Your questions about Scottish Country Dance technique answered
Our Technique Advisory Panel is here to answer your questions about Scottish Country Dance steps and technique.
Previous questions the panel has answered are shown below. Please click on the topic to expand for the questions and its answer.
Q. “When dancing an allemande, some people have their hands and arms in allemande hold by the end of the previous phrase, others lift them on the first beat of the first bar of the allemande. Is there a standard way of starting an allemande?”
A. In many of the earlier RSCDS dances, allemande was usually preceded by the 1st couple dancing a solo figure, such as “lead down the middle and up.” I such cases, where 2nd couple have to step in behind 1st couple, current RSCDS practice is still that both couples bring their arms, from promenade hold, over into allemande hold at the start of the first bar of the allemande.
In quick time there is the danger of a jerky movement of the arms, leading to a lack of elegance. The bringing of the arms into allemande hold is easier to manage in strathspeys, but in The Robertson Rant, the turn into allemande hold is usually done in a more leisurely fashion, occupying the whole of the first bar.
In dances where everyone involved in the allemande is turning immediately prior to the allemande, all the dancers usually finish with arms in full allemande hold at the end of the preceding phrase of music. This is current RSCDS practice in dances such as: Miss Hadden’s Reel, Wisp of Thistle and Joie de Vivre.
Q. What shape should this be? Is it a rounded triangle or a four- sided kite? Is the passing back to back principally on bar 2, or does it also use bar 3?
A. The danger in this formation is for dancers to advance too far (almost to the opposite side). It should be danced closely back to back on bars 2 and 3 and so should not be an angular movement - closer to a rounded triangle than a kite if that is how you want to describe it.
Don’t get too mathematical about the analysis of the pattern but because of the footwork on bars 2 and 3 (moving to the right on both steps) it is probably correct to say most of the passing back to back is on bar 3 when the right foot is leading.
Traditionally this formation was taught so that the dancers should be at least half way through the formation, by the end of the second bar, in order to facilitate the retiral - that is to say they should be back-to-back, or have just passed that position.
Q. Clarification of when and how the dancing couple should acknowledge each other during the dance. Question: Has there been a decision that the dancing couple should acknowledge each other with a bow / curtsey in 3rd place, before stepping down to 4th place?
A. No, nothing has changed - bows and curtseys should be reserved for the beginning and end of the dance
In social dancing, a small acknowledgment by nodding to partner when the couple reach 4th place is often seen, and perfectly acceptable. However, in more formal situations such as demonstrations, it does not usually occur.
While not wishing in any way to discourage any social aspect of SCD, this has to be balanced with the needs of the dance - fourth couple usually step up at the start of the next repetition of the dance, so it is up to the original first couple to step down at the same time.
Q. Defining whether the formation lasting 8 bars which involves three couples should be called "Diagonal Rights & Lefts" or be called "Two, half Diagonal Rights & Lefts" Question: Should the formation which lasts 8 bars, and involves three couples, be called "Diagonal Rights & Lefts" or "Two, half Diagonal Rights & Lefts"? (i.e. the last 8 bars of "The Whistling Wind")
- The Society has not defined a formation called "Diagonal Rights& Lefts" - but the Irish Rover has been danced for more than 35 years, and people have been calling the last 8 bars "Diagonal Rights& Lefts" for at least that long.
- The problem is that the deviser, J Cosh, did not call it that - he just said who changed hand with whom, and with which hand.
- So when the Society published "The Whistling Wind" it used a similar form of words for the last 8 bars (although this has not prevented people describing the last 8 bars as "Diagonal Rights & Lefts"!).
To answer the specific question:
The difference between the first 4 bars of "Rights & Lefts", and the 4 bars of "Half Rights & Lefts" is the "polite turn" at the end of the second.
So Diagonal Rights & Lefts (or Rights & Lefts on the Diagonal) would last 8 bars, be danced by the same 4 people, and there would only be a "polite turn" at the very end.(The most recent dance published by the Society which contains this is "The Dream Catcher", but that is in a square set).
