About Scottish Dance

From the Federation of United States Teachers and Adjudicators (FUSTA)

Scottish Highland Dancing is a celebration of the Scottish spirit. The dances are a spectacular combination of strength, agility, movement, music, and costume. Unlike other dance mediums, Highland dances are generally danced solo and in competition. Dancers typically dance to traditional Scottish music such as Strathspeys, Reels, Hornpipes and Jigs all played by an accompanying bagpiper. The dances are made up of different parts, called steps and there are usually four or six steps to a dance. The dances are great fun and anyone, not just those with a Scottish heritage, who thrills to the sound of the bagpipe can join in and learn the dances.

Highland dancing was traditionally performed by men but is now performed by men and women. It is one of few arenas where men and women compete equally. In most competitions, the number of women competing far exceeds the number of men.

Highland Dancing is a healthy workout for adults and for children. It is a great way to develop goodcoordination, posture and overall muscle tone, not to mention aerobic capacity and strength. One study showed that a half hour of dance was equal to a game of soccer.

Ambitious new students develop self-discipline and confidence as they learn to tackle the physical demands of Highland dancing. Indeed, the tremendous strength, stamina, and technical precision that accomplished dancers exhibit on stage comes from years of independent training and collaboration with experienced teachers.

In addition to perpetuating a great cultural tradition, highland dancers appreciate the athletic challenges, competitive goals, performance opportunities as well as the opportunity to meet and become lifelong friends with dancers from other areas, both nationally and internationally, that participation in this ethnic art form/sport affords them.

There are two styles of Highland Dances: the traditional Highland Dances and the graceful National Dances.

Dance descriptions & brief histories.

16 Pas de Bas

The 16 Pas de Bas is the first dance performed by the youngest dancers in competitions.  Pas de Bas are a movement in the Sword Dance & other dances & stems from the ballet movement of the same name, although Highland pas de bas are more precise in their positioning.  The pas de bas is usually the first movement taught to young dancers.

Pas de Bas & Highcuts

The Pas de Bas & Highcuts is a dance performed by the youngest dancers in competitions.  It incorporates two of the first movements the dancers learn in preparation for dancing the Sword Dance.


Likely the oldest of the traditional dances of Scotland, the Highland Fling signifies victory following a battle. The warriors made this dance a feat of strength and agility by dancing on their upturned shields which had a sharp spike of steel projecting from the center. Dancers learned early to move with great skill and dexterity. Others say the Highland Fling was inspired by the sight of a stag prancing on a hillside. The upraised arms and hands in the dance represent the highland stag’s antlers.


Legend has it that the initial Gillie Callum was created by Malcolm Canmore, a King of Scotland, during the battle of Dunsinane (made famous by Macbeth) in 1054. Triumphant, Malcolm crossed his opponent’s sword with his own and danced over them celebrating his victory. It is also said that the warriors danced the Sword Dance prior to battle. If the warrior touched the swords, it was considered an omen symbolizing injury or death in battle.

Seann Triubhas

Seann Triubhas is Gaelic for “old trousers”.  In 1745, after Scotland’s Bonnie Prince Charlie lost his bid for the crown at the Battle of Culloden, England punished the Scots by banning the playing of bagpipes, and the wearing of kilts and anything tartan or plaid.

The first steps of this dance are slow steps, telling the story of how much harder it is to wear the trousers.  The dancer is trying to “shed” his hated trousers, or pants.

After the ban was lifted about 30 years later, the Scots were again able to wear tartans and kilts and play the bagpipes.  In the last steps or the “quick-time” steps, after the dancer claps, the music speeds up to Fling tempo and the movements depict the joy of dancing in a kilt.


Highland dancing was originally done only by the men as calisthenics in the military.  After WWII many of the men were killed and the women took up highland dancing, so the sport would not be lost.  This was the first dance choreographed specifically for women. This and other dances were created by dancing masters in the 19th century to be danced by women, as females were not originally allowed to dance the strong Highland Dances, or even wear the kilt.  The style of the women’s National dances is more balletic and graceful.  The more “lady-like” costume worn is called an aboyne.

Flora McDonald

This is said to be the last dance Flora McDonald danced for Bonnie Prince Charlie before he fled overseas, but it is more likely to be a dance named in her honor.  Flora McDonald helped the Prince escape the English after Scotland lost the Battle of Culloden in 1746 by disguising him as her maid and sailing him off to the Isle of Skye.  From there the Prince escaped to France, never to return.  For this act, Flora is considered a heroine in Scottish history.  She emigrated to America but returned home to Skye later in life.

Strathespey & Reel

Of all the Highland Dancing events in which dancers compete, the reels are the closest approach to social dancing.  Even these, however, are individual competitions.  While the teams consist of four dancers, the judges mark each competitor individually.

The Strathespey, Highland Reel and Reel O’Tulloch are said to have started in a churchyard on a cold winter morning when the minister was late for his service. The parishioners tried to keep warm by stamping their feet, clapping their hands and swinging each other by the arms. 


This dance 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.


This dance was devised by soldiers in the First World War. It is always danced to the famous tune of the same name.  This dance is also a tribute to the Highland Laddie, Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Today the Highland Laddie is often danced for the honored guests on special occasions.

Irish Jig

The Scottish version of the Irish Jig is meant to parody an angry Irish washerwoman when she finds out some neighborhood boys have knocked all of her clean wash to the ground.  Another version describes a woman who shakes her firsts and flounces her skirt because she is furious with her husband who has been out drinking until the wee hours.

Female dancers wear green/red dresses/skirts, complete with apron, and hard shoes for ‘stomping out the rhythm’.

Some believe the male version of the dance mimics the ‘happy-go-lucky’ Irishman facing his wife’s tirade.  Male dancers wear green/red tails, breeches, hat, and twirl a shillelagh.

The dance is typically performed to Paddy’s Leather Breeches, The Irish Washerwoman, or the Rakes of Kildare.