Review: Patricia Ballantyne, “Scottish Dance beyond 1805: reaction and regulation”

Like many educated in Scottish schools (even today), I learnt – roughly – “social dancing” in PE classes, approximately well enough to enjoy a wedding ceilidh, but not well enough to prevent an onslaught of criticism one Hogmanay party in a country house somewhere in the snowy Grampians in the early 1990s at a ‘party’ where local experts were keeping a ferocious and (to me, then) frankly bemusing watch on step conformity.  I still feel a mix of resentment and embarrassment when I recall this event, and so was interested by this book’s examination of how these expectations for precision and ‘correctness’ developed.  The author is both dancer and a ceilidh band “caller” herself, so well qualified as a practitioner to write this study, which pays particular attention to the relationship between the sounds of music and the choreography of dance.

Part one of the book covers the history of the topic, and part 2 is an ethnographic account of how contemporary Scottish dancers and musicians think about the relationship between music and dance.

The historical survey puts changing social organisation of dance against the representation of the “Highland Fling” in printed literature, notebooks and film archive.  Social dancing before 1805 was taught by itinerant ‘dancing masters’, both in the houses of clients and less frequently, in small groups and assemblies.  Ballantyne’s narrative starts with descriptions of Highland reels made by well-informed Aberdonian dancing master Francis Peacock in 1805; these descriptions allow a reliable and detailed reconstruction of the steps.  Peacock’s comment “the dancers could adapt the steps in any way they pleased, as long as the steps fitted the music” (p.3) suggests an improvised, informal practice, a long way from the highly regulated choreography of modern Scottish dance.  The story unwinds of how this informal repertoire became a standardised, regulated one, as the sole-operator dancing teacher was replaced by teachers affiliated to professional groups and societies.

In the age of the sole-operator dancing teacher, it is clear that a dance to the same music – here, ‘the Highland Fling’ – might have been taught differently by different teachers.  Ballantyne points out that towns gave recognition to reputable practitioners of good moral standing: these were locally licensed to operate both to teach and in some cases run dancing assemblies.  While in some parts of Scotland the Reformed kirk had long frowned on social dancing, it is clear that by the 18th century more progressive towns were viewing social dancing as part of a modern skill set. A well-read and clearly thoughtful teacher such as Peacock made a convincing case for dancing as being essential ‘for the foundation of those graces which distinguish people of fashion, and good breeding, from others whose education has been neglected, or their manners perverted by bad teachers’ (quoted from Peacock’s Sketches, p.31).  Peacock’s book sets out criteria for Highland as distinct from other dance cultures, at a time when literary work by people such as James Macpherson was also promoting this cultural division between historic Highland and Lowland culture.  Attention to the dotted rhythms of the strathspey which distinguish this from more generic reels were suggested by Peacock to be linked to the rhythms and meters of Gaelic poetry.  Ballantyne helpfully clarifies both rhythms and associated choreographies.

As we move into the 19th century, skilled teachers interested in protecting their expertise increasingly published, advertised and networked in ways that suggested there were right and wrong ways to dance. The 19th century saw a noticeably accelerating shift of population from the country to the city, and concommitant pressure to commodify culture for wider participation.  Increasingly, dance was discussed in print.  Programmes for assemblies produced printed programmes of dances for an evening, which show which dances were recurring favourites. Ballantyne lists strong characters such as A. Cosmo Mitchell (fl. Aberdeen 1881-1924), and William Scott and his pupil James Scott Skinner, who provide examples of the new breed of ‘professionalised’ dance teacher who both teach and write about teaching, as well as leading a fashion for dancing events throughout the north as far as Wick in Caithness.

By 1900s, there are a range of professional societies which added collective weight to these assertions: the British Association of Teachers of Dancing (1892), the United Kingdom Alliance of Professional Teachers of Dance (1902) and the Imperial Society of Dance Teachers (1904); the Scottish Dance teachers Alliance (1934). Together, these worked to counter criticism from Kirk and others against ‘charlatan’ teachers.  Scotland followed London’s lead here; the metropolitan capital organised first, and competition between different teaching associations drove towards an ever-clearer articulation of standards and requirements.  Teachers not infrequently belonged to more than one, listing their memberships in promotional literature.

To the dance teacher societies were added societies whose membership included the keen amateurs and dance historians of the kind I encountered in 1990s Grampians: the Scottish Country Dance Society (1923) and the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (1950).  The rise of folklore studies encouraged these developments: work by English collectors such as Cecil Sharp on English country dancing included discussion of Scottish country dances.  The English Folk Dance Society (founded 1911) promoted indigenous English dance, and inspired further interest and institutional pedagogy in Scotland. Arguably, many of the social dances taught by the Scottish Country Dance Society were shared by dances curated in England. Where Scottish social dance in early 19th century culture had been a form of modernity, now it was shaped by antiquarian patriotism and nationalistic nostalgia, and by a body of writing concerned to preserve and conserve “traditional” standards.  There was now a correct, ‘traditional’, way to dance a Highland Fling, and instructions made the actual practise slower, more precise and balletic than its more chaotic energetic percursors. Competitions also form part of the narrative.  To judge something requires some kind of grading criteria, as modern teachers know well.  The Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association and the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (names so close as to invite the obvious question of, why two) – were formed in the mid 20th century to assist with competition culture.

Today, teachers are normally qualified to teach by societies such as these, whose qualifications in particular fields of dance to a large extent contribute to different choreographic repertoires being defined as being part of one or another dance category.  Taxonomies – the names we call things – are the products of these historic social infrastructures.

The second part of ethnographic accounts includes discussion the author’s interest in step dancing – a strong strand in her own experience, if less familiar to outsiders unfamiliar with Scottish dancing.  Fascinatingly, dancers prefer the predictability of live music over the uncertainties of performing to a live piper whose grasp of tempo and pulse may be less secure (p,136).  Interviews here combine accounts from dancers with different levels of expertise. For less than competent dancers such as me, it’s good to find the dance caller for a ceilidh band given a shout-out in this study, and also interesting to see how contemporary musicians and dancers have absorbed and think about instructions on right and wrong ways to perform.

The book concentrates on sources and studies of practice in NE Scotland – Aberdeen and its hinterlands – where the author was based for her doctoral work, and which for various reasons – not least the legacy of James Scott Skinner – dancing has deep roots. Dancing teachers are usually ‘characters’ whose own strong personalities contribute to the longevity of their choreographies. Future work might look to expand knowledge about other geographical areas, particularly the Gaelic-speaking western highlands; and to bring more teacher biographies into the limelight.

Further reading
A strength of this study is its citation of a range of period sources – see the bibliography for these.  Highlighted secondary research studies are:

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