If you have ever been to a cèilidh then you will almost certainly have danced several simple Scottish country dances. These are the dances danced in 'sets' - whether 'square sets' where you stand next to your partner forming one side of a square or 'long-wise' sets where you stand opposite your partner in a line of similarly positioned couples.
Tempo and Music
There are two tempos in Scottish country dancing. There are fast reels (2/4 or 4/4 time), jigs (6/8 time) and hornpipes (2/4 or 4/4 time), such as those danced at cèilidhs ; and there are slow, elegant Strathspeys (2/4 or 4/4 time) - a dance form unique to Scotland. Some dances are medleys - part of the dance is in Strathspey time and part(s) in reel and/or jig time.
Although any reel (or hornpipe!) can be danced to any reel tune and any jig to any jig tune etc., each dance actually has a specific 'signature' tune or tunes which are associated with it. The music, or at least the name, of the tune or tunes will be published along with the dance. However, as almost all tunes are too short for the appropriate dance to be dances to completion (and repetition of the same music numerous times is not very exciting!), the signature tune is often only played at the beginning and end of the dance, with the musicians picking other appropriate tunes for the middle sections. E.g. if a dance is danced eight times through (see Formations - the make-up of the dance) then the signature tune will usually be played during the first and eighth times through the dance.
Sets - how you 'form up' for the dance.
All Scottish country dancing is danced in sets. These may be 'long-wise' sets where you stand opposite your partner, and the man has his left shoulder towards the top of the set (= band/music) so that there is a line of men and a line of women. Longwise sets are frequently made up of 4 couples but may contain 3, 5 or 7 couples.
Alternatively the set may be 'square' in which case you stand beside you partner (woman on the man's right), forming one side of the square with 3 other couples forming the other 3 sides. A 'three couple square set' is effectively a 'triangular set'. In five and six couple square sets the 5th and 6th couples are in the middle of the set and the dance description will explain how they should start the dance. Another type of set is that for a 'round the room dance' where your 'half set' progresses one way round the room, dancing with each 'half set' progressing the other way in turn. Such 'half sets' may be composed, for example, of a couple, two couples or 3 people.
Formations - the make-up of the dance.
Each Scottish country dance is made up of a sequence of formations (for example 'circle round and back', 'advance and retire', 'turn corner, partner, corner, partner' or 'poussette' - some are obviously more self-explanatory than others!).
Each formation is allocated a particular phrase of the music and the duration of the dance (once through) is determined by the number of formations contained in it. To be danced once through, the majority of dances require 32 bars (although 40 bar dances are not uncommon) and most dances are repeated until every couple has had one or two turns of being 'top' or 'dancing' couple - 4 or 8 times, for example, in a 4 couple set.
There are of course many exceptions to this - some dances are danced once through only (and may be 96, 128 or more bars long!). In these dances every couple usually does an equal amount of dancing. Such dances may be made up of a number of 'sections' - for example a 'beginning and end section' on either side of a 'middle section' or a 'chorus' which is repeated interspersed with 'verses'. Some, however, have no such 'logic' and remembering a sequence of formations lasting 96 bars or more can be a severe memory test!
Learning Scottish country dancing
When learning Scottish country dancing it is important to realise that no one actually knows all the dances - there are after all an estimated 9,000 of them! The trick is to know the formations (for example, what is a 'poussette' or an 'allemande', how do I dance a 'reel of four' and who is my 'first corner'?) and then learn the dance just before you dance it - this may be by reading the 'crib' dance instructions) usually obtained with your ticket at a Scottish dance, or by listening carefully to the 'caller' who is telling you how to do the dance, or describing it as you walk it though. If none of these are helping try asking someone in your set and if it turns out none of you know how to do the dance try looking at the set next to you! You will eventually find that you do remember the dances you do most often (there are always 'old favourites' which lots of people know) but do not worry if this takes time.
Exeter & District Caledonian Society country dance class takes just this approach.
Each week you'll learn new figures and dance them in increasingly more difficult dances; but you are not expected to remember each dance from one week to the next - just how to do the figures! Everyone is welcome at our class even if you've never done dancing of any type before.
Exeter & District Caledonian Society country dance classes are held from September to mid May each year.