What is Highland Dance?

What is Highland Dance?

Some would say it’s a sport, some would say it is an art, some would say it’s a form of pure cultural expression – we like to think that Highland dance is all of the above.

From its beginnings in Scotland in the 11th or 12th century, to the dancers performing all over the world today, Highland has a long and winding history. Traditional dancing, modern interpretations, outside influences, and amazing athletic feats make up this historically rich and always-fascinating style of dance. 

The History

Originating in Scotland in the 11th or 12th century, Highland dance is based in Scottish military culture. It is said that each of the Highland dances carries a piece of Scottish folklore. For instance, the Highland Fling, one of the most widely-known traditional Highland dances, is believed to either represent a stag as it bounds along the Scottish countryside, or be a dance of triumph to be performed following a successful battle. 

Highland dance has always been valued as a highly athletic style of dance. Today, that athleticism often takes the shape of cross-training to develop stamina and strength. Historically, it was said to be used by clan chiefs and kings to select their strongest soldiers, develop discipline in their troops, and showcase endurance and agility. 

David Cunliffe, 1853

Over the centuries, many of the original Highland dances have been lost. In 1746, the British government, in an attempt to force the often rebellious clan system into compliance, passed an Act of Parliament which banned the Scots from wearing kilts and carrying weapons. 

This Act was repealed in 1785, but by that time, many Highland dances and the stories behind them had been lost. 

When Queen Victoria began to recognise beauty of Scotland during the mid-19th century, she triggered a resurgence in traditional Scottish culture. This included the beginnings of the first Highland Games, and the first Highland dance competitions. 

Women in Highland Dance

Until the turn of the 20th century, only men were permitted to compete in Highland dance competitions. That was until 10-year-old Jenny Douglas entered a dance competition dressed as a man, and competed even when she was specifically forbidden. 

Jenny Douglas created enough of a stir that more and more women began competing, particularly during the World Wars. Today, upwards of 95% of Highland dancers are women and girls!

David Allan's "Highland Dance", 1870
Via Cowal Highland Games News Archives: 2022 World Highland Dance Champions (L-R): Lily Kelman, Annalise Lam, Marielle Lespérance

Influences on Modern Highland Dance

Over time, Highland dance has spread throughout the world, becoming popular in countries including Canada, Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, the US, South Africa, and others.

As it has become more widespread, Highland has been influenced by other cultures and styles of dance, especially ballet. The basic foot and arm positions of Highland are almost identical to those of ballet. While the styles of Highland have become varied across the world, they remain tethered to their traditional Scottish roots. 

Highland Dance Today

Today, Highland dance technique and competitions are highly regulated by various governing bodies, including the Royal Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. 

While Highland dance is no longer used as a test of Scottish soldier’s strength and agility, it continues to evolve and push participants to better themselves. Highland dance requires a high level of athleticism, determination, and self-discipline. 

Highland dancers are constantly pushing the boundaries of dance – jumping higher, leaping larger, and always seeking to raise the bar for their fellow competitors. What was developed to drive the human body and spirit so many centuries ago persists today, pushing dancers beyond what was ever previously believed to be possible. 

Are You Looking to Try Highland Dance?

Our studio offers Highland dance classes for all ages, and all skill levels! Check out our free trials and see for yourself how Highland dance lifts spirits and challenges the body!

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