The term is somewhat misleading, however, in that it is only one form of dancing to have been done in the Scottish Highlands and, in addition, it has been subject to many influences from outside the Highlands. For example, it has been heavily influenced by the urban aesthetics of the patrons and judges of dance competitions since the nineteenth century.
Highland dance should not be confused with Scottish country dance.
In Highland dancing, in contrast to, say, ballroom dancing, the dancers dance on the balls of the feet. In many ways, Highland dancing evolved from solo step dancing, but while some forms of step dancing are purely percussive in nature, Highland dancing involves not only a combination of steps but also some integral upper body, arm, and hand movements. Even so, it is still considered a form of step dancing in that the main element of Highland dancing is concerned with footwork.
Highland dancing should not be confused with Scottish country dancing which is both a social dance (that is, a dance which is danced with a partner or partners) like ballroom dancing, and a formation dance (that is, a dance in which an important element is the pattern of group movement about the dance floor) like square dancing.
Some Highland dances do derive from traditional social dances, however. An example is the Highland Reel, also known as the Foursome Reel, in which groups of four dancers alternate between solo steps facing one another and a figure-of-eight style with intertwining progressive movement. Even so, in competitions, the Highland Reel dancers are judged individually. Most Highland fling dances are done solo. NZ are different at doing the highland fling.
In 1573 Scottish mercenaries are said to have performed a Scottish sword dance before the Swedish King, John III, at a banquet held in Stockholm Castle. The dance, 'a natural feature of the festivities', was used as part of a plot to assassinate the King, where the conspirators were able to bare their weapons without arising suspicion. Fortunately for the King at the decisive moment the agreed signal was never given.
"Sword dance and Hieland Danses" were included at a reception for Anne of Denmark at Edinburgh in 1589 and a mixture of sword dance and acrobatics was performed before James VI in 1617 (New Statistical Account of Scotland Edinb. 1845 x, pp. 44-45) and again for Charles I in 1633, by the Incorporation of Skinners and Glovers of Perth, "his Majesty's chair being set upon the wall next to the Water of Tay whereupon was a floating stage of timber clad about with birks, upon the which for his Majesty's welcome and entry thirteen of our brethren of this calling of Glovers with green caps, silver strings, red ribbons, white shoes and bells upon their legs, shearing rapiers in their hands and all other abulzements, danced our sword dance with many difficult knots and allapallajesse, five being under and five above upon their shoulders, three of them dancing through their feet and about them, drinking wine and breaking glasses. Which (God be praised) was acted and done without hurt or skaith to any."
The British central government's policy of cultural suppression against Highland culture culminated in 1747 when the Act of Proscription, which forbade the wearing of kilts by civilian males, went into effect. The Act was repealed in 1782 and in the early 19th century, there was something of a romanticisation of Highland culture (or such as it was imagined to be). This revival, later boosted greatly by Queen Victoria's enthusiasm for it, included the beginnings of the Highland games as we now know them. Highland dancing was an integral part of the Games from the very start of their modern revival, but the selection of dances performed at Games was intentionally narrowed down, mostly for the convenience of judges. Therefore, while the tradition of Highland games seemed at first glance to have fostered and preserved Highland dancing, many older dances got lost because nobody considered them worthwhile to practice, as they were not required for competition. The nature of these displays and competitions also affected the style of the dancing itself.
At Highland games, the Highland dances were at first danced only by men. Women would take part in social dances, and girls did learn solo dances as part of their general dance classes. In fact, dancing masters would often encourage their most promising students (male or female) to perform solo dances at their end-of-term "assemblies".
In the late 19th century a young woman named Jenny Douglas decided to enter a Highland dance competition. As this was not expressly forbidden, she was allowed to enter. Since then the number of females participating in the sport has increased until today in excess of 95% of all dancers are female. There have been several female World Champions crowned at the Cowal Gathering since they began organising the competition in 1948. The first American to win the Adult World Championship was Hugh Bigney, who won the title in 1972. Indeed the first three Adult World Championships were won by ladies; May Falconer (1948), Margaret Samson (1949 & 1950). This feminisation of folk arts is a common pattern in the process of their "gentrification", especially after they no longer serve a functional role in a male-centred, warrior culture.
