambiance and the activity, generate friendliness and inclusiveness where people can learn new skills and explore a new sense of social identity. (O’Conner, 5) These reasons are also present in vernacular Scotland but are of lesser importance then say the benefits of stress and pain relief or dependency of community. Turner provides another element present in modern social dances that O’Conner places in social dance communities. Social dance can be used to create safe places for people to dance and have freedom from the daily hierarchies. The social dance atmosphere is a platform of social equality regarding everyone who participates in the dance. (O’Conner, 5) One can enter into a community that is free of class or social status society where a hierarchical system is present. (O’Conner, 5) Even though the Scottish crofting communities of old were in a ‘peasantry’ class, they removed any status that would have been in the community itself by entering into the social dance. In these ways, social dance has tied communities together throughout the centuries.

A Dance Community.

Dance as the center of Community.[edit | edit source]

The important factor in both the past social dance and of the contemporary social dance, is that the dancers gather together by partaking in the social dance. The dance is the heart of the gathering which allows the participants to enter into and contribute to something greater than themselves. (O'Conner, 6) Social dance is a concrete physical activity that ties the community together in equality and participation. The more the activity demands participation, the stronger the community will be that participates in it. This is something that, I believe, is missing from the club or ‘disco’ dances. People unite through location and sonic elements being tied only through sharing the personal experience of both elements. A couple is strengthened by the sharing of location music and personal space with one another. As a social dance, the dancers all share the location, music, choreography, and, interactions that share personal space. (O'Conner, 6) These elements are much stronger than the club/disco dancing and tie all the dancers who join the dance together.

Concluding Thoughts.[edit | edit source]

Contra-dance has become a building block in which communities come together. Barbara O'Conner writes about communities in Ireland that are started and provide women with a safe space in which to dance. The partaking in the dance can be without judgement or hypersexual intentions as might be found in a modern club dance. Social dance is filled with all the benefits stated in prior paragraphs and the atmosphere is one of enjoyment, equality, and, human interactions. (O'Conner, 6). There are also multiple communities starting up that are centered around social dance. The group Circle Left, currently host dances that provide a safe space for the queer community to come and have a safe and judgement free spaces to express themselves. (Snyder, 1) Circle Left has been able to change the terminology and the other normative ideologies in order to create a more consent based dance. (Snyder, 21) These are just two examples of communities that are starting up everywhere and are responding to every kind of need; communal support, pure enjoyment, safety in dance, recalls to heritage, and the mental and physical health benefits of social dance.

Bibliography.[edit | edit source]

O’Connor, B. (1997). Safe sets: Women, dance and ‘communitas’. In Dance in the City (pp. 149-172). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Sparling, H. (2015). History of the Scotch Four: A Social Step Dance in Cape Breton. Canadian Folk Music/Musique folklorique canadienne, 49(2/3).

Whyte, Ian D. (2013).Scotland Before the Industrial Revolution: An Economic and Social History C. 1050-C. 1750. Longman Economic and Social History of Britain. Social Dancing in Scotland, I700-I9I4

J. F. and T. M. Flett. Reprinted from Scottish Studies, Issue, No. 2, pp. 153-164, June 1957.

Alpert, P. T. (2011). The Health Benefits of Dance. Home Health Care Management & Practice, 23(2), 155–157.

Wheeler, E. L. (1982). Hoplomachia and Greek dances in arms. Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 23(3), 223-233.

Enticks, J. English-Latin Dictionary, to which is affixed a Latin-English dictionary, revised and corrected by W. Crakelt. Oxford University. 20 Nov 207

Cotgrave, R. (1733). A French and English dictionary. A. Dolle.

Ganshof, F.L. and Grierson, P. (1996) Medieval Academy reprints for teaching. University of Toronto Press.

Snyder, A. (2019). Contraculture: Bird Names and the Degendering of Contra Dance. Yearbook for Traditional Music, 51, 187-215.