Highland Dancers Never Smile: Scottish Dancing as Serious Fun

Sergey Alferov, Shady Glen Dance School, Moscow

Sergey Alferov is a qualified historian, cultural anthropologist, Scottish step and Scottish country dance teacher, fellow UKA (United Kingdom Alliance of Professional Teachers of Dancing and Kindred Arts), devisor of the UKA Scottish Step dance syllabus (2011). Sergey teaches at Shady Glen Dance School (Moscow, Russia) and runs an online video channel dedicated to preserving and popularizing rare Scottish solo dancing <http://www.youtube.com/user/scotstepdance>. Since 2010, Sergey has taken part in numerous SOBHD Highland dance competitions in Scotland, Belgium, and Russia as a beginner, novice, intermediate, and premier dancer (competitor), having won enough medals and trophies for decorating a medium-sized Christmas tree.

You might have actually seen it. No, not the smile: it is very close to impossible, to see a smiling Scottish Highland dancer. At least, not in Scotland, not when performing a Highland dance, not if a person is a Scot. Of course, Scottish Highland dancing being an international leisure activity, with dancers from many countries coming over to compete in Scotland, one can easily witness an Australian smiling occasionally, a Russian who will definitely smile after making a mistake, an American having brought over a ‘cheesy’ (in some British adjudicators’ opinion) smile from overseas. A true Scot would still probably refrain from smiling. Scots will only smile wholeheartedly after they have done with their competition dances…

VIDEO 1: Highland Fling at World Highland Dance Championship followed by an interview with its winner, David Wilton:

When one starts reflecting on the issue, however, it turns out that there are quite a lot of reasons for a Scottish Highland dancer not to smile.

The first reason is (pre-)historical. Traditional Highland dance originates, as the name implies, in the Scottish Highlands and is deeply rooted in ritualistic and military dances of Highland clansmen. In other words, Highland dance can still speak to us about serious matters, and questions of life and death. These links may not be as direct as Romantic fans of things Scottish would love them to be, e.g., you can hardly expect Malcolm Canmore to have performed a four-step Sword dance with two-beat pas de basque and imperfect half-beat rhythm high cuts back in the eleventh century, when he is reported to have danced over a pair of crossed swords to celebrate his victory over Macbeth.

VIDEO 2: Male dancers perform a Scottish Sword dance:


Nevertheless, these links can be surprisingly obvious. It is widely recognised, for instance, that the Highland Fling, another dance from contemporary Highland dancer’s repertoire, has undergone several changes due to balletic, musical, social, and other influences since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was introduced as part of Highland Games competitions. Yet performing the dance to a solo bagpipe can still remind one of the dawn of time, totemic reminiscences, and the deer-hunting practices of pre-historic Celts: quite evenly present in every dancer’s hands, or ‘antlers’, and his or her strong deer-like jumps.

VIDEO 3: Mass Highland Fling:


The second reason for Highland dancers not to smile is semantic, and is closely linked to the first one: warriors and hunters are not supposed to wear an elegant smile when preparing to do battle. And this preparation is exactly what the two Highland dances above are somehow meant to represent. The longest part of another Highland dance, Sean Triubhas, portrays a Scot unhappy about a need to wear his ‘old trousers’ (hence the Gaelic title of the dance). Having successfully shaken off the unwanted garment and (magically, with one clap) replaced it with a kilt, a Highland dancer might be happy again, but alas!

VIDEO 4: The Sean Triubhas


This might be because contemporary Highland dancers have so many other issues to think about, including: maintaining their turnout, stretching their knees and pointing the toes, keeping correct rhythm (quite often more precise than just staying with the music requires), correct positioning, including pre-set height of each ‘working’ foot, etc. etc. Not being trained as professional performers – in terms of working with audiences and developing an ability to adjust to entertainment market requirements – Highland dancers train just for their own fun, concentrating on their own performance and continuous progress in their dance technique. This seems to be movement for the sake of movement and, if one looks at the numbers of Highland dancers in Scotland and worldwide, a highly enjoyable one.

The Sean Triubhas above was performed by then six-time world Highland dance champion David Wilton who, in spite of not being at a competition, could not afford to show anything but excellent, error-free performance thus setting a certain standard for his audience (most of them Highland dancers themselves). This is certainly not the position you can let go and produce a genuine smile in. Not unless you have been coached to do that no matter what happens, the question of genuineness still remaining open in the latter case.