The SOBHD is generally recognised by the majority of competitive Highland dancers as the world governing body of Highland Dancing. It is responsible for the standardisation of Highland Dancing around the world. It is made up of representatives from many different Highland Dancing bodies and associations from around the world. The main function of the SOBHD is to bring about co-operation between recognised associations, organisations, individuals, and dancers connected with Highland Dancing.
The board is responsible for sanctioning Highland Dance championships although does not actually organise any of them. There are other non-SOBHD sanctioned championships run by non-SOBHD aligned organisations. Each year the SOBHD selects the championship steps to be performed by dancers at championships around the world. They also publish an official Highland Dance technique book for dancers and teachers.
The Board comprises delegates from the Examining Bodies (professional teaching associations), Affiliated Organisations in Australia (Australian Board of Highland Dancing Inc.), Canada (ScotDance Canada), South Africa (Official Board of Highland Dancing (South Africa)), New Zealand (ScotDance New Zealand), and the United States (Federation of United States Teachers and Adjudicators) which represent the many Highland Dance organisations in those countries. Representatives of organisations in the UK, a limited number of Competition Organisations, Independent Members, and Honorary Members also have voting rights with the SOBHD.
The SOBHD maintains a World Wide Judges Panel to which entry is by examination. Those examinations are held periodically in different cities and countries with at least an annual exam in Scotland. A World Wide Registration Scheme for dancers is also operated by the SOBHD. Competitive dancers register with the local SOBHD Registration Agents within their own country, i.e. ScotDance Canada. Dancers carry an SOBHD Registration Card which shows their current performance category or level and it entitles them to compete at all competitions within that category anywhere in the world.
The membership of Examining Bodies and Affiliated Members of the SOBHD comprise qualified teachers. The represented Competition Organisers and many Associate Members run competitions under SOBHD rules. Competition Organisers not in direct membership of the SOBHD, of whom there are hundreds throughout the world, may run their competitions under SOBHD rules, usually under the auspices of an SOBHD Affiliated Member, such as ScotDance Canada (Canada).
However, the SOBHD is not the only governing organisation which has garnered a significant degree of adherence. In New Zealand, Highland dancing is regulated by the New Zealand Academy of Highland and National Dancing, in Australia by The Scottish Dancing Association of Australia and the Victorian Scottish Union. Another organisation, the Scottish Official Highland Dance Association, operates quite separately from the SOBHD and has many adherents, predominantly in Scotland, but also in other localities including Australia and New Zealand.
The British Association of Teachers of Dancing (B.A.T.D.) the Scottish Dance Teachers' Alliance (S.D.T.A.) and the United Kingdom Alliance (U.K.A.) are professional bodies based in the United Kingdom who conduct Highland Dance exams around the world and certify professional Highland Dance teachers. Teachers who are members of any of these associations must pass a dancing exam as well as an oral theory test. Members of any of the associations are required to adhere to a code of conduct for their association as well as follow the by-laws of their association. The associations offer professional development for teachers while sometimes offering workshops for dancers. All three associations are voting members of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing, giving them a role in regulating Highland Dancing worldwide.
The associations have identical syllabi for the traditional Highland dances, however they have slight technical differences for some National dances. Most Highland Dance teachers in North America are members of either the B.A.T.D. or the S.D.T.A., while the U.K.A. has members mainly concentrated in the United Kingdom. Either B.A.T.D., S.D.T.A., or U.K.A. methods of performing the National dances are accepted in competition.
Teachers must be full members of one of the three professional teaching associations to have their students compete worldwide in competitions sanctioned by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. These associations along with the SOBHD ensure that the standard and technique of Highland dancers continually improves, while allowing dancers to compete worldwide with the confidence that their technique will be universally recognised by SOBHD judges.
