Highland dancing was once performed exclusively by men and began as athletic competitions among warriors. Dances such as the Highland Fling and the Ghillie Callum (or sword dance) required great skill and energy, and kept the troops in condition. Today the dancers are no less athletic, and the events are open to both male and female dancers. 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 deportment.
For more information about Highland dance competitions in the United States, please visit the Federation of United States Teachers and Adjudicators (FUSTA).
This war dance originates from King Malcolm Canmore’s victory over the forces of MacBeth in the Battle of Dunsinnane. King Canmore seized the sword of one of MacBeth’s generals, laid his own sword over it, and danced triumphantly over them. It is considered unlucky to touch or displace the sword. The dancer should show strength, and in keeping with the martial nature of the dance, an element of attack. Special timing must be upheld by both the dancer and the piper.
The Highland Fling was inspired by the graceful movements of deer on a hillside and the arms of the dancers held over their heads symbolize the antlers of the stag. Many years ago soldiers dancing the Highland Fling did so on their shields to celebrate a victory in battle. For this reason, the Fling is danced in a small area.
The Lilt exemplifies National dances, as it is very graceful and heavily influenced by ballet. It is an unusual dance because it has only six beats per measure rather than the standard eight. In competition, this dance is usually done with four steps, and is rarely danced by the most advanced dancers. The Scottish Lilt has several recognized steps that can be used in competition and exhibition.
The Sailor’s Hornpipe requires strength and stamina to mimic in dance a variety of shipboard tasks including swabbing the deck, climbing the ship’s rigging, standing watch, and hauling in rope. The Hornpipe is danced in a British sailor’s uniform and derived its name from the fact that usually the musical accompaniment was played on a hornpipe rather than bagpipes.
Dancers here should display a lighness and grace of movement. Pronounced “shawn trews”, the dance protested the anti-kilt laws of 1746 that prohibited the traditional Scottish kilt among Highland clans. The English translation of the Gaelic name is “old trousers”. In some of the movements, you can imagine a Scots “shaking off” the hated trousers in favor of the more liberating kilt. Others believe the dance celebrated the repeal of the anti-kilt laws in the 19th century.