Highland Dance is a traditional art and sport that comes from the Highlands of Scotland. The tradition has its origins in a unique combination of Scottish folk dance and early nineteenth century ballet technique. Highland Dance became codified in the 1940s and 1950s with the introduction of world-governing bodies, such as the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing [SOBHD] and the Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association [SOHDA].
The modern Highland Dance repertoire consists of two classes of dances: the Highland Dances and the National Dances. The Highland Dances are the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, the Seann Triubhas, and the Reels. These dances are performed in a kilt outfit and, as such, tend to be more recognizably Scottish to audiences.
Each of the Highland Dances has a legend associated with it. While the actual histories of these dances is quite different from the legends, the legends do give a good insight into the cultural importance of the Highland Dances.
The Highland Fling is said to have been danced following a victorious battle. Warriors would dance the Fling on an upturned targe [shield], which had a metal spike protruding from its center. It was therefore very important for the dancers to move with precision and control.
The Sword Dance [Gaelic, Gille Calum] is said to have been danced before going into battle. Soldiers moved quickly around two broadswords laid in a cross on the ground. If the dancer accidentally knocked one of the swords, it was a sign that they would not return from the battle unharmed.
The Seann Triubhas [English, Old Trousers] is said to have been choreographed in protest to the ban of the kilt by the English. In this light, the dance mimics the shaking off of trousers in favor of the kilt, with the change to the quick tempo at the end symbolizing the rejoicing in the return of the kilt.
The National Dances are later introductions into the Highland Dance repertoire. Many of these were incorporated into Highland Dance competitions specifically as dances for women, as women were originally not allowed to compete in Highland Dancing. Today, everyone is welcomed and encouraged to dance all Highland and National Dances.
The National Dances tend to be more balletic in nature. Men continue to wear the kilt outfit for these dances, but women often wear a dress outfit, called an Aboyne. There is a large variety of National Dances, along with several subtly different techniques that may be used.
Within the National Dances, there are also two Character Dances: the Sailor’s Hornpipe and the Irish Jig. Both of these are percussive dances, in which the dancer beats out the rhythm of the tune with their feet. The Sailor’s Hornpipe mimics actions of a sailor on board a ship. Dancers dress in a sailor outfit and mime actions like pull ropes and reeling in a haul.
The Irish Jig, also called the Irish Washerwoman, is a playful mimic of turn-of-the-century Irish dance. Women dress in a washerwoman outfit, while men dress in a tailcoat, knickers, and carry a shillelagh. Dancers adopt an angry attitude as they stomp around stage, waving their arms and clicking their heels.