The various governing bodies of Highland dancing establish parameters for the dances themselves and scoring systems to grade the dancers and determine their class and progress from one class to another.
The notion of how dances were to be executed changed dramatically over the years. For instance, doing an early-20th-century-style Sword Dance in a competition today would get a dancer disqualified nearly immediately. There used to be terrible confusion as to what would be allowed (or prescribed) where, until the SOBHD came up with a standard that has become acceptable to the majority of competitive dancers.
In another version of Scottish sword dancing, the Highlander danced on a targe shield, this has similarities with an ancient Roman exercise in which the man standing on a shield had to defend himself and stay upright while others tried to pull it out from under him. Many of the Highland dances now lost to us were once performed with traditional weapons that included the Lochaber axe, the broadsword, targe & dirk and the flail, the old Skye dancing song, "Buailidh mi thu anns a' cheann," (I will strike your head) indicate some form of weapon play to music, 'breaking the head' was the winning blow in cudgelling matches throughout Britain, "for the moment that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow, the old gamester to whom it belongs is beaten, and has to stop."
The Highland Dirk Dance, in which the dancer flourishes the weapon, is often linked to the sword dance or dances called ‘Mac an Fhorsair,’ (literally, "the son of the Forester"), the ‘Broad Sword Exercise’ or the “Bruicheath” (Battle Dance). They are mentioned in a number of sources, usually military, and may have been performed in a variety of different forms, practiced by two performers in a duelling form, or as a solo routine.
The tune of Gille Chaluim (Englished as "Gillie Callum" and meaning "the servant of Calum" in Gaelic) has been claimed to date back to Malcolm III of Scotland (11c.) but the dance is unlikely to have been invented before 1800. According to one tradition, the crossed swords were supposedly placed on the ground before a battle while a soldier danced around the blades. If his feet knocked against the swords, he would be wounded in battle. This may derive from the folklore often surrounding warrior culture.
One very romantic theory about the Highland Fling is that it was a dance of triumph at the end of a battle. Another (no less romantic) theory is that it was performed before battles (like the sword dance), on top of the dancer's shield. The shield would have a spike in the middle, around which the dancer would do the dance that involves flicking of the feet, jumping and careful stepping supposedly to drive evil spirits away. The dancer is confined to one spot and snaps his fingers (which was reduced in recent times to merely holding the hands with the thumb touching the second joint of the middle finger, and the other three fingers extended in the air). Leaving aside the obvious difficulty of dancing around a sharpened spike on a shield, a much more plausible theory is that the Highland Fling is none other than a Foursome Reel with the progressive bits left out - at social gatherings, dancers would "compete" by showing off the fancy solo steps they could perform, long before formal competitions at highland games had been invented.
Another story behind the Fling is that it is meant to imitate a stag; the story goes that a boy who saw a stag was asked to describe it by his father. He lacked the words, so danced instead; the position of the hands resembles the head and antlers of a stag.
Tulloch is a village in the North-East of Scotland. Ruidhle Thulaichean (Englished as "The Reel of Tulloch") is supposed to have originated when a congregation had to wait at a church for a minister on a cold wedding day. During the delay they whistled a highland tune while someone improvised a dance. A more gruesome version of the story is that the dance derives from a rough game of football that the inhabitants of Tulloch played with the severed head of an enemy; the Gaelic words to the tune bear this out.
The Seann Triubhas (pronounced similar to "shawn truce" and meaning "old or unwanted trousers" in Gaelic) is romantically associated with the proscription of Highland garb after the 1745 rebellion. The steps involve much shaking of the legs, symbolic of shedding the trousers; the final, faster step(s) show the joy of returning to the kilt. However, the dance is considerably younger, with most of the steps performed today dating from the late 19th century.
Like other dance traditions, what is called "Highland dancing" is a hybrid form that has been constantly changing according to contemporary aesthetics and interpretations of the past. While some elements may be centuries old, other elements are much more modern. The vast majority of dances now performed were composed in the last century.
