Scottish Country Dancing Dictionary

Some Scottish Country Dancing History

There are many misconceptions about Scottish Country Dancing, where "Country" certainly doesn't imply "rustic"; it was actually the ballroom dancing of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Scottish Country Dancing originates in the traditional dances of Great Britain which were not recorded in written form until John Playford published The English Dancing Master in 1651 (see The Dancing Master, 1651-1728: An Illustrated Compendium by Robert M. Keller).

These dances, and their music, were taken up in France where somewhat more balletic Footwork was introduced for court dancing and where the form was called Contredanse, to identify the Longwise set format of the original British style (in which the Men and the Ladies Start in lines Down the room, all Facing their Partners), though this term may also have been a French corruption of the original English "Country Dance". The French Quadrilles (with five or more dance sequences of varying lengths and tempi in a Square set) had a strong influence on Scottish Country Dancing; indeed, the RSCDS Manual of Scottish Country Dancing, 3rd edition recognizes Quadrilles as the origin of the Figures, Ladies' chain, Grand chain and Promenade. Curiously, even though they were very much part of Scottish social dancing in the early 19th century, no version of Quadrilles was collected and published by the RSCDS or its precursor. The only dance including that name in the early RSCDS publications is Quadrille Country Dance which has the Longwise set format though some modern devisers of more complex Square set dances have acknowledged it in their naming.

From this blend of original and imported forms, Scottish Country Dancing, and also Highland and Ladies' Step Dancing, developed in a distinctive way while English Country Dancing retained more of the original form with simpler Footwork.

In the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the Waltz and other Ballroom and Sequence Dancing became popular, Scottish Country Dancing fell from favour; it was rescued by Dr Jean Milligan and Mrs Ysobel Stewart, the joint founder members in 1923 of what eventually became the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.

The RSCDS researched old dance publications, published authoritative dance descriptions and undertook to train teachers; later, it helped members to set up RSCDS Branches and accepted independent Scottish Country Dance clubs as affiliated societies. Subsequently, many devisers have published new dances, sometimes on their own account and sometimes under the aegis of the RSCDS, using the more basic Figures of the old répertoire together with newly devised Figures. This development and innovation has invigorated what might otherwise have become an art form frozen in time, though the added complexity and continuous development do present problems to someone trying to present a systematic description of the subject.

Jean Callander Milligan always emphasized in her publications that Scottish Country Dancing should be a pleasurable social activity. Of course, as a promoter of the dancing and as one of the principal compilers of many dances which had almost been lost for ever, she had to concentrate on accuracy and discipline; even so, she expressed the importance of precision in terms of helpfulness to the other dancers and of enhanced personal enjoyment rather than condemnation of any imperfection.

Nowadays, some exuberant dancers are inclined to be a little less disciplined, for example, making two or more Quick turns where a single, Slow turn is prescribed. Indeed, some dances are now taught in the way that they have become most commonly performed rather than according to the formal prescription. This element of licence is wholly acceptable provided it does not in any way distract any other dancer in the same Set, especially a Beginner, and provided the teacher does at least describe the formal prescription. Regrettably, some fundamentalists have forgotten their mentor's words; they take great exception to even the most minor licence and so one is advised to start by being a little circumspect at an unfamiliar venue before indulging in any embellishment.

Scottish Country Dancing History - Information Video

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Jean Milligan Class, Younger Hall Summer School, 1976

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