Dancing through the Alphabet

Back in March, in a fairly short-lived bid to keep the work blog live during lockdown, I wrote a bibliographical alphabet. I have been toying with the idea of doing something similar on my own blog so, at last, here it is.

Be ALERT – your country dancing needs lerts, as the old saying more-or-less goes! Perhaps you’re in third place during Flowers of Edinburgh, where you don’t actually dance, but first couple dances round you. If your thoughts wander, and maybe your feet or elbows do too, you could do someone a mischief. And, if you’re not paying attention and don’t realise when a dance restarts, you won’t be ready to join in when it’s your turn.

BARS – no, not the type where you buy alcohol, although they’re quite popular too! Scottish country dance steps take one bar of music each (except slip step, which come two to a bar) and most dances are in 8-bar phrases. Beware of The Wee Cooper of Fife and his family, which are in 10-bar phrases to fit the song tune.

The vast majority of Scottish country dances begin and end with a CHORD to acknowledge your PARTNER with a bow or curtsy. Occasionally, such as at the start of The Bonnie Lass o’ Bon Accord, there is an 8-bar introduction instead, but it serves the same purpose.

DANCING vs DANCES – there are thousands of different Scottish country dances, with new ones being written all the time (guilty!), so no-one can possibly remember them all. The key is to learn the ELEMENTS of SCD – in other words, the steps and formations – so that if someone hisses, for example, “right hands across” at you, you know what they’re talking about and can react appropriately.

Scottish country dancing is all about FUN, FITNESS and FRIENDSHIP, as the RSCDS slogan says. I can never remember the order the Society uses, but it doesn’t really matter. They’re all important. If you’re not enjoying it, there’s probably no point carrying on; the fitness happens without you really noticing; I’ve made so many new friends through dancing, and it’s how my parents met each other.

The GAY GORDONS is a ceilidh dance which you’ll likely meet at Scottish weddings. The differences between ceilidh and country dancing include the number of available dances (there are far fewer ceilidh dances) and the level of knowledge needed (none for a ceilidh, if there’s a good caller). HIGHLAND dancing is another form of Scottish dancing, with more complicated steps and much less social than country dancing as it is for individuals or small numbers, rather than in SETS. Highland is often competitive; country dancing rarely so. The best known Highland dances are the Highland Fling and the Sword Dance. I don’t know how often I’ve told people I’m a Scottish country dancer and been asked about these, and about competitions. (I used to be able to dance a Four Step Fling, but now can’t remember all four steps; I competed in the Inverclyde Festival in 1996, 1997 and 1998, but never before or since.)

Scottish country dancing is a truly INTERNATIONAL activity. You don’t need Scots heritage to take part. I have danced in many European countries, as well as Russia, New York and San Francisco. Many of my blog posts are about such events. I have dancing friends from all over the world, and am a member of the International Branch of the RSCDS which was set up for those of us who don’t live near a physical branch.

Scottish country dancing has been bringing me great JOY for over 35 years. It can be a challenge, which mentally can be good thing, and it provides enjoyable exercise and company (see under F).

Most men who dance regularly wear the KILT on formal occasions, and some other times too. Although I enjoy getting dressed up, and feel more elegant than usual in a posh frock with carefully matched jewellery, I often envy those who simply have to take a shirt and tie out of the wardrobe and not worry about what they wore last time they met this particular group of dancers, or whether anyone else will be wearing the same.

Everybody learns in different ways, but LOOKING at other dancers and LISTENING to the the teacher and the music will certainly help. Looking at the floor won’t teach you anything. To borrow a quotation from Angela Young, “there’s no money on the floor. I’m from Aberdeen, so I’ve already checked.”

There is a brilliant range of recorded MUSIC available these days, and modern technology means the record doesn’t jump every time someone dances an energetic pas de basque, but every dancer enjoys the opportunity to dance to live MUSICIANS – dead ones are nowhere near as good! The Dublin SCD Club is very lucky most weeks to have John and Judy Barnes on accordion and fiddle respectively.

Don’t worry if you make a mistake – there’s always NEXT TIME. Many dances are eight times through, with each of the four couples dancing from each position twice, so although the progression may be confusing at first, persevere and all will fall into place. If that doesn’t work, do some homework and try again next week!

Scottish country dancing is sociable. You are usually dancing as half of a couple in a SET with other couples so keep an eye on the OTHER DANCERS. They may be able to help you if you are unsure, or you may be able to help them. The most important of these others is usually your PARTNER. You are often mirroring what they do and, after all, one of you asked the other to dance, so it’s good manners to keep half an eye on them, at least. And don’t forget to thank them at the end of the dance (see CHORD above).

Reels and jigs are QUICK-TIME dances which both use the same steps. There are similar tempi in other dance forms, such as Irish. Ceilidh dances (see under G) are generally quick-time.

The RSCDS – Royal Scottish Country Dance Society – is a Scottish charity which standardises the teaching of SCD so that it remains INTERNATIONAL. I have written about the importance of the Society in my life here.

There are a number of words in Scottish dance terminology which have more than one meaning. One of these is SET. Setting steps are performed on the spot, generally to the person you’re facing, who sets back. To set once is to perform two setting steps – one right and one left – and thus takes two BARS of music. Most Scottish country dances are danced in a set of two or more couples. They can be longwise (with all the men on one side, facing their partners), square or triangular. I’m not aware of other shapes, but they may well exist. I find the easiest way to explain to Irish people what type of dancing I do is to liken it to Irish set dancing.

TEACHERS (qualified or otherwise) are as important as MUSICIANS in making dancing enjoyable. I always enjoy attending classes by different teachers, and try to pick up methods of explanation from them as well as learning to improve my own dancing.

The Strathspey is a tempo UNIQUE to Scotland and made famous by James Scott Skinner, ‘The Strathspey King’. It lends itself to slow, elegant dances (with more time to think!).

One of the aspects I love about Scottish country dancing is the VARIETY. There are different people at each event; every teacher has a different style; the same is true of bands; and no two programmes are the same. Some people think there are too many dances, but I am lucky enough to have the ability to read a crib (brief description of a dance) and nearly always be able to visualise it well enough to dance it.

Every dancer gets a “WHAT on earth comes next?” or “WHERE am I going?” look in their eyes at some time or other. Advanced dancers learn the knack of reading this and responding in a discreet and timely fashion. I remember an occasion when I was a student, an elderly lady in my set hissed “I KNOW!” at me, but I’d actually been trying to help her partner, who was looking blank, and not talking to her at all. I’d obviously not learnt discretion at that stage!

As I said earlier, in longwise sets there is a man’s side and a ladies’ side, but some formations bring dancers to the opposite (not ‘wrong’, because it’s deliberate) side. In English dancing, this is known as ‘improper’. On crib sheets, it’s shown as X. For example, if first couple cross down one place and second couple step up to make room for them, this would be written 2, 1X, 3, 4.

The YOUNGER HALL, at the University of St. Andrews, is one of the most special places to dance. On the Monday, Thursday and Friday evenings of RSCDS Summer School, dances are held there with different MUSICIANS each night. The week I was there in 2017 was also the Musicians’ Course and, on the Saturday night, all 20+ participants were on stage for the evening dance. It was such a great atmosphere. Another great thing about the Younger Hall is the floor – it is so well sprung it is a pleasure to dance on it.

ZZZZZ is how I feel when I’ve come down from the high of a great night’s dancing, especially if I have a dram and a bath. No doubt it is also how you feel, having read this very long blog post, so I’ll stop here.

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