Ceilidh dancing has derived from the Old Time dances and couple dances that found their way onto the Scottish dance floor in the 19th century. The names of many of the common Ceilidh dances may well be familiar to you, such as The Dashing White Sergeant and The Gay Gordons.
This informal form of dancing has developed from the old village hall dances in the more rural parts of Scotland and has been largely untouched by any formal attempt to standardise its execution and formations. Today it is still the case that in some rural communities what would be called a Ceilidh dance in Glasgow or Edinburgh would just be a dance.
An important feature of this type of informal dance is its accessibility with just about anyone being able to get up and join in with minimal instruction. To aid in this, many Ceilidhs today would be run by a caller who selects the dances to be done and provides basic instruction to ensure that the evening can be enjoyed by everyone.
As well as dances derived or inspired by the Old Time dance tradition a typical ceilidh may also include some simple country dances, many of which have been part of the Scottish repertoire for many years, like for example, The Eightsome Reel.
Many Ceilidh dances have been part of the Scottish dancing scene for many years and are an intrinsic part of Scotland’s culture. If you are interested in running your own Ceilidh, please visit our Ceilidh in a box page for tips on how to organise your own!
To get you started instructions for some of the well known Ceilidh dances can be found by following the links below.
The earliest reference to a dance called ‘The Gay Gordons’ is from the early 20th Century and the title refers to the Gordon Highlanders army regiment.
Couple facing the line of dance: the men with their partner on their right and with both hands joined, left in left, right in right and the right above left. The man raises his partner’s right hand over her head to hold it just above, but not resting on, her right shoulder. The left hands and arms are held away from the body. Note: this is referred to as allemande hold.
Music: 4/4 or 6/8 Marches
2 counts per bar.
1 - 2: In allemande hold, walk forward for four steps along the line of dance, starting on the right foot.
3 - 4: Still moving in the same direction, and retaining hands, each dancer turns on the spot (so left hands are joined behind woman’s left shoulder and right hands joined in front) and take four steps walking backwards in the same direction, along the line of dance.
5 - 8: Repeat bars 1 - 4 in the opposite direction, against the line of dance.
9 -12: Releasing left hands, raise right hands above woman's head, the man walks forward as the woman turns under his arm. (A common variation is both dancers to set away from partner and back).
13 -16: Taking ballroom hold, the couple dances a waltz turn to finish ready to begin again.
This dance dates from the late 19th Century and has been attributed to David Anderson of Dundee. The dance is based on very old Scottish formations of ‘setting’ and ‘reeling’. A similar dance called ‘The Highland Reel’ and which may possibly have inspired the Dashing White Sergeant appears in Scottish dance manuals 20 years before the publication of The Dashing White Sergeant.
Three facing three round the room (man with two women or a woman with two men).
Music: 32 bar reel - ‘The Dashing White Sergeant’
2 counts per bar.
1 - 8: All circle six hands round to the left and back to the right. Finish in original Iines of three.
9 - 12: The middle dancer in each group of three, faces the right hand partner, set to each other and, giving right hands, turns or swings once round. The left hand partner stands still.
13 -16: Facing left hand partner, repeat bars 9 - 12.
17 - 24: Dance reels of three, the centre dancer passes the right hand partner left shoulder to begin. (A common variation is for the centre dancer to turn or swing each of their partners in turn, beginning right hand with the right hand partner, then left hand to the left hand partner.)
25 - 28: Joining hands, in lines of three, advance and retire.
29 - 32: Both lines dance forwards, one line raising their hands in an arch and the other line dancing underneath, and dance on to meet the next line of three coming in the other direction.
Repeat with the next three dancers.
Believed to have been originally devised by B. Durrands and has been popular all over Scotland since the late 19th Century.
Couple side by side both facing the line of dance in open hold dance with nearer hands joined, men with their partners on their right.
Music: 6/8 or 2/4 marches
When this is danced to 2/4 pipe marches it is frequently known as the Highland Barn Dance.
2 counts per bar.