So, from a semantic reason we drifted to a functional one. A smile can become part of Highland dance performance only if prescribed by competition rules (as it is in ballroom dancing or in certain aspects of figure skating) and demanded by most judges. Yet, as we see, such a requirement might not always be relevant from historical and cultural perspectives.

The fourth reason not to smile can be derived from religious history of Scotland. It is well-known that the Kirk disapproved of dancing, especially of ‘promiscuous’ ones, where men could touch women. John Knox’s teacher, John Calvin, believed back in the sixteenth century that all contemporary dance practices were a ‘provocation to whoredom’. In the nineteenth century Protestant preachers drifted from this reasoning to claiming that joyful dancing was sinful because it distracted sinners from thinking of their sin, and lead to feeling joy instead of feeling remorse. Only then the Joy of a truly different kind, the Joy given through our Lord’s Grace. Although Scottish Highlands had a strong Catholic element, and the Presbyterian Kirk was not that powerful there. It must have been considered much safer nonetheless for men to dance with men, not women, and vice versa, without demonstrating their joy too much, just in case.

This is where a competitive version of the Reel of Tulloch originates, with four dancers interacting without any emotions evenly expressed. These dancers were men only at some Highland games well into the 1970s when the tradition was finally abandoned because, one might think, there were not enough male dancers available. Nowadays, without that much of religious supervision, the dance can be done by lads and lassies together and smiling or not smiling remains very much an individual dancer’s choice.

VIDEO 5: Full Reel of Tulloch at Cowal


Our story would probably finish here if there was no such thing as National dancing. This is a group of various competitive Scottish dances originating in Scottish soft-shoe step dancing and character dancing as a performance art. Many, if not all, of them were devised by ‘dancies’, professional dance teachers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were constantly adopting a wide variety of dance styles, old and new, to their Scottish students’ needs. When the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing were devising their set programme for competitions back in 1950s, some of Scottish step and character dances were accepted to be performed at SOBHD tournaments, excluding Highland dance championships – a superior kind of competitions – the most important of which are annual World championships within the frame of Cowal Highland Gathering. Since 2011 beginner competitors are not allowed to proceed to the next category based on their National dances performance, which adds to an inferior position of Nationals compared to Highland dances. Step dances and dance steps not included in the SOBHD competition programme are on the verge of extinction. Videos of many of them are being collected here:

Old Scottish steps demonstrated

Anyway, let’s get back to (non-)smiling. In some dances, such as the Irish Jig, a humorous representation of an Irish washerwoman (or fisherman?) scolding kids who have ruined her (his) work, a smile would be semantically irrelevant.

VIDEO 6: The Irish Jig


Yet many other dances would, in some observers’ opinion, look much more natural with a gentle smile. Top Canadian dancers do not seem to agree, performing one of the many versions of Blue Bonnets Over the Border.

VIDEO 7: Blue Bonnets Over the Border


The Scottish Lilt might be a perfect example of a dance where there seems to be no cultural or semantic obstacle to an elegant smile. The word ‘lilt’, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, has an ‘archaic, chiefly Scottish’ meaning ‘a cheerful dance’. I was about to write that it has no military connotations whatsoever, but then I remembered it is nowadays often performed to a tune ‘Battle of the Somme’. Why would a lively dance be performed to a tune commemorating one of the bloodiest battles in history? This still remains a mystery to me. Technically Scottish Lilt requires a certain ability to ‘let go’ and move gracefully, without any stiffness or exaggeration. Nevertheless, Highland dances being the core of a competitive Scottish dancers’ training, focused non-smiling attitude seems to be passed on to performing National dances without too much consideration. A long-established habit of regarding dance as a very serious matter appears to dominate the competition stage in Scotland.

VIDEO 8: Scottish Lilt


To finish on a brighter note, although there are quite a few reasons for Scottish Highland dancers not to smile, some of them relatively recent while others go back centuries, more than 50% of contemporary Highland dancers from Scotland do smile at some point when performing on non-competitive occasions, including such exquisite ones as Scottish Highland Dance Gathering at Disneyland Paris.

VIDEO 9: Scottish Highland Dancers at Disneyland Paris, November 2011


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4 responses to “Highland Dancers Never Smile: Scottish Dancing as Serious Fun”

  1. elizabeth mcphee says :

    highland dancers has a lot of lot steps to do its not always easy to stay smiling

  2. Aly Cadenas says :

    The Blue Bonnets video is David Wilton again, not Daniel Carr. Just search his name in YT and you’ll notice the differences right Away.
    Not to mention; Daniel smile. 🙂

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  1. Highland Dancers Never smile.. | Shaw-Butler Dancing Studio - July 31, 2013

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