By Kathleen Gilbert, Highland Dancer
Many of the traditional highland dances have histories rooted in military exhibition. The soldiers would train for battle, dancing in the barracks (Wilt Thou Go to the Barracks Johnnie?) or perform a Sword Dance before battle to see how they might fare. If you were an unmarried girl of the day, you might perform a courting dance (The Scottish Lilt) or the wives would dance as their husbands went off to war until they could no longer see their bonnets (Blue Bonnets Over the Border).
Highland Dance is recognised as both an art and a sport in Scotland. Ask any dancer and they will tell you that it most definitely requires a huge amount of strength as well as technical artistry. Most dances are between 90 seconds – 2 ½ minutes. That’s approximately a 400-metre run. Now imaging that run as a sprint the whole way! The bagpipe music we usually dance to has a constant, regular beat which we rarely deviate from. So, where in a running race you can sprint out of the block, set a nice pace, then race to the finish line, in a highland dance you must maintain the same level of elevation and focused precision throughout the entire song.
One of the great physical benefits of Highland Dancing is the fact that many of our movement require bilateral integration (sometimes called cross-crawling) which works both sides of your body simultaneously. This is essential in a child’s motor coordination development and also helps to stave off brain degeneration as we age. Not only is your body getting physical workout, but your brain and nervous system finish a session in a more integrated and connected state. The patterned nature of the majority of the steps also helps to reinforce muscle memory and the ability to ‘reverse’ things quickly. Dancing around the sword requires the brain to perform 4-quadrant rotational symmetry (and is really helpful when teaching angle degrees in mathematics)!
Highland dance allows you to increase your physical health, strengthen your brain and experience a bit of history as you take yourself back through time and image where each dance and movement came from. The basic arms represent a stag’s antlers – jumping in the heather. The Highland Fling (danced on the spot) was known to be performed on a targe (soldier’s round shield). Movements in the Seann Triubhas represent the shaking off of the trousers required by English law when they had captured the Scots and banned the kilt.
And while many of these dances are centred around battle, the gathering at a Highland Games is an unmistakable assembly of community. To watch the clans enter during the opening ceremony, the pipers marching en masse, leading the dancers in a massed Fling makes you realise how much in common we have. While you might be a competitor on the boards, once you step off the stage you shared a unique culture and experience.