Description here is for 6/8 music, when danced to 2/4 marches the whole dance takes 8 bars with 4 counts per bar
1- 4: Starting with outside foot walk forward for three steps and hop, walk backwards for three steps and hop
5- 8: Step, close, step, away from partner and clap, step, close, step, towards partner and clap (men towards the centre, women outwards). Return to partner in waltz hold.
9-12: Chasse sideways to the man's left for two steps and back
13-16: Taking ballroom hold, polka (step hop on alternate feet) round the room along the line of dance.
The Highland Schottische was introduced in 1850s and was initially known as the ‘Balmoral Schottische’.
Couple facing each other in ballroom hold, men with their backs to the centre of the room and left shoulder facing line of dance. Note: this dance is frequently danced in an open hold both facing the line of dance and arms round partner’s waist, men with partner on their right.
4 counts per bar.
1: Men with left foot, women with right, point foot in direction of line of dance, bring foot towards instep of supporting foot, repeat. Hop on supporting foot on each of these four counts.
2: Take two sidesteps along line of dance, man starting with left foot woman with right, hopping on front foot on count 4, (step, close, step, hop).
3 - 4: Repeat bars 1 - 2 in opposite direction against the line of dance.
5: Take two side-steps along line of dance, man starting with left foot woman with right, hopping on front foot on count 4, (step, close, step, hop).
6: Repeat bar 5 in opposite direction against the line of dance.
7 - 8: In ballroom hold, polka, rotating clockwise and following line of dance anticlockwise around the room., (step, hop, step, hop, step, hop, step).
Originally devised by James Finnigan in the late 19th Century as the ‘Victoria Cross’ but became popular when his daughter published it in the early 20th Century as ‘The Military Two Step’.
Couple side by side both facing the line of dance in open hold, with nearer hands joined, men with their partners on their right.
Music: 6/8 marches or two step
2 counts per bar.
1 - 4: With outside foot, tap heel forward then toe and repeat, walk forward for 3 steps and turn towards partner to face against the line of dance.
5 - 8: Repeat bars 1 - 4 back to starting place and finish facing partner with both hands joined.
9 - 10: Jump and kick right foot, jump and kick left foot (or set).
11 - 12: Man turns his partner under his raised right arm.
13 - 16: Taking ballroom hold, the couples dance a waltz turn to finish ready to begin again.
Exact origin of this dance is unclear but seems to have started to become popular about 1913.
Couple facing each other in ballroom hold, men with their backs to the centre of the room and left shoulder facing line of dance.
1 - 4: Side step along the line of the dance three times (step, close, step close, step close) and stamp lightly on the spot for two counts.
5 - 6: Take two side steps against the line of dance
7 - 8: Take two steps towards the centre of the dance: man moving backwards, starting with left foot and woman moving forwards starting with right foot.
9 - 10: Take two steps back towards the outside of the room: man starting left foot.
11 - 12: Woman turns under man’s left arm while man steps to left.
13 - 16: Taking ballroom hold, the couples dances a waltz turn to finish ready to begin again.
Originally arranged by Charles Wood of Edinburgh in 1911.
Couple side by side both facing the line of dance in open hold, with nearer hands joined, men with partner on their right.
1 - 4: Facing the line of dance with nearer hands joined, swing the inner leg forward and back, then walk forwards for three steps. Finish by turning towards partner to face in opposite direction: against line of dance.
5 - 8: Repeat bars 1 - 4 against the line of dance.
9 -10: Join hands, facing partner, man moves to right by crossing left foot over right then point right foot to side, while woman moves to her left crossing right foot over left and pointing left foot to side.
11 - 12: Repeat bars 9 - 10 in opposite direction.
13 - 16: Turn away from partner (man pulling left shoulder back and woman pulling right shoulder back by right). Complete the turn to finish facing partner.
17 - 20: With both hands joined, balance forward and back and change places the man turning the woman under his raised right hand.
21 - 24: Repeat bars 17 - 20 back to places.
25 - 28: Taking ballroom hold or joining both hands with partner, chasse along the line of dance and then chasse against the line of dance.
29 - 32: Taking ballroom hold, the couples dance a waltz turn to finish ready to begin again.