Scottish Country Dancing Dictionary


The vast majority of Scottish Country Dances can be performed using the seven steps, Slip step, Skip change, Pas-de-basque, Step up or down, the Strathspey travelling step, the Strathspey setting step and the Highland schottische setting step, all of which are described in the linked pages. Other steps which belong to the Highland and the Ladies' Step Dancing traditions but which appear in a few Scottish Country Dances are mentioned but not described.

The objective of this footwork section is to define the uses of the steps and to remind the dancer of the details of the steps. There is no satisfactory alternative to learning the steps from a good teacher. Beware of following another dancer's bad example! Very few dancers, even among the most experienced, have truly good Footwork.

Ideally, every class should start with step practice though this is often omitted because so many dancers prefer to learn the Figures of a new dance rather than to improve their Footwork; indeed, many of us have become so accustomed to performing the steps inaccurately that we may no longer be capable of undoing the damage. Fortunately, for the successful performance of almost any Scottish Country Dance, accuracy in the Figures and in Timing are much more important than perfect Footwork.

To be successful, the Scottish Country Dancer needs to concentrate on the Figures and so must be able to perform the appropriate steps without thinking about them, in the same way that the experienced driver of a car uses the pedals and steering wheel completely automatically to perform whatever manoeuvre is required. Until this level of proficiency is attained, the Beginner should practise at every opportunity; fortunately, the basic form of each step requires no Partner and one can "sing", in one's head, an appropriate memorable and strongly rhythmic tune (such as the principal tune of the Reel, Mairi's Wedding, or of the Strathspey, The Duchess Tree). To avoid embarrassment, Skip change and the Strathspey travelling step can be practised in an empty corridor or a quiet street; an empty lift is ideal for Pas-de-basque and, if wide enough, for the Strathspey setting step and the Highland schottische setting step.

While Standing, the heels should be touching and the toes should be wide apart (in what a ballet dancer would know as the first Position); officially, the feet should be at right angles to each other though this may be beyond the capacity of all but the younger dancers (see Diagram 1).

While moving, the feet should maintain this relationship to the forward direction with the heels raised so that the weight is on the ball of the foot; the heels are only on the floor when stationary. In the descriptions of the steps, each movement is shown in the approximate fraction of the bar which it should occupy.

The Lady and the Man almost always perform exactly the same steps when they are dancing together; this is in contrast to Ballroom Dancing where the Lady's steps usually are the "counterpart" of the Man's (i.e., with right and left, forward and backward and wall and centre interchanged) and frequently are quite different. Another significant difference from Ballroom Dancing is the logical separation of the detail of the Footwork from the Figures. The seven steps described here cover the vast majority of Scottish Country Dances; most Figures require only two of these dance steps, one when the Figure is used in a Strathspey and the other when used in a Reel, Hornpipe or Jig.

Diagram 1 also defines the conventions employed in the diagrams which cover these seven main Scottish Country Dancing steps.

Note that in these representations of the steps, the movement for each beat is, for clarity, shown on a separate line. Note also that all references in the diagrams to Position are to the standard ballet definitions (as shown in the eminently realistic photographs in the website linked to here).

The various steps require four separate movements to be fitted to each bar of music. Reels, Hornpipes and Strathspeys are mostly in 4/4 tempo (though some are in 2/4 tempo with the same number of bars rather than crochets to the minute) and so this is readily achieved with each movement taking a quarter of a bar. Jigs are in 6/8 tempo (apart from those in 9/8 tempo which are suitable only for a dance such as Strip the Willow requiring three equal movements to the bar). The musically informed tell us that the first and third movements of the step in a Jig are to be allocated two quavers each with the second and fourth having only one each; perhaps, as dancers, we intuitively Phrase the movements within the bar this way. Whether we actually break the bar into 4×14 or 13+16+13+16 matters very little; indeed, many competent dancers will admit that they cannot distinguish the musical time signatures of Reels and Jigs. The crucially important point is to begin each dance step at the beginning of the bar. Fortunately, the best bands for dancing always include at least a keyboard to give a strong rhythm.

Links To Pages Related To 'Footwork'


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