Therefore the formation which is normally danced (i.e. the last 8 bars of both "The Irish Rover" and "Whistling Wind") strictly speaking consists of Two, "Half Diagonal Rights & Lefts", as there is a "polite turn" at the end of both bars 4 and 8. It does occur as a 4 bar formation in "Eileen Watt's Strathspey".
Q. I have a query about the Half Poussette (Strathspey) - when do 1st lady and 2nd man change back to right foot - is it permissible after 2 bars or do they finish the figure before changing feet at the end of 4 bars?
A. I would never advocate changing feet in the middle of a formation nor does the Manual indicate this should be done. The answer to this question is to complete the formation before changing feet back.
Q. During verbally coaching is it good practise to use the term wheel to describe the formation hands across?
A. Much depends on ambient noise levels, the number of dancer’s involved, their own understanding of the term, whether everyone speaks the same language and the diction of the teacher. In most circumstances it would be advisable to avoid using the term wheel, which rhymes with the word reel and can be confusing for dancers with language or hearing issues.
Right hands across or left hands across are less confusing to the ear when calling a dance pattern.
Q. Should hands be joined at chest height or at waist height? How should dancers move in to meet at the start of the formation; do they curve in or dance diagonally down?
A. Hand height depends very much on the respective heights of partners. Generalising on waist height leads to hands too low, while generalising on chest height leads to hands too high! The optimum is somewhere in between. We seldom have partners whose waist is at the same height as our own but leading nearer waist than chest height is preferable here. The Manual has it right saying "about waist height" (para 6.17.1)
Traditionally the entry has been taught by dancing diagonally down to meet your partner on bar 1
Often dancers go straight in to meet partners but that spoils the flow of "down the middle".
Curving in-and-down may be felt to be more sociable, but a diagonal start gives more flight.
Q. During recent workshops we had visiting teachers tell us that, yes you are to give hands in mirror reels and another who said, no the custom is now to only use hands to help beginning dancers. I cannot find anything in the Manual. Can you please help?
A. The joining of hands, in mirror reels of three, varies depending on the dance. Hands should only be joined if the dance devisor specifies this in their dance instructions. When teaching mirror reels of three for the first time to beginners, the joining of hands can be used as a teaching aid, but then the reels are danced without joining hands. It must be emphasised that hands are only joined if stated in the dance instructions.
Q. I have recently been told that the jeté in the pas de basque begins on the third beat but does not finish until the fourth beat of the measure (reel time). In other words, the leg in jeté should not be fully extended on beat three, but reaches extension sometime during the fourth beat. Please tell me whether that is correct, and whether completing the jeté by the end of the third beat would be considered wrong and result in failure if taught in that way in an examination?
A. The consensus of opinion is that the jeté comes out and is fully extended by the end of the third beat and the position is held as the transition is made. Taking your Tutor’s advice and following the instructions in the current Manual on pas de basque will be helpful in an examination.
Q. Clarification of the third position used in dancing pas de basque - Question: Is the third position used in the pas de basque different from that used in skip change, and should the feet come into contact?
A. As stated in the latest edition of the Manual, page 75, the third position used in pas de basque is a modification of that used in skip change, in that the heel of the front foot is placed slightly over the instep.
When dancing the step, the front foot is placed sufficiently far from the back foot that, if the heel was lowered to the ground, it would just come into contact with the back foot as it scraped past.
Slight contact is made by the instep of the rear foot just coming into contact with the front foot, as the change of weight occurs, i.e. as the rear foot comes off the ground. (To quote from one well respected teacher and examiner: "Dirty marks on the instep at the end of an evening are a sign of steps being danced correctly").
Q. Does the original 4th couple stay in second place after dancing as leading couple once OR do they slip to the foot of the set when the 5th couple dances as the leading couple?
A. It is recommended that after the original 4th couple dances once through the dance as leading couple, they then step down to fifth place.
This allows the original 5th couple to dance once through the dance as the leading couple.
At the beginning of a dance/ball, the MC should announce "that in the situation where a 5th couple has been added to a four-couple set, the original 4th couple, after dancing once as leading couple, should step down to 5th place.
" By following this method of progression, it ensures that each couple dances for the maximum amount of time during the dance".
Q. When the Manual uses the phrase, "dances round the loop by his right", does this meant the dancer's right shoulder is towards the center of the loop? If so, should bar 3-4 of the basic reel of three across the dance (6.23.2) read that the 2nd man dances round the loop by his left (rather than his right)?
A. There is an error in the instructions of the printed Manual which will be corrected in the new edition; however the electronic Manual on the website is correct. In bars 3-4 of the basic reel across the dance, the 2nd man dances to the left round the loop.
Q. Clarification of how far into and outside the set dancers should go when dancing reels of three on the side, assuming that unlimited space is available. Question: For a display team, dancing with unlimited space, how far into and outside the set should dancers go when dancing a reel of three on the side?
A. The axis of the reels should be along the sidelines of the set. The dancers should come sufficiently far in from the sidelines so that they could just touch hands if required, and this means that they should go out by the same amount.
It should be noted that this is very different from the usual social dancing experience, where one has to take account of the available space, which must be fairly shared with other dancers. With unlimited space available, the set will be wider than normal, and the space used by the dancers outside the set will also be wider, to preserve the balance.
Q. Describing the position of dancers during a Strathspey Poussette. Question: When are the dancers supposed to be in a diagonal line when dancing a Strathspey Poussette? (And has this been changed recently?)
A. The dancers form a diagonal line at the end of bar 1, and again at the end of bar 4.
As they dance bars 3 and 6, they pass through the diagonal from 1st ladies' place to 2nd man's place, but they dance the turns during bars 4 and 7 in the middle of the set.
This is as described in both editions of the Manual, and has not been changed for many years.
Note: The Poussette in New Park does not contain these diagonals, as the couples are in the centre of the set at the end of bars 1 and 4.
Q. How, when and why was the description of the all-round/diamond poussette changed to the present wording?
A. The first description of this formation is given in the dance New Park in Book 19 (1957), but it involves 1st and 3rd couples dancing, while 2nd couple stand still on the sidelines between them. The diagrams certainly indicate that the two couples dance straight in towards each other to start, finishing angled diagonally, but not in the same diagonal line, at the end of bar 1. Book 19, however, did have a large number of errata and corrections to many of the diagrams. This formation became known as the “diamond” poussette.
99 More Scottish Country Dances was published in 1963. In it Miss Milligan describes the strathspey poussette, with diagrams, pretty much in line with the current RSCDS Manual description. It shows very clearly 1st and 2nd couples in the same diagonal line during bar 1.
In 1968, in “Introducing Scottish Country Dancing”, Miss Milligan gives a more detailed description of the formation, “On 1, 1st and 2nd couples dance into a diagonal line from 2nd lady to 1st man – 1st lady and 2nd man back to back in the middle.”
Both editions of the Manual have followed the descriptions set out in 1963, 1968 and 1976 as the basis of the current wording.
Q. How high on the toes should you dance in this step? Some teachers emphasise that it is fairly low on the balls of the feet, but some RSCDS video footage shows dancers quite high on their toes.
A. All steps should be danced on the ball of the foot (Manual para 5.3). Teachers often say "on your toes" in an effort to get dancers off their heels and for most of us this will only achieve getting on to the ball of the foot. Those with Highland or ballet training will dance higher.
The forward thrust from the rear foot and supporting leg on beat 1 is both easier, and more effective, from a low position, but some dancers do close up in third position in a slightly higher position.
