Women’s Role in the History of Highland Dance

The History of Women in Highland Dance

Trailblazing a Path Forward

Today, most highland dancers are women. Here at Saorsa Studio, we are a woman-owned and run business, with a teaching staff of strong and inspiring women. We teach dance to mostly girls and women (but don’t let that deter you from getting involved if you/your child do not identify as a woman/girl! We love our students of all genders). 

While highland dance today is dominated mostly by women, it hasn’t always been this way.

Up until the early 20th century, highland dance was performed exclusively by men. Let’s explore how women went from breaking through that initial glass ceiling to raising the bar for all of highland dance!

A Brief History of Highland Dance

Highland dance originated in 11th or 12th century Scotland and is firmly rooted in Scottish military culture. Each traditional dance carries a piece of Scottish folklore, such as the Highland Fling symbolizing a bounding stag or a victorious dance after battle.

Valued for its athleticism, Highland dance requires a high degree of stamina, strength, and agility. 

In the past, clan chiefs and kings used Highland dance to select strong soldiers, instill discipline, and showcase endurance and agility. However, many original Highland dances were lost due to British government bans in the 18th century on Scottish traditions like kilts and weapons.

During the mid-19th century, Queen Victoria’s appreciation for Scottish culture sparked a revival, leading to the emergence of Highland Games and dance competitions. This revival helped preserve and revive the traditions of Highland dance, keeping its rich history alive.

Read a more complete history of highland dance in our previous posts!

Pivotal Figure: Jenny Douglas

Prior to the 20th century, women were forbidden from highland dancing in public. One pivotal figure who helped to change that was Jenny Douglas. At 10 years old, Jenny Douglas entered a highland dance competition, dressed in the same costume as the men.

As was the case with many trailblazers in the late 19th and early 20th century, Jenny’s entry to the competition was met with shock and dismay. Luckily, she persevered and soon, more and more women began to join her on the stage.

Jenny Douglas via The Douglas Archives

Highland Dance and the World Wars

Throughout the World Wars, Scottish women sought a means of keeping their culture and traditions alive whilst their husbands, fathers, and sons were away fighting.

True to its ancient roots, highland dance experienced its next revolution during times of unrest. 

The Sword Dance via The Douglas Archives

Whereas highland dance originally developed among male soldiers, it grew in popularity among women as they kept their households and country running while the men were off at war. 

As more and more women became involved in the dance, female leaders began to emerge and push the Celtic dance into the new century. 

Kate E. Shaw via The Trail Times

The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society

While not exclusive to highland dance, a highly influential development was the founding of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society by Jean Milligan in 1923. 

Traditional Scottish country dancing had fallen out of favour in Scotland with the influx of waltzes and quadrilles in recent decades. In an effort to preserve, promote, and reinvigorate tradition, Jean Milligan founded the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. 

To this day, the Society publishes books standardising country dancing based on manuscripts from the 17th to 19th century. They also do outreach and workshops in an effort to keep traditional Scottish dance alive around the world.

Jean Milligan via Wikipedia

While Scottish country dance and highland dance are not the same thing, they are connected by time, space, and the fact that their resurgence in culture can be attributed to strong female figures. 

Jenny Douglas and Jean Milligan showed that traditional folk arts can persevere to the modern day, given that they are able to adapt to societal shifts.

Two other significant steps taken to evolve highland dance came in the 1950s. First, the Royal Scottish Official Board of Highland Dance (RSOBHD) was founded in 1950. 

The RSOBHD is the current global governing body for all of highland dance. The board defines the steps and current technique in highland dance, as well as managing all dancer, professional, and judge registration and certification.

Learn more about what the RSOBHD does for highland dance in our previous post!

Not only did the RSOBHD standardize highland dance competitions and technique, they firmly established women’s right to compete. Since then, women have pushed the bar higher and higher in competitive dance. 

The other significant development in highland dance in the 1950s was centred around women. As more and more women became involved in highland dance, the sport itself became shaped by this new demographic. 

The Significance of the National Dances

The involvement of women in highland led to the creation of a new costume and a new set of dances all intended for female participants.

In 1952, the Aboyne Highland Games sponsored a “more feminine” costume intended for women and girls.

The aboyne costume, as it is still referred to today, is based on 17th and 18th century highland dress for women as seen in portraits of Flora MacDonald

Dances such as the Flora MacDonald’s Fancy, the Village Maid, and the Scottish Lilt were introduced as ‘national dances’. These dances include “feminine” hand movements for female-identifying dancers such as holding out skirts and a softer, more balletic style of movement in many dances.

While dancers of all dancers perform and compete the national dances today, the introduction of these “feminine” dances showcases the impact women were having on the make up of the sport.

Aboyne Highland Dancers via Shutterstock (I didn't want to pay to download this without the watermark but look how cute this photo is!!)

Women in Highland Dance Today

Since the 1950s, the number of women participating in highland dance has only continued to grow. A pass through historical World Highland Dancing Championship results shows an overwhelming number of woman world champions. Particularly in past decade, women have dominated the juvenile, junior, and adult world titles. 

2022 World Highland Dancing Champions (L-R): Lily Kelman (Scotland, Juvenile World Champion), Annalise Lam (Canada, Junior World Champion), Marielle Lesperance (Canada, Adult World Champion 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2022)

Women were the catalyst of a revolution in highland dance in the early 20th century, and then again in the 1950s. 

As highland dance and the world around it continue to evolve, women continue to spearhead positive change in the sport as competitors, instructors, and organizers. Today, it is estimated that 95% of highland dancers are women. 

We’ve only scratched the surface of women’s contributions to highland dance in this post. The list of other influential figures could go on for miles – leading up to the current day. 

From powerful female dance champions who push the bar athleticism higher and higher each year, to those advocating for breaking down gender barriers even further to uplift gender non-conforming dancers; the perseverance of Scottish culture and tradition through highland dance can be largely attributed to innovative women.

Here at Saorsa Studio, we’re proud to be a team of women dedicated to the continued evolution of highland dance. We aim to be positive role models for the dancers of tomorrow, and provide an environment for all dancers to find friendship, motivation, inspiration, and empowerment.

Just as many women did before us, we carry the belief that highland dance is for everyone! Thanks to the trailblazers who came before us, we’re able to use highland dance as a platform to uplift women and girls; instilling positive work ethics, teaching the value of determination, and fostering bonds of female kinship to last a lifetime.❤️

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