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Music & Dance

Scottish Highland Dance:

Medals handed out at the Fall National Highland Dance Competition
Medals handed out at the Fall National Highland Dance Competition

Highland dancing today is a style of athletic solo dancing, and evolved into its present form during the nineteenth and twentieth century as competitions held during Highland Games. It is a highly competitive and technical dance form that requires an enormous amount of time and energy to perfect, similar to the effort necessary to master ballet. It evolved over time out of step dancing, growing to include upper body movement as well as complex footwork patterns.

Ritualistic and combative dances that imitated epic deeds and martial skills were a familiar feature in Scottish tradition and folklore. Tradition maintains that the famous Scottish sword dance was instituted by Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland, in 1054. Having defeated a rebel chief near Dunsinane, he laid his own sword on the ground over that of his enemy's in the form of a cross and danced in triumph over them. The earliest recorded reference to a sword dance, however, is seen in a passage of the fifteenth-century Scotichronicon ("Chronicle of Scotland") describing an event that took place during the marriage of Alexander III to Yolande de Dreux at Jedburgh in October 1285:

"At the head of this procession were the skilled musicians with many sorts of pipe music including the music of bagpipes, and behind them others splendidly performing a war-dance with intricate weaving in and out. Bringing up the rear was a figure regarding whom it was difficult to decide whether it was a man or an apparition. It seemed to glide like a ghost rather than walk on feet. When it looked as if he was disappearing from everyone's sight, the whole frenzied procession halted, the song died away, the music faded, and the dancing contingent froze suddenly and unexpectantly."
[Scotichronicon] 1

Dancing between crossed blades has long been practiced before decisive battles or as victory dances. Legend has it that on the eve of battle, the Highland chief would call out the clan's best dancer to dance the sword dance. If the dancer avoided touching either blade, it was considered to be an omen that the next day's battle would end in the clan's favour. If the dancer accidentally kicked the blades apart, disaster would surely follow. The practical origins of the sword dance can also be found in the training halls of traditional fencing schools, where students develop their footwork by following geometric patterns of crosses, squares, and triangles marked out on the floor. Training in this way would allow the Highland warrior to develop a considerable amount of dexterity while wielding his cumbersome broadsword.

Sword Dance  Sword Dance 

Sword dancing could also disguise sinister motives: in 1573 Scottish mercenaries are said to have performed the dance for John III, King of Sweden, at a banquet in Stockholm Castle. The dance, a natural feature of such festivities, was performed as part of a plot to assassinate the king, for the conspirators were able to bare their weapons without raising suspicion. Fortunately for the king, the mercenaries caved at the decisive moment and did not follow through with their plans.

The sword dance and other Highland dances were employed in the Royal court for festive reasons throughout the High Middle Ages and Renaissance as seen in the example of Alexander III's wedding reception. A 1589 reception held for Anne of Denmark at Edinburgh involved such entertainment, while James VI enjoyed a performance consisting of mixture of sword dancing and acrobatics in 1617. And the Incorporation of Skinners and Glovers of Perth exhibited their skill at sword dancing by performing for Charles I in 1633 on a raft floating on the River Tay:

"His Majesty's chair being set upon the wall next to the Water of Tay whereupon was a floating stage of timber clad about with birks, upon the which for his Majesty's welcome and entry thirteen of our brethren of this calling of Glovers with green caps, silver strings, red ribbons, white shoes and bells upon their legs, shearing rapiers in their hands and all other abulzements, danced our sword dance with many difficult knots and allapallajesse, five being under and five above upon their shoulders, three of them dancing through their feet and about them, drinking wine and breaking glasses. Which (God be praised) was acted and done without hurt or skaith to any."
[Merchant and Craft Guilds: A History] 2

Another style of Scottish sword dancing involves the Highlander dancing on a targe (a small round shield with a steel spike projecting from its center). This exercise has its origins in a Roman military exercise in which the man standing on the shield had to defend himself and stay upright while others tried to pull it out from under him. Many of the Highland dances now lost to us were once performed with traditional weapons that included the Lochaber axe, the broadsword, the dirk, and the flail. The lyrics of the old Skye dancing song, Buailidh mi thu anns a' cheann, ("I will strike your head") indicates that there was some form of weapon play to the music. These dances are mentioned in a number of (primarily military) sources, and may have been practiced either by two performers in dueling form or as a solo routine.