As far as competitions were concerned, until 1986 there were only four standard dances - The Sword Dance, The Sean Triubhas, The Reel of Tulloch and The Highland Fling. Since then, various other (pre-existing) dances have been added to the competition repertoire. For example, there are two "character dances", "The Sailor's Hornpipe" and "The Irish Jig". The Sailor's Hornpipe was adapted from an English dance, which is now performed more frequently in Scotland, while the Irish Jig is a caricature of Irish dancing (the dancer, in a red and green costume, is an interpretation of an Irish washerwoman scolding her wayward husband, gesturing angrily and frowning). If the Irish Jig is danced by a lady, it is about either the distressed wife scolding her husband or a washerwoman chasing taunting boys away who have dirtied her washing. If it is danced by a man, it is the story of Paddy's Leather Breeches in which a careless washerwoman has shrunk Paddy's fine leather breeches and he is waving his shilelagh at her in anger. The Hornpipe mimics a sailor in her majesty's navy doing work aboard ship: hauling rope, sliding on the rolicking deck, and getting his paycheck, and has quite a lot of detail involved that portrays the character (e.g. the dancer does not touch his palms, assumed to be dirty, on his uniform).
Perhaps one of the most unusual elements of character dance done at modern Highland dance competitions is the inclusion of the cakewalk. The cakewalk is originally a dance performed by black slaves in the southern US imitating, in exaggerated style, the stately courtship ballroom dancing of slave owners. It is unique in competitive Highland Dance as it is the only dance always performed as a duo and is the only dance that originated outside the British Isles. Also unique is the inclusion of fanciful and often outrageous costumes upon which some of the judgeing of artistry is based. While costume contests do occasionally take place regarding the outfits worn for the other dances, the outfits for those dances are so carefully prescribed (differences are restricted primarily to choice of tartan, color of jackets or sashes, and choices such as lace sleeves and velvet vests instead of velvet jackets) costume does not play a significant role in the dance competition or vary much across dancers. In contrast, while the cakewalk may be danced in traditional Scottish attire, dancers involved in the cakewalk often attempt to come up with the most creative duo costume they can, such as Frankstein and his bride or Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The cakewalk is generally only danced at very large scale competitions such as national or provincial championships and is generally restricted to the top level of competitive dancers known as "premier" (formerly "open".)
The inclusion of the cakewalk in competitive Highland Dance is credited to famed dancer, judge and examiner, James L. McKenzie and the dance now performed in competition was choreographed by Miss Elspeth Strathern is his honor. It is a favorite dance among competitive dancers and competition audiences alike for the colorful costumes and artistry. The Cakewalk is generally performed to "Whistling Rufus" Written in 1899 by Kerry Mills.
At Highland games, the National Dances are something of a novelty display event and include the Scottish Lilt, the Earl of Erroll, Blue Bonnets, Hielan' Laddie, the Scotch Measure, Flora MacDonald's Fancy, The Village Maid and Wilt thou go to the barracks, Johnny?, which illustrate the history of dancing and other aspects of Scottish culture and history. Their character varies wildly and not all of these dances are suitable for execution using standard competitive technique and styling. Most of the National Dances were invented by dancing masters in the 19th century and show a more or less pronounced balletic influence, while others derive from earlier traditions and were adapted to later tastes. The "Earl of Erroll", for example, is almost certainly based on an 18th-century Irish-style hard shoe dance, although today's Highland dancers perform it in the usual Ghillies.
The National dances were invented to be danced by women, as women were not originally allowed to dance the Highland dances and wear the kilt. Instead, they danced the National dances, which are softer and more ballet-like, and the outfit usually worn is called an "Aboyne" (after the Aboyne Highland Games, where women are not allowed to wear kilts for dancing to this day). The outfit consists of a full tartan skirt, white blouse, a velvet vest laced up the front, and a "plaid" or "plaidie" pingp to the shoulder and waist. Another option for the National dances is to wear a white dress with a plaid on the shoulder. Nowadays, males and females dance both Highland and National dances (males have the option of wearing plaid "trews"--trousers--instead of a kilt for the National dances).