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Scottish Country Dancing
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Culture & history

This information was kindly provided by

The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS) Edinburgh

Website: www.rscds.org

Promoting Scottish Country Dancing Throughout the World

Today the term “Scottish Country Dance” embraces the social, usually progressive, dances of Scotland which have evolved from many traditions and are danced throughout the world with much pleasure by Scots and non-Scots alike.

The English Court of Elizabeth I was much taken with all things pastoral and the figure dances of the countryside, many set to Scottish or Irish tunes, became very popular and were called Country Dances. The constant influence of one European Court upon the other meant that the dancers were always absorbing new ideas of style and content. The greatest flowering of this form of dance was in the assembly rooms of the 18th century. Edinburgh, during this period of enlightenment, emulated the European capitals and dance assemblies, conducted with utmost decorum, flourished. Other cites and towns soon followed and dancing became an accepted part of social interaction.

Scotland, of course, had other traditions of dance and once north of the border the country dances incorporated features from older strathspeys, reels, rants and jigs, etc. This was now a style of dance with which the whole society of Scotland could feel comfortable. There was the elegance and courtesy of the “Country Dance” and the energy and precision of step of the old “Reels”. The Scots, with their “auld allies” the French, valued dancing for its own sake and often showed great skill and vigour.

The country dances continued to flourish in Scotland after they had died out in England and now the repertoire also included the new couple dances, quadrilles, and polkas. The dancing masters, who travelled extensively throughout Europe, taught the skills of dancing to all levels of society in Scotland. They were often skilled musicians and taught the older country dances as well as the newer, fashionable dances.

By the beginning of the 20th century the number of country dances appearing on programmes had dwindled but they were still popular and appeared regularly. The Great War of 1914-18 changed the world for ever, a generation had lost its men folk, syncopated rhythms of jazz and ragtime were sweeping the country and the Scottish country dance had all but disappeared.

After the war Mrs Ysobel Stewart of Fasnacloich (a distinguished family from Appin, Argyll) and Miss Jean Milligan (a teacher of physical education at Jordanhill Teachers’ Training College) wished to restore the old social dances of Scotland and with them their music. These two committed and energetic ladies researched and collected the dances from friends and family and assisted by Patersons Publications published their first book. After placing an advertisement in a Glasgow newspaper, a meeting was held on 26th November 1923 and the Scottish Country Dance Society was formed. The title “Royal” was conferred upon the Society in 1951 and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II graciously became its Patron in 1952.

Mrs Stewart, Miss Milligan and their associates were keen to see the country dances restored to their dignified and sociable best and to that end, they encouraged classes and taught a new generation of dancing teachers. They adopted a measure of standardisation, but were well aware of the regional variations in many of the popular dances.

The RSCDS has always stressed the importance of the social nature of the dance form - giving plenty of opportunities for fun and friendship - but is equally concerned with upholding the standards of correct dancing technique. It is this unique blend of wonderful music, disciplined dancing, intricate floor patterns and sociability that appeals to so many people throughout the world.

During the past 75+ years many old printed books and manuscript collections have been searched for dances and their tunes. The dance instructions have been interpreted and sometimes adapted for modern use. The success of the genre is that now many new dances are composed in traditional form, new formations are introduced, new forms of progression are devised and new tunes written. The dances published by the RSCDS and distributed to members all retain the essential characteristics of the traditional country dance. The RSCDS also produces sound recordings and videos to accompany many of the books.

The RSCDS organises an ongoing teacher training programme, both through the worldwide Local Association network and at the Annual Summer School in St Andrews.

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©Copyright: Colin Barnes 2003 - 2019
This page was last updated on: 22nd January 2019