The Highland Fling is one of Scotland's oldest of the traditional dances. One romantic theory maintains that upon their victorious return from the battlefield, warriors would celebrate by performing this dance. Other theories hold that the dance was done before battle, like other types of sword dances. The dancer would flick his feet as he jumped around the targe's sharp spike, to drive away evil spirits lurking in the shield lest they bring him ill luck into battle. Still another tradition holds that the Highland Fling originated with a young boy who, when asked, could not find the proper words to describe a stag he had just seen to his father. The boy instead danced to express himself, shaping his hands to resemble the head and antlers of the animal he had seen.

Highland Dance  Highland Dance 

Highland dancing was an integral part of the modern Highland Games since their revival in the Romantic period, but the selection of dances performed at these events was intentionally narrowed down for the convenience of judges. So while the games seem to have fostered and preserved Highland dancing, many older dances got lost because nobody considered them worthwhile to practice, as they were not required for competition. The nature of these displays and competitions also affected the style of the dancing itself. Like other dance traditions, Highland dancing is today a hybrid form that has been constantly changing according to contemporary aesthetics and interpretations of the past. While some elements may be centuries old, other elements are much more modern. The vast majority of dances now performed in competitions were composed during the last century.

The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing formed in 1950 as the world governing body of Highland dancing. The SOBHD standardized dance steps for competition purposes, established the rules for attire and competitions, and continues to certify competitions and instructors. Until 1986 only four dances were exhibited at competitions - the Sword Dance, the Sean Triubhas, the Reel of Tulloch and the Highland Fling. Since then, various other (pre-existing) dances have been added to the competition repertoire. "Character dances," stylized representations of traditional folk dance that use movements and music that have been adapted for the theatre, include the Sailor's Hornpipe and the Irish Jig. The steps of the Sailor's Hornpipe mimic the daily activities of sailors (hauling rope, sliding on the rollicking deck, etc.), while the Irish Jig is a caricature whose meaning depends on the sex of the dancer. If a woman is dancing the jig, she portrays a washerwoman chasing away some neighbourhood boys that have dirtied her linens. The male dancer, on the other hand, displays his anger at the careless washerwoman who has shrunk his fine leather breeches by waving his shillelagh at her.

National dances, also performed at Highland Games, were invented in the early nineteenth century to be danced by women, as they were not originally allowed to practice Highland dances or wear kilts. The National dances employ softer, more delicate ballet-like movements, and are performed in a white dress with a plaid pinned to the shoulder. However, women broke into Highland dancing in the late nineteenth century beginning with young woman named Jenny Douglas who entered a Highland dance competition, as the rules did not expressly forbid this. The number of women participating in the sport increased over the past hundred years. Today, the vast majority of all Highland dancers are female, with men and women competing against each other at World Championship, which has been held annually at the Cowal Highland Gathering since 1934. The feminization of folk arts is, in fact, a common pattern in the gentrification process, especially after they no longer serve a functional role in a male-centered warrior culture.

Windsor-Essex is home to many schools of Highland dance. Those eager to learn this art form can attend classes in both the city and county.

Windsor's Schools of Highland Dance

There are several Highland dance schools in the Windsor-Essex district. Please visit the Windsor and District Highland Dancers Association website for information about instructors, upcoming events, competitions, and more.

Visit the Windsor and District Highland Dancers Association website.
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Belle River
Sauve School of Highland Dance
Jennifer Sauve

Karen Chevalier School of Highland Dance

Robertson School of Highland Dance
Wendy Robertson
519.737.6904 (h) or 519.564.4744 (c)

Hawley School of Dance
Annajayne Hawley-MacNeil

Hart School of Highland Dance
Marjorie and Moira Hart
519.969.5670 or

  1. Walter Bower, Scotichronicon, Vol. I-IX, ed. D. E. R. Watt et. al., Mercat Press: Edinburgh, 1987-1998
  2. Bain, Ebenezer, Merchant and Craft Guilds: A History, J. & J. P. Edmond & Spark: Aberdeen, 1887. 28-29
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