To the uninitiated, all Highland dances might seem similar. Newcomers may think that Highland dancing is nothing more than raising your hands, kicking your feet, and hopping in a circle, all while a bagpiper plays nearby.
Actually, there are many different kinds of Highland dancing and all of them are heavily steeped in history. Here’s some background on some of the dancing you’ll see at the Highland Games.
If a dancer makes a mistake doing the fling today, the worst things that could happen is they’ll lose points with the judges.
Things weren’t always so safe.
The Highland fling is a victory dance that was traditionally done by clansmen. It was danced on a targe – a small round shield that had a sharp steel spike near the middle.
As such, it’s understandable why such quick footwork and agility is necessary. One misstep could result in a lot of pain and a lot of bloodshed too.
The Seann Truibhas
Pronounced shawn-trooz, this is a Gaelic term that loosely translates to “old pants.” It is one of the most difficult dances to perform and usually takes years of practice.
There’s some conflicting information about the dance’s history, but some say that its origin comes after the complete rout of the Highlanders at Culloden Moor, when terrible punishments were meted out to the Scottish people, including the banning of wearing the kilt. The clansmen resented having to wear trousers – also known as trews. As such, the Seann Truibhas is a dance that’s meant to show disrespect to said trousers. The dance’s various movements are said to mime attempts of the Highlander to kick them off.
As the dance progresses, it gets faster and faster. The end mood is supposed to be one of jubilation as the Scottish dancer is finally emancipated from the English’s imposing choice of clothes.
No Highland dance is older or better known than the Ghillie Calum, or Sword Dance. Like the Seann Truibhas, its history is somewhat spotty.
One theory is that it’s the brainchild of Malcolm Canmore, who ruled Scotland in the latter part of the 11th century. After emerging victorious at the bloody battle of Dunsinane in July of 1054, Malcolm is believed to have placed his own sword on top of that of his enemy in the form of a cross and danced triumphant over them.
There’s another theory – a bit more superstitious than historical – that the dance was used as a sort of pre-battle fortune telling device. On the night before a battle, warriors would dance their dance. If they touched their sword while doing do, it meant they would be wounded the next day. If they kicked the sword, that meant they would be killed.
You’ll see this in competition and you’ll likely see it as part of the MacCulloch Dancers’ repertoire during the Friday night Tattoo.
Originally an ancient dance common in much of Britain, its name derives from the “horn pipe,” a tin flute-like which accompanied the dance. The melody will likely be familiar to most (for those of a more pop culture bent, it was also the theme music for the Popeye cartoons). In time, the dance became so popular among seafaring men that it became known as the “sailor's hornpipe.” It is usually performed in nautical costume and the moves mimic the chores a sailor may be expected to do while on a ship.
Scottish National Dances
Blue Bonnets, Scottish Lilt, Highland Laddie, The Earl of Errol, Flora MacDonald's Fancy and Village Maid are known as the Scottish National Dances. They usually involve Aboyne Dress – a white dress with tartan or full tartan skirt with white blouse and vest. That tradition was born at the Aboyne Highland Games in Scotland where women were forbidden to wear kilts while dancing.
Women in dancing
Although men are allowed to compete in Highland dancing, the overwhelming majority of competitors at the Games – and MacCulloch Dancers, for that matter – are female. However, women dancing is only a recent development.
The originally dancers were athletic men and their dances were designed to show a complex range of emotion. Competitive Highland dancing began after in the 19th century when Highland culture began to grow in popularity. It was only around the turn of the 20th century when women first began competing.
In competition, dancers are judged on three elements: timing, technique and general deportment. Timing is how the dancers follow the rhythm, technique is how they coordinate feet, hands, arms and head, and general deportment is how they capture the spirit of the dance. Upright posture and a joyful countenance are essential to this latter criteria.
HIGHLAND DANCERS TAKE A BREATHER AFTER RECEIVING THEIR COMPETITION PRIZES