In Irish dance, a reel is any dance danced to music in reel time (see below). In Irish stepdance, the reel is danced in soft shoes and is one of the first dances taught to students. There is also a treble reel, danced in hard shoes to reel music.
Reel music is transcribed in 4/4, 2/2, or 2/4 time signature. All reels have the same structure, consisting largely of quaver movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar. A reel is distinguished from a hornpipe by consisting primarily of even beats. Reels usually have two parts (A and B); in most reels each part is repeated (AABB), but in others it is not (ABAB). Each part (A and B) typically has eight bars, which in turn are divisible into four-bar and two-bar phrases. The structure follows a scheme of question-answer, where the first phrase is the "question" and the second is the "answer." The group of thirty-two bars (four times eight) is itself repeated three or four times before a second reel is introduced. The grouping of two or more tunes in medleys or "sets" is typical in Celtic dance music. Today many Irish reels are supplemented with new compositions and by tunes from other traditions which are easily adapted as reels. It is the most popular tune-type within the Irish dance music tradition.
Reels are popular in the folk music of South West England. It crossed the Atlantic ocean with Irish and British immigration and thus entered the musical tradition of Atlantic and French-speaking Canada including that of Quebecers and Acadians. Reels are featured in many pieces of Quebec singers and bands; for example: La Bolduc, La Bottine Souriante and even the more modern néo-trad group Les Cowboys Fringants (like the song Mon Pays suivi du Reel des aristocrates).
In Scottish country dancing, reels are figures in which three or more dancers follow an interweaving path, similar to the hey of other folk dance traditions. The most common reel is the reel of three, in which, as the name implies, three dancers weave in and out of one another, completing a figure 8 pattern on the floor, usually in six or eight bars of music. The dancers simultaneously follow the same path, but begin the pattern at different points: one each at top and bottom, and one in the middle. Two of the dancers will pass each other to begin the reel, and the reel is labeled a right- or left-shoulder reel depending on which of their shoulders are closest when they pass. When the reel is finished, all three dancers will be back where they began.
There are myriad variations, including: