Quick start guide

Get started with Scottish Country Dance

Country Dancing is a form of dance performed by groups of couples usually in long lines with the men and women facing each other.  A group of dancers arranged in this pattern is called a set, with each set consisting of three or more couples: the men have their left shoulder nearest the music or the ‘top’ of the ‘set’ and couples are numbered from 1 through to 4 with couple number one being at the top of the set.

An important feature of country dancing is that it is progressive. After each turn of the dance, the couple at the top finish one place further down. Each of the other couples, having reached the top, take their turn as leading couple.

A typical Scottish country dance consists of a series of formations that are arranged in a different sequence for each dance, hence, having mastered the basic steps and some of the formations, a Scottish country dancer should be able to participate happily and easily wherever there is country dancing.

Many aspects of Scottish Country Dancing can be confusing to the new dancer. Don’t let that put you off as a bit of perseverance in learning the basics soon pays off and a whole world of fun and enjoyment awaits.

So let’s get started - you have a partner and you are now arranged on the dance floor in a set with three other couples and the music is about to begin, so what else do you need to know?  Well, there are a number of basics that need to be understood in order to get started, the first of which is the music and how it fits the dance.

Scottish dancing mainly uses three musical rhythms - Jigs, Reels and Strathspeys.  Jigs and reels being faster than strathspeys.  Nearly all traditional music is written in 8 bar phrases and Scottish music is no exception to this.  By far the majority of Scottish dances are done using 32 bars for one turn through the dance, hence, with four couples in a typical set and each couple dancing a dance twice before they get to the bottom of the set means that the commonest dance structure for SCD is eight times through each 32 bar turn, hence you will see the terminology 8 x 32 bars for a dance.

Most formations take 8 bars of music, which means that most dances have four formations (one of which is a progression). So for a simple dance to get you started you need to remember just four formations.

Basic steps

There are many ways to do Scottish country dances, from using formal dance steps all the way through to using walking steps. All are fine, what is most important is that you enjoy the dances and do your best to keep in time with the music and try and be in the right place at the right time! This ‘quick guide’ describes how to do two of the basic steps in a very straightforward and easy to understand manner.

Steps used for moving are called travelling steps; steps used for dancing on the spot are called setting steps.

Travelling steps are used for moving about the set, which is part of creating the shapes and formations that are an intrinsic part of country dancing.  

Country dancers use skip change of step (hop, step, close, step), which is done as follows:

  1. Hop on the left foot and
  2. Step onto the right foot
  3. Close the left foot behind the right foot
  4. Step onto the right foot again

This is one step and occupies one bar of music in reel or jig time. To continue travelling, the step is repeated with the left foot.

If the above seems a bit daunting then just use a basic skipping step - two skips take one bar of jig or reel time music.

Setting steps are used for dancing (setting) on the spot and is commonly used when setting to your partner. 

In reel or jig time the setting step used is called the pas de basque and a basic description is:

  1. Step to the right
  2. Bring the left foot to the right foot and transfer weight onto the left foot and bring the right foot off the floor
  3. Transfer weight back to the right foot and
  4. Extend the left foot forwards and to the left

This is then repeated, starting to the left.

The whole of this sequence: setting on the right foot and then on the left foot is one setting step and takes 2 bars of music.

Basic formations

This formation is often called a wheel, the hands joined in the centre forming the hub.  Dance in to join right hands with the diagonally opposite dancer and all dance round for four steps.  Release hands, turn inwards to face the opposite direction.  Join left hands with the diagonally opposite dancer and all dance round to original places.  This formation takes eight bars of music and travelling steps are used.

Join hands in a circle and dance round to the left and back again to the right. Sometimes called hands round, where the number of hands indicates the number of dancers in the circle.  Four hands round is for four dancers, six hands round is for six dances etc.  A circle, round and back, usually takes eight bars of music.  In jigs and reels slip step is used and in strathspey time strathspey travelling step is used.

Casting may be a form of progression.  To cast off one place the dancers turn to the top of the set, face out and dance down behind the next couple to finish one place down, facing each other across the set.  To cast up one place the dancers turn to the bottom of the set, face out and dance up behind the next couple to finish one place up, facing each other across the set. This usually takes two bars of music and travelling steps are used.

There are many formations that involve corners.  To identify corners:

In a longwise set:

1st couple begin, back to back, in the middle the set in second place, facing the opposite sides. First corners are diagonally on the right of 1st couple and second corners diagonally on the left.

Rights and lefts is a formation for two couples, in a square, with partners facing each other across the set to begin.   Sometimes dancers begin by facing a dancer who is not their partner, the pattern of the formation is the same.

Bars

1 - 2       Both couples, giving right hands to partners, cross over.

3 - 4       Both men (on the women’s side) and both women (on the men’s side), giving left hands, change places.

5 – 6      Both couples, give right hands to partners, cross over.

 

Some simple Scottish Country Dance instructions

Armed with the above information it is possible to get through your first Scottish country dance and start out on this great adventure.

This section is, of course, a very brief ‘quick’ guide - should you wish more information follow the appropriate links on the learn Scottish Country Dancing home page

Sets of four couples in longwise formation. After one turn through the dance, the dancing couple finish in second place and repeat the dance from this position, dancing with the two couples below them and finish at the bottom of the set. After two turns the new top couple begins.

Music: 8 x 32 bar jig

2 counts per bar

Tune: The Machine without Horses

Bars

1 – 4: 1st couple set and cast off one place. 2nd couple step up on bars 3-4.

5 – 8: 1st and 3rd couples dance right hands across once round.

9 – 12: 1st couple set and cast up one place. 2nd couple step down on bars 11-12.

13 – 16: 1st and 2nd couples dance left hands across once round.

17 – 24: 1st couple, followed by 2nd couple who dance up the sides to begin, dance down between 3rd couple, cast up round them, dance up to the top, and cast off into second place, and 2nd couple dance up to top place.

25 – 32: 2nd and 1st couples dance rights and lefts.

Repeat, having passed a couple.

Source: Rutherford's Complete Collection of 200 of the most Celebrated Country Dances, 1775 and RSCDS Book 12. 

Sets of four couples in longwise formation. After one turn through the dance, the dancing couple finish in second place and repeat the dance from this position, dancing with the two couples below them and finish at the bottom of the set. After two turns the new top couple begins.

Music: 8 x 32 bar reel (2 counts per bar)

Tune: The Drunken Piper

Bars

1 – 8: 1st couple set to each other and cast off two places, meet below 3rd couple and lead up the middle to face first corners. 2nd couple step up on bars 3-4.

9 – 12: 1st couple set to and turn first corners with the right hand, finishing in a diagonal line by joining left hands with partner. (Fig.)

13 – 14: 1st couple and first corners balance in line (set).

15 – 16: 1st couple, releasing right hands with corners, turn each other one and a quarter times to face second corners.

17 – 22: 1st couple repeat bars 9-14 with second corners.

23 – 24: 1st couple cross to second place on own sides.

25 – 32: 2nd, 1st and 3rd couples dance six hands round and back.

Repeat, having passed a couple.

Source: This dance was devised by members of the 51st Highland Division when they were POW’s during WWW 2. The dance depicts a Saint Andrew′s Cross formation which was intended to symbolise Scotland and the Highland Division. The dance was published in 1945 by the RSCDS in book 13. The full story of the writing of this dance and further details can be found  at www.historyinanhour.com/2014/06/04/history-reel-51st-division

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