In Edinburgh, ceilidh dancing offers an entree into Scottish culture.
The cheerful melody bellowed from the accordion across the dimly lit room, filling me with jittery anticipation. Holding a hand of each stranger on either side of me, I bounced in a circle to the left and then to the right, doing my best to remember the steps that had just been explained.
I couldn’t control my smile as my newfound partners and I went through the motions to the Dashing White Sergeant. We were stomping and clapping, lockedelbow spinning, stepping along a figure-eight-shaped path and ducking under the outstretched arms of other dancers.
When the song ended, I thanked my fellow dancers and went in search of the water fountain. Just one song into my first Scottish ceilidh, and I was already red-faced and sweaty. I was also having more fun than I had imagined.
When my husband and I were planning our trip to Scotland, I emailed his cousins who live in Edinburgh. Among a slew of suggestions of things to do, they included the idea of dancing at a ceilidh, a Gaelic word pronounced KAY-lee that simply means gathering or party, and often features singing and dancing as well.
I mentally put the idea at the top of my list. For me, a highlight of traveling is meeting and talking to new people. The conventions of tourism, however, often make it difficult to interact with locals who aren’t trying to cater to you in some manner.
But in a ceilidh dance, I saw an opportunity to really connect with people who call Scotland home and get a taste of the country’s culture in a genuine fashion. The experience didn’t disappoint.
We lucked into last-minute tickets to a ceilidh held every week at Summerhall, an event venue in Edinburgh about a mile south of the Royal Mile. Before leaving I’d done a quick Google search, which revealed that I was likely to get hot and that wayward dancers have been known to step on toes. I opted for a lightweight dress and close-toed shoes. Aside from that, I arrived with little knowledge about what the actual dancing was like. It wasn’t difficult to learn, though; one of the members of the band playing traditional Scottish music explained how to do each dance before the music began.
I didn’t even dance with my husband during the first few songs. Many dances, like the Dashing White Sergeant, are done in groups that range in size from three to eight. By forcing you to interact with other people in the room, ceilidh dancing breaks down barriers.
The atmosphere held an electric excitement that I could see on the faces of everyone around me. There’s something supremely satisfying about coordinating your movements in time to music and in sync with everyone around you. Not to mention the hilarity that comes with realizing that the kilt of a burly man floating by me twirled better than the dress of his dance partner.
Most of the more than 100 people who showed up for the dance wore casual clothing and appeared to be as much of a novice as I was. The burly man, however, was among a group of about 10 people who knew the steps to every song and were more formally dressed: the men in kilts and white collared shirts, the women in dresses.
During a break in the music, I approached one of the kilted men to find out if he was with the band — maybe meant to be a guidepost for newcomers. No, he answered, he and his friends were just regulars. I began to ask him more questions, but when I was interrupted by the music to the next song, he invited me to get a beer with him and his friends afterward at a bar down the street. Of course I said yes. Over a pint, my husband and I were treated like friends as we chatted with the group. They asked me if I’d enjoyed myself and I struggled to find words that would convey how much fun I’d had. Doing the jigs, twirls and do-si-dos had left me bursting with chest-welling happiness that took me back to the elation of being a kid running through a sprinkler.
From their expressions, I knew they understood. As we got to know each other over the next few weeks, I learned more about their relationship to ceilidhs. The man who had invited me out, Donald Maclennan, told me he grew up ceilidh dancing at a town hall in his small town on the Isle of Mull.
Ceilidhs fell out of favor when he was about 18, as discos or nightclubs became all the rage, MacLennan explained. It wasn’t until he moved to Edinburgh 10 years ago that he was reintroduced to ceilidh dancing. Fresh from a sports injury, Maclennan saw it as a way to stay fit, but it became much more than that.
“With me being new to Edinburgh, to go to a ceilidh, you start finding a lot of good friends,” he said. “I could go out at night and meet someone at a pub, chat with them a few minutes, and then off they go. But if you’ve been dancing with them through the night, you’ve got quite a good connection with them.”
Almost everyone stays sober, Maclennan added, as your coordination is necessary and that has an important effect on the atmosphere.
“Everybody’s just more chilled out,” he said. “There’s no age barrier. A 60- or 70-year-old guy can ask a 20-year-old girl to dance, and she’s quite happy doing it and it goes the other way.”
I knew what he meant. The ceilidh I attended had a wholesome feel. It was nothing like dancing at a nightclub, which can include costly drinks, grinding bodies and drunk men trying to convince women to come home with them.
Another dancer at the bar that first night, Kevin Dempsey, smoothed down his kilt to show me the overlapping pattern of black, green, and blue, with small strips of red and yellow. The pattern is a tartan, he explained, and represents his family surname and place they’re from. Each clan has a tartan that belongs only to them.
Later, Dempsey told me that he had a different experience growing up with ceilidh dancing than Maclennan had. He was taught the steps in school and attendance at an annual ceilidh was mandatory. “It was really a cringe experience; we were not into the ceilidh music,” he said. “I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate it.”
Now, he said, he goes to as many ceilidhs as he can find. They’re just plain fun, he said, and he likes how it allows him to meet people from all demographics. “People who are maybe [a] different skin color, different religion, different background . . . you dance with them all,” he said. “You dance with everyone.”
Ceilidhs have a rich history in Scotland. In the early 1900s, ceilidhs were held in a village’s designated “ceilidh house,” and the gatherings included playing cards, storytelling and singing and often ended with young people dancing, according to “Traditional Step-Dancing in Scotland” by J.F. and T.M. Flett.
Learning ceilidh dancing in school, as Dempsey did, is probably what has kept these dances popular, said David Francis, associate director of Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland. That, and the fact that they remain a traditional part of a Scottish wedding.
Today, ceilidhs in the northern Highlands tend to be concerts, while in the southern Lowlands, they tend to be dances. Edinburgh is somewhat of an epicenter for ceilidh dancing, with regular ceilidh dances held around the city.
“There’s something qualitatively different about ceilidh dancing,” Francis said. “The reason why people still dance like that is because it’s sociable, it’s very convivial, the music is a reference back to tradition.”
Having experienced that difference, I agree. On our trip to Scotland, we visited the Edinburgh Castle, encountered a herd of Highland cattle and hiked along the Cuillin mountain range on the Isle of Skye. But ceilidh dancing was easily my favorite part. And it taught me that there may be no faster way to grow a kinship with someone from a different culture than by taking their hand and stepping together to music.
“There’s no age barrier. A 60- or 70-year-old guy can ask a 20-year-old girl to dance, and she’s quite happy doing it and it goes the other way,” one of the regulars said of the inclusive nature of ceilidhs, a Gaelic word that means gathering or party, and often features singing and dancing.