In Ed­in­burgh, ceilidh danc­ing of­fers an en­tree into Scot­tish cul­ture.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY EMILY GILLE­SPIE [email protected]­post.com Gille­spie is a writer based in Port­land, Ore. Find her at emi­ly­gille­spie.com. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @emi­ly­gille­spie.

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.

AN­DREW MILLIGAN/PA IMAGES/ GETTY IMAGES

EMILY GILLE­SPIE

“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.

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