The Earliest Gaelic Dances

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Published by Michael Newton

Michael Newton was awarded a B.A. in Computer Science from the University of California (San Diego) in 1990 and a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies from the University of Edinburgh in 1998. He is a leading authority on the literature and cultural legacy of Scottish Highland immigrant communities in America. He has written several books and numerous articles on many aspects of Highland tradition and history, and has given lectures at venues such as the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, Slighe nan Gaidheal in Seattle, and the Toronto Scottish Gaelic Learners' Association. He has also been creating digital content since the early 1980s in the form of computer games (having been on the FTL Games team that produced Dungeon Master in 1987), hypermedia (creating the Celtic History Museum in HyperCard in 1991), and on-line digital collaboratories (creating Finding the Celtic in 2008).

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  1. Good points Michael. A further note to consider, I do not think there is a coincidence at all that the early forms of the Scottish Reel was circular (see Flett 1985) as it would only be natural for the circular or ring dance to be continued in some form. Also the nature of the reel as a two-parted dance suggest to me a call and response pattern. Same as in the the Carole or Ballad /Song dances, I see a link in the call (verse) where all dancers are circling and doing the same step and figure to a response (chorus), which may be uniform in words but may allow for some individual interpretation in footwork as in the Cape Breton Scotch Four, or in dancing different Fling or Reel steps in the current Highland Reel. As the Reel developed, the circular form was dropped in favour of the haye / weaving figure commonly known today as a reel of four (or three etc). I also argue that the circle danced by a solo dancer in the early set (fixed pattern and not improvised) Cape Breton solo dances, such as the Flowers of Edinburgh and Fling as described by Rhodes (1996) is simply a reel danced by a solo dancer (the call) and the more stationary footwork in the B part would be the response. With regards to the solo dancer performing a circle one must however take into account that this occurs in European court dances such as the Canarios and so forth (which in itself may have kept elements from earlier circular group dances). Also the circle motif by a solo dancer occurs later in stage dances such as the Hornpipe.

    1. Thanks, Mats. Yes, I agree that there is some structural and conceptual continuity – albeit a somewhat slender line – in the stanza/chorus form and preference for circular patterns. This is certainly apparent in the development of the Branle from the earlier carole, for example.

      1. Indeed the continuity may slender, but I personally think it is more likely there is a connection to the past than not. Humans are by nature reluctant to change, so keeping something of the past as continuity would be favourable, until such time the memories of the past has faded enough for bigger change to occur. As in change the circular reel to an in line figure of eight formation, which may or may not have something to do with space of the contexts in which the dances are performed changing. Thus requiring a change in the movement. We can see something of this in Cape Breton where the dancing of reel in small spaces like a kitchen disappeared and gave way to the dancing of Square Sets (Quadrilles) in the local halls and school houses when they became available and took over as the prominent dance venue.

  2. As you point out, one must remember that the European term ‘dance’ is in a way ethnocentric and only applies to certain (western) ideas of what certain types of movement is. From a more global and ethnochoreological perspective one should think of dance as a ‘human based movement system’ as the term ‘dance’ does not apply to movement in connection with song / drumming / music etc. globally. In fact a term such as ‘African dance’ does not exist in any indigenous language of Africa apart from in the colonising languages of English, French, German and so forth. African terms are more inclusive of many aspects of particular events and commonly infer sound and movement in an integrated relationship. ‘Dance’ is not a universal term. So I agree with your points Michael that one must look broader and at terms signifying events or to references to song (music) to find ‘dance’ in early ‘Gaelic’ sources. I once saw James MacDonald-Reid and a group of dancers perform a Gaelic call and response song (I forget which) in Stirling and they danced slowly to the rhythm of the song in a circle with arms interlocked similar to a Faeroese Kvad dance or a Balkan circular dance. Worked for me.

  3. As I have a strong dislike of the terms “European” and (especially) “western”, I must add a little elaboration here. The actual distinction is one between rural societies and urban societies that have élites with lots of luxury time and distinguishing education. The latter inevitably rather consciously develop forms of cultural expression which are increasingly specialized and complex, and that pull apart “simple and organic” forms to become distinct, contrasting, discrete and intricate.

    I’m sure that the same processes and resulting distinctions could be found in the courts of Imperial China, feudal Japan, the Maya, classical India, etc. So, it’s not about being “western”, it’s about urban élitism.

    I perhaps should have stated the case as follows: there is no need to develop a term for “dance” (or “choreography”) when the activity in question is understood to be an integral and relatively simple and undistinguished aspect of the performance of music or song.

    There is a parallel in the development of instrumental music in Europe which, unsurprisingly, was developing an independent life of its own in this same time period due to the same processes. Prior to the 14th century, instruments were understood to be primarily as a means to echo, imitate or support the human voice performing song. This began to take on more sophisticated and complex form so as to have its own identity and functions, increasingly specialized and “refined”.

    Similarly, as choreographic structures began to become detached from an integral performance of song and take on increasingly complex form as an aspect of élite cultural expression, divorced from its vernacular song origins, it was necessary to develop associated terminology which marked its separate identity and existence. This development did not happen in the Gaelic world – Ireland or Scotland – until the encounter with the Anglo-Norman world. There were many conceptual and material consequences of this encounter: see

    1. Agree with your elaboration Michael of urban vs. rural. My statement was based on that what is now the most common daily usage of the word ‘dance’ should be considered in relation the lack of its use in in many cultures and perhaps commonly in rural settings. I would also add that those who wrote our histories were predominantly the educated urban elite which has, and sadly often still, ignores the oral traditions of the many and predominantly rural people of many places. And yes there are ‘elite’ dance forms in many places round the world, some of which that have only recently become recognised as comparable to ‘ballet’ for example. This is a whole other discussion of course, but we can not ignore the power of the choice of words of the literate on the usage of the same in oral tradition over time. Therefore I agree with you that we need to think broader in terms of what terminology is/was used in oral tradition as indigenous inclusive terms for events that involved what we now separate with the terms music, song and dance.

      1. I see. That Spanish dance probably is based on an ancient ritual of martial training performed by the young men of the community -this could explain the strong geometrical figures an the intricate movements.
        And the Iberian peninsula is not so far from ‘home’. 😉 Thanks.

    1. You say “probably is based on an ancient ritual…” The problem is that these things are never static but are periodically hybridised with new contemporary forms and so inevitably evolve, even if slowly. While it may be “based on” something old and have great continuity, it has no doubt changed. Look at language as an analogy.

  4. I wound be interested in suggestions of specific songs that would work for this kind of choral ring-dance. Do we think that some waulking songs might represent the kind of song that is suitable for a dance like this, or are the demands of waulking too different? Is it possible that some early collectors mis-categorised ring-dance songs as “waulking songs”?

    1. Actually, most waulking songs work really well when performed as ring dances. When I was in the folk ensemble Drumalban (in the 1990s) we performed several that way.

  5. Michael — I am so pleased to have made your acquaintance and look forward to future meetups.
    I’ll be very interested in learning about dance and Gaelic dance in particular! Perhaps it is time for a dance narrative piece with Gaelic dance as the vocabulary!

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