Highland Dancing

   Highland Dancing originated in the Highlands of Scotland in the 11th Century. Margaret, the wife of King Malcolm Ceanmore, introduced popular Norman entertainments at the Scottish Court and it is likely that Modern Ballet and Highland Dancing had common roots in the classical dances of that day.
   While the dances at Highland Games are called Highland Dances; they are actually divided into Highland dances and National dances. Highland Dancing as a competition was started during the Highland Revival of the Victorian era and the dances were for men only. Many of the National dances were originally choreographed for women and the focus is more on the graceful movements than physical strength.
   Dance steps are standardized by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) and competitions are held world-wide. In the United States, six geographic regions hold a qualifying competition each spring from which the top three finalists from each region are selected to compete at the United States Inter-Regional Highland Dancing Championships. In the US, the kilt is required in Highland dancing competition.
   Traditionally, Highland Dancing and Scottish National Dancing competitions are done to bagpipes. The version pipers play today dates back to the 16th Century, when the MacCrimmon family, pipers for McLeod of Harris, worked out not only the form of the bagpipes, but also the intricate fingering on the chanter. The music itself consists of the melody, which is played on the chanter, backed up by continuous and unvarying tones from the three drone pipes.


   Judges evaluate a dancer on three major criteria: timing, technique and deportment.
   TIMING refers to the ability of the dancer to follow the rhythm of the music. Dancers must place feet, arms and head in very precise position simultaneously with the music.
   TECHNIQUE means the correct execution of footwork in coordination with head, arm and hand movements. 'Elevation,' or the ability to spring vigorously above the dance platform, counts heavily. But regardless of how showy a movement may appear, it can never really be a winner if performed out of position.
   GENERAL DEPORTMENT covers the interpretation the dancer displays in performing the dance. Balance and general appearance are very important. And, it's important that no matter how difficult the dance really is, the dancer must display supple movement with effortlessness, pleasure, freedom from elaborate showiness, and an unhurried attitude.

The Highland Fling

   The Highland Fling originated as wild dance of triumph following victory in battle. It is said to be inspired by the movement of the wild stag, the dancer's upraised arms representing the animal’s antlers. Danced vigorously and exultantly, it is now highly stylized and calls for the greatest skill in technique and exactness of timing. Despite the variety of steps, it should, for example, be danced throughout in the same position on the board, perhaps because originally the Highland Fling was said to have been done on the shield or 'targ' of the clansman. One can understand the quick footwork and dexterity of the dancer when it is pointed out that most targs carried a pinpoint sharp spike of steel projecting some 5-6 inches from its center. It has become the classic solo dance at modern competitive dancing events, and is often selected at competitions to decide who will be judged the best Highland dancer of the day.

The Sword Dance

   Like the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, or Ghillie Chalium has war as its basic theme. Today it is both picturesque and popular at Highland Games. Legend has it that in older times it was danced on the eve of battle, and that for the soldier to touch or displace the sword portended evil in the coming fight. There are many other theories regarding the origin of the Sword Dance, and one of the most attractive of these is that which tells how the great Malcolm Ceanmore, after having defeated one of MacBeth's chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1054, seized his opponents sword, placing it over his own to form a cross, over which he danced triumphantly to the wild music of the pipes.

Seann Triubhas

   Seann Triubhas (sheen trews) is Gaelic for "old trousers". It's said by some the dance came about in 1783 when the British Disarming Act of 1747 was finally repealed and Scots were allowed to wear their tartans and kilts once again. The dance mimics a Scot shedding his britches (during the slow, first part of the dance) and returning to his tradition of Highland dress and custom (during the final, up-tempo fling-like step).

Sailor's Hornpipe

   Originally a Celtic dance, the Hornpipe is one of the traditional solo dances of the British Isles. The costume is based on a British seaman's uniform. This dance is common to many parts of the British Isles. It derived its name from the fact that usually the musical accompaniment was played on a hornpipe rather than on bagpipes. Hornpipes were common instruments in those days; they were comparable to our present-day tin whistle. In time, the dance became popular among seafaring men and is now associated with sailors. The modern Hornpipe imitates many shipyard activities common in the days of wooden ships and iron men.

Strathspey and Highland Reel

   Of all the Highland Dancing events in which the competitors vie, the reels are the closest approach to social dancing. Even these, however, are individual competitions. While the teams consist of four dancers, the judges mark each competitor individually. Legend has it the reel originated with well-wishers waiting for the minister to arrive at the church for a wedding on a cold day. The chilly group danced as a means of keeping warm.

The Irish Jig

   This dance may seem to be out of place at Scottish Games, but the dance is an Irish tradition. The Scottish version, however, is meant to be a parody of an Irish washerwoman in an agitated frame of mind. While the steps are traditional, the arm movements are not. Arm movements are an intrinsic part of Scottish dance, and so the Scots added them to the Irish Jig as a humorous salute to their Celtic brethren across the Irish Sea.

Scottish Lilt / Flora MacDonald's Fancy / Scotch Measure / Earl of Errol

   These four dances (and others) are known as Scottish National dances. They're of a more modern origin and have been collected from old dance masters. In America, National dances were not danced in competition until the 1960s. The attire worn by female dancers is called the Aboyne dress, named after the Aboyne Highland Games of Scotland where up to this day, the wearing of the kilt is strictly forbidden to women. The National dances are very similar to Highland dances, but the style is more flowing and ballet-like. They require a lot of skill to execute correctly, and spectators will note that often the rhythms are more complicated than in conventional Highland dancing.