Scottish Stepping and Highland Hopping
July 06, 2012
Last month, I got to experience the joy that is Kansas City’s Scottish Highland games. It’s an annual event that I normally go to, but this year was a wee bit different. This year, I’m engaged to one of the Highland dance instructors and got to see the games from a whole new perspective.
It was wonderful not to just see a piper playing for the dancers, but to meet David the piper and talk to him about the terrible problems his pipes were having with the humidity. (At one point, he had to dump about a cup of water out of them.) I got to meet some of the clan representatives and help promote Disney’s new Pixar film. It was wonderful for many reasons, but what was really new for me was helping out at the dance tent.
Highland dancing is an ancient Scottish art form that predates history. Following a victory on the battlefield or the hunting ground, the warriors would dance around a shield or crossed swords to celebrate their triumph; for example, one tradition (taken from dance.net’s article on Highland dancing) states that the chiefs and kings of Scotland would use dancing to judge the agility, stamina, strength, and accuracy of potential warriors. The dances are indeed excellent exercise. In a typical six-step Highland Fling, a dancer will jump vertically 192 times (the equivalent of running a mile), while performing complicated and intricate footwork and using the muscles from head to toe. Another source sites that one dance of the Highland Fling is equivalent to a game of soccer.
Modern Highland dancing retains the vigor and spirit of the traditional dances and now is a highly competitive sport open to male and female competitors around the world.
The Federation of United States Teachers and Adjudicators (FUSTA) of Highland Dancing have excellent descriptions of several of the traditional dances and what they represent:
Likely the oldest of the traditional dances of Scotland, the Highland Fling signifies victory following a battle. The warriors made this dance a feat of strength and agility by dancing on their upturned shields, which had a sharp spike of steel projecting from the center. Dancers learned early to move with great skill and dexterity. Others say the Highland Fling was inspired by the sight of a deer prancing on a hillside. The upraised arms and hands in the dance represent the deer’s antlers.
Sword Dance (Gillie Callum)
Legend has it that the initial Gillie Callum was created by Malcolm Canmore, a Celtic Prince who fought a battle in 1054. Triumphant, he crossed his opponent’s sword with his own and danced over them celebrating his victory. It is also said that the warriors danced the Sword Dance prior to battle. If the warrior touched the swords, it was considered an omen symbolizing injury or death in battle.
Seann Triubhas (Old Trousers)
This dance originated as a political protest dating back to 1745 when the wearing of the kilt was an act of treason. Pronounced "shawn trews", this Gaelic phrase means "old trousers." The beautiful, graceful steps reflect the restrictions imposed by the foreign trousers. The lively quick time in the dance recreates the Highlanders’ celebration of rediscovered freedom.
The Reel O’Tulloch is said to have started in a churchyard on a cold winter morning when the minister was late for his service. The parishioners tried to keep warm by stamping their feet, clapping their hands, and swinging each other by the arms.
The Flora McDonald’s Fancy
The Flora McDonald’s Fancy is said to have its roots in the legend of Flora McDonald aiding the Bonnie Prince Charlie across the sea to the Isle of Skye to escape the encroaching English armies. Once Bonnie Prince Charlie was safely on his way, it is rumored that he looked back towards Scotland and saw Flora McDonald dancing this very dance on a hillside. It was the last he ever saw of his Scottish homeland.
A bit of a side note, don’t confuse Scottish dancing with Irish Step dancing. Though having similar movements, Scottish dance is very traditional and Irish Step is progressive. In other words, Irish dancing is more fluid and interpretive, and the Scottish is very measured and exact. Scottish country dancing is very different as well. Scottish Country dancing is danced in groups, usually with a partner, whereas Highland Dance is judged solo.
The games were a fantastic experience for me this year. I’m pretty excited to start doing some of the dances and to try my hand, or feet as the case may be, at some of the country dances as well!
If you are interested in becoming a dancer, or perhaps a loved one is, feel free to contact one of the Kansas City Saint Andrew Highland Dance Association instructors here.