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Dance is common to all cultures. Most of the true Highland dances are
connected with ancient Scottish folk customs. The present form evolved through
the centuries as refinement in the general form of dance occurred, but the
original basic steps and the themes were passed on through the years.
The two main types of Scottish dance, Country Dance and Highland Dance,
differ considerably in style and purpose. Country Dances have the character of
ballroom or social dancing, while Highland Dances are quite different. The
Highlands are performed solo. They have precise, difficult movements and require
much stamina and coordination. Highland Dances were originally danced by men
only, but now they're performed by far more females than males. Dance steps are
standardized by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) and
competitions are held world-wide. In the United States, six geographic regions
hold a qualifying competition each spring from which the top three finalists
from each region are selected to compete at the United States Inter-Regional
Highland Dancing Championships.
Judges evaluate a dancer on three major criteria: timing, technique and
- TIMING refers to the ability of the dancer to follow the rhythm of the
music. Dancers must place feet, arms and head in very precise position
simultaneously with the music.
- TECHNIQUE means the correct execution of footwork in coordination with head,
arm and hand movements. 'Elevation,' or the ability to spring vigorously above
the dance platform, counts heavily. But: regardless of how showy a movement may
appear, it can never really be a winner if performed out of position.
- GENERAL DEPORTMENT covers the interpretation the dancer displays in
performing the dance. Balance and general appearance are very important. And,
it's important that no matter how difficult the dance really is, the dancer must
display supple movement with effortlessness, pleasure, freedom from elaborate
showiness, and an unhurried attitude.
Highland Dancing and Scottish National Dancing competitions are done to
bagpipes. The version pipers play today dates back to the 16th Century, when the
MacCrimmon family, pipers for McLeod of Harris, worked out not only the form of
the bagpipes, but also the intricate fingering on the chanter. The music itself
consists of the melody, which is played on the chanter, backed up by continuous
and unvarying tones from the three drone pipes.
THE HIGHLAND FLING
A dance of victory in battle. Traditionally, the
ancient warriors and clansmen performed this dance on the small round shield
(called a targ) which they carried into battle. One can understand the quick
footwork and dexterity of the dancer when it is pointed out that most targs
carried a pinpoint sharp spike of steel projecting some 5-6 inches from its
center. A false or careless step could be more than a little painful.
THE SWORD DANCE (GHILLIE CALLUM)
The ancient dance of war of the
Scottish Gael. It is said to date back to King Malcolm Canmore. There is no
Highland Dance older or better known thean the Ghillie Callum. Tradition says
the original Ghillie Callum was a Celtic prince who was a hero of mortal combat
against one of MacBeth's chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1504. He is said
to have taken the chief's sword, crossed over it with his own on the ground
before him, and danced over them both in exultation.
THE SEANN TRIUBHAS
Prounounced 'shawn trews' in Gaelic, in English
it transslates to 'old trousers.' Origins are obscure: it definitely depicts a
person in the act of shedding his trousers. It's said by some the dance came
about in 1783 when the British Disarming Act of 1747 was finally repealed and
Scots were allowed to wear their tartans and kilts once again. The dance mimics
a Scot shedding his britches (during the slow, first part of the dance) and
returning to his tradition of Highland dress and custom (during the final,
up-tempo fling-like step).
THE STRATHSPEY AND HIGHLAND REEL
Of all the Highland Dancing events
in which the competitors vie, the reels are the closest approach to social
dancing. Even these, however, are individual competitions. While the teams
consist of four dancers, the judges mark each competitor individually. Legend
has it the reel originated with wellwishers waiting for the minister to arrive
at the church for a wedding on a cold day. The chilly group danced as a means of
THE IRISH JIG
This dance may seem to be out of place at Scottish
Games, but the dance is not only an Irish tradition. The Scottish version,
however, is meant to be a parody of an Irish washerwoman in an agitated frame of
mind. While the steps are traditional, the arm movements are not. Arm movements
are an intrinsic part of Scottish dance, and so the Scots added them to the
Irish Jog as a humorous salute to their Celtic bretheren across the Irish Sea.
SCOTTISH LILT / FLORA MacDONALD'S FANCY / SCOTCH MEASURE / EARL OF
These four dances (and others) are known as Scottish National
dances. They're of a more modern origin and have been colleected from old dance
masters. In America, National dances awere not danced im competition until the
1960s. The attire worn by female dancers is called the Aboyne dress, named after
the Aboyne Highland Games of Scotland where up to this day, the wearing of the
kilt is strictly forbidden to women. The National dances are very similar to
Highland dances, but the style is more flowing and balletic. They require a lot
of skill to execute correctly, and spectators will note that often the rhythms
are more complicated than in conventional Highland dancing.
THE SAILOR'S HORNPIPE
This dance is common to many parts of the
British Isles. It derived its name from the fact that usually the musical
accompaniment was played on a hornpipe rather than on bagpipes. Hornpipes were
common instruments in those days; they were comparable to our present-day tin
whistle. In time the dance became popular among seafaring men and is now
associated with sailors. The modern Hornpipe imitates many shipyard activities
common in the days of wooden ships and iron men.