To be a true Highland Dancer it is important to know your Pas de basques, Fling steps and Sword steps. In the first of our Tales of Highland Dance series we explore some of the special steps and leaps involved in this highly energetic and precise dance form.
There are 5 positions of the feet so surely it can't be that hard? There are also 5 positions of the arms though and if you are like me it is the introduction of doing 2 different things with legs and arms that makes Highland Dancing rather more daunting. However apparently the best way to learn is to do the same number of minutes of practise per day as your age. Oh dear quite a lot for me then! We will not detail the positions for you as you can find them on any good Highland Dancing website but the thing to keep in mind is the weight of the body must be maintained over the supporting foot, this allows you to point and place the working foot correctly throughout the different movements.
Feeling inspired already?
Aspiring dancers require mastery of the four basic Highland dances, namely, the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, Seann Truibhas (pronounced ‘shawn trewes’), and the reel and of course all must be performed in the correct attire. More on that in a later blog.
The Highland Fling
History and origins of the dances are varied and the most common story is that the ‘Fling’ is that it is a celebratory dance, performed after victory in battle. Having survived battle the Clansmen tested their agility and skilled footwork further by dancing on a wooden shield with a spike protruding from the centre, also known as a targe. Other stories include the dance mimicking deer bounding across the heather, or stags at play with the arms representing the antlers, and the stags being an ancient sign of virility.
The Sword Dance
Also known as the Ghillie Callum, there is no better known Highland Dance than the Sword Dance, the ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael and said to date back to King Malcolm Canmore. The 2 crossed swords that dancers perform over today represent the original Ghillie Callum's bloody claymore (a two-handed broadsword particular to Scotland), which he crossed over the even bloodier sword of one of MacBeth's Chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1054, and on defeat danced a celebration. This dance of exultation became a tradition among the highland warriors, and in subsequent battles, clansman would cross their swords and dance around them in the same way. As well as showing off their superior fitness and talent, dancing without touching the swords was seen as a good omen for battles ahead. Today you lose 5 marks in competition if you touch a sword.
Gaelic for ‘Old Trousers’, some say that the dance was Higlanders showing off their new tartan trewes to the English King after the Act of Proscription, which banned the wearing of tartan, was repealed in 1783. Another variation of this interpretation is that the first part of the dance, which is slow and graceful represents a clansman wearing the trewes which they so hated for being restrictive (unlike the kilt); with the quick-time second part of the dance representing the Highlander’s returning joyfully to his traditional Highland dress. Freedom!
Reel of Tulloch
The reels are the "team" element of Highland dancing and are most similar to Scottish Country dancing. Each team consists of four dancers and each dancer is marked individually. Legend has it that the reel originated outside locked church in the Highland village of Tulloch, where it was danced by chilly parishioners stamping their feet and clapping their hands to keep warm as they waited for a tardy clergyman. The different reels performed by Highland Dancers include:
2. Strathspey and Half Tulloch
3. Strathspey and Highland Reel
4. Strathspey and Highland Reel and Half Tulloch.
We hope you have enjoyed learning more about Highland Dancing. We would love to hear from you if you are an expert and have some knowledge to share or simply love this beautiful Scottish tradition. We continue next week with an interview with the founder of the Highland Hustle, the latest dance fitness craze sweeping the nation.