Dancing with Celtic CadencesSeptember 24, 2008
Scottish Social Dance & Ceilidh in Brighton & Hove
More Scottish dance clips:-
The Gay Gordons – Youtube + text
Circassian Circle – Youtube + text
Virginia Reel – Youtube + text
Dancing with Celtic Cadences by Harriet Anderson
What kind of dances will you be doing at a Celtic Cadences evening? Well, that’s easy to answer. You’ll enjoy some easy ceilidh and Scottish country dances which are suitable for everyone. Wrapped up in an evening of Scottish song, music and poetry.
Want to find out more about traditional Scottish dance? Then read on for my highly personal view.
You could say there are three broad categories of dances associated with Scotland: Ceilidh dances; Highland dances; and Scottish country dances. Probably most of us first make the acquaintance of Scottish dancing at a ceilidh – the Gaelic word for a celebration, a joyful gathering. Traditionally this included songs, music, poetry, storytelling and dance. Nowadays, however, it’s come to be restricted to dancing and to mean a large number of people (often in various states of inebriation) more or less stumbling through a relatively small number of ceilidh dances sometimes with the help of a caller. The music is supplied by a band, often accordion or piano, fiddle, bodhran, guitar.
Ceilidh dances are characterised by their simplicity and you can easily walk your way through them. They’re standards at Scottish weddings, birthday bashes and the like. In Vienna you’ve got to know the Waltz, in Edinburgh you’ve got to know the Gay Gordons. In both cultures, knowing a few basic dances is a social skill, like table manners and tipping. The ceilidh dances are great fun and highly sociable. They’re for crowds, for laughs and anyone can do them. Which is more than can be said for Highland dancing. I will be brief here as I can find almost nothing good to say about it. It strikes me as one of the most unsociable forms of dance ever thought up by human brain, as well as being absolute murder to perform. Basically, you dance on your lonesome ownsome, upper body perfectly straight and upright, feet doing all kind of elaborate flicks and jumps, all with pointed toes. It’s what you see at Highland Games dance competitions. I find it awful to watch. The only interesting feature is that it’s usually danced to bagpipe music. But enough said.
Which brings us to Scottish country dance. Despite its name, which is suggestive of rustic peasants clodhopping around a maypole, the term Country dance actually derives from Contra dance, meaning dances in which you stand opposite your partner in a long line down the room, ladies on one side, gentlemen on the other. Think of those dance scenes in the innumerable film adaptations of Jane Austen novels and you’ve got the right idea. It’s Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy translated into Scottish.
Many of these dances have their origins in the royal courts of France or were standard English country (contra) dances which wended their way up north. These dances then filtered down through the social strata so that they were indeed popular dances, danced equally in the elegant ballrooms of Edinburgh high society and at village gatherings of rural lowland Scotland – and also, according to Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, by witches and warlocks:
And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight!
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillon brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
(1790, R Burns – Tam O’Shanter)
Thus Robert Burns on the wild dances of the witches in his epic poem Tam O’Shanter, the recitation of which, at least in part, graces every Burns Night celebration. And interestingly enough it’s still jigs, strathspeys and reels (although not so much hornpipes) which are the three main types of dance in what today is called Scottish country dance.
These dances are danced to band music, often piano and fiddle but sometimes larger bands. The dance tunes are sometimes modern but frequently they’re traditional tunes, which would have been well known to Burns. Indeed, many of Burns‘ most glorious poems are set to the traditional dance tunes of his day. And in turn, many of the dances devised today set to those tunes are given the name of the Burns poem associated with it. The Lea Rig, for example, is a moving love song by Burns set to a traditional tune and also a most wonderful strathspey danced to that very same tune.
Strathspeys are the most elegant and courtly of Scottish country dances. They are danced to slow airs with a distinctive dotted rhythm and usually the most beautiful melodies. I absolutely love them. You can really play with different levels of elevation (down – up – down). You can cover a large amount of ground with the travelling step. You can make generous, sweeping curves in a most graceful way. They just make me feel very regal. You also have time to play with proximity and distance and believe me, it can get very erotic: that brief touch of the hands, the haughty look, the longing gaze. There’s a rich seam to be mined there. Reels and jigs are another matter. They are fast, energetic, bouncy. Here lightness is of the essence. And precise timing and phrasing.
Of course what today goes under Scottish country dancing is not what Burns and his witches would have done. Some dances have indeed survived from his time, although new dances are being devised as well, but the balletic steps which are usually taught as Scottish country dance steps date from the early twentieth century. However it is also possible to walk, trot or run your way through Scottish country dances. Or indeed you can just to do your own thing with your feet, so long as it fits the music. The dance figures range from simple to complex but are usually comfortingly geometrical and regular – a bit like the Scottish tartans.
But far more important than neat footwork or fancy dance figures is the fact that all the Scottish country dances are social dances. They originate from a time when dance had a central social function, especially that of a matchmaker (see Elizabeth Bennett and co.).
And it’s this social aspect which Celtic Cadences stands for. And you never know, you might meet the man or woman of your dreams as well – if you haven’t met them already!
Contact: Alan Mars on 01273 747 289 or 07930 323 057