Q. Can you please advise if there is a recommended technique for the joining of hands in the hub of three hands across?
A. In three hands across, a secure method is for each dancer to give a shake-hand hold to the other two dancers, treating their hands as a single hand. Alternatively, two dancers, usually the dancing couple, may give a shake-hand hold, the third dancer placing his/her hand on the top.
Q. When do the couples release hands to change from promenade hold to one hand?
A. Both couples change from using both hands in promenade hold to one hand towards the end of the fourth step, so that all finish in a line up and down the middle of the set, the women facing towards the man's side and the men facing towards the woman's side of the dance. (The couple at the top retain right hands, and the couple at the bottom retain left hands.)
Q. In the formation "Turn and Cast", where should the dancing couple be positioned at the end of bar 2 of the turn? Should they be back out to the sides, heading into their cast at the end of this second bar to accommodate the 2nd couple who is stepping up or just be starting toward the sides at the end of bar 2?
A. To answer this, we must accommodate the size of the set and the ability of the dancers. The Manual instructions could be interpreted as finishing bar 2 within the set but in an ideal world I would be looking for dancers to complete their second step back on the sidelines and continue dancing out and down on bar 3. Describe it as "Complete the turn and dance through side position on bar 2 to cast on bars 3 and 4".
Whether or not this can be achieved will depend on the ability of the dancers and stepping up/down by the supporting couples may have to be more "in and up" (ref Manual 6.32.2).
'Technique' Classes spent considerable amounts of time, in the 60s and 70s, practising just those two bars, emphasising that the dancing couple should be back where they started, facing out, at the end of bar 2. Dancers should think of the first bar as "In AND Turn" leaving most of the second bar for the return to the sidelines.
Q. The question relates to the two-couple knot, and comes out of a certain lack of specificity in the Manual's instructions for bars 3-4. I was taught that at the end of bar 3, the leading (2nd) couple should have danced out and turned halfway to end facing up the ladies' side (following couple has danced down to second position, facing down the set). At the end of bar 4, the leading couple has danced up the ladies' side and the following couple has fully wheeled around to come in behind them. My friend argues that a lack of specificity in the Manual instructions allows for the following interpretation: at the end of bar 3, the leading couple has just gone a quarter turn to face out the ladies' side as following couple has danced down. In bar 4, leading couple completes another quarter turn and dances up as the following couple wheels around. Is there one right way to phrase this formation?
A. Although the description in the Manual covers two bars at a time, the preferred method of phrasing is that at the end of bar 3 the leading couple are beginning to face up on the women’s side, and they dance up the sidelines on bar 4, while the other couple, following behind, wheels round to face up on bar 4.
Q. Traditional ballroom steps used for the modern waltz do not lend themselves to Scottish waltz tempo. Is it correct to adapt steps from the Viennese waltz, which is closer to the Scottish waltz tempo? Are there any instructional videos depicting the Scottish Waltz?
A. The Society has never defined how to perform a Scottish waltz so, as there is no definition of "Correct", then using modified Viennese waltz steps isn't "wrong".
Waltz Country Dance is the only proper waltz that has been published by the Society, but it is only during the last eight bars where the couples waltz round each other that normal waltz steps are used. There is a video "Step We Ceilidh - On We Go" that shows this dance.
There are two other Society dances which are in waltz time, The Yellow-Haired Laddie (Book 12), and Lochanside (MacNab 2), but in neither of these are the couples in ballroom hold.
Doing proper waltz steps in shoes without a heel is very difficult, and Scottish dancers usually don't get as close together as ballroom dancers, which makes turning harder. Scottish dancers also have a problem in dancing a basic waltz movement of "step, step, close" because they spend so much time practising a pas de basque "step, close, beat".
There is therefore no problem in using any suitable step during the waltzes played at Scottish dances.
Q. Can't find an answer to your question?
A. We are constantly updating this page to reflect questions sent in by dancers. If you have a question that we have not answered above then please visit our Steps & Techniques page for more information. If the answer is not there, please get in touch with the RSCDS office and we will be happy to advise.