Highland Dance Parent Guide: What are Medal Tests?

What are Medal Tests?

If you’re a Saorsa Studio dance fam member with a dancer age 3+, September is the time when you start getting emails from us about Medals Testing.

We realize that reading those two words together may mean absolutely nothing to you, so let’s dive in!

Medals Testing = Highland Dance Exams

The term dance exam sounds scarier than it really is! Dance exams (or medals testing) is a non-competitive means for dancers as young as 3 years old to show off their skills to an examiner and get written feedback on what they’ve presented.

This not only helps them improve, but it allows dancers to get corrections from a different set of eyes other than their teacher, AND they get to work their way up through exams as they age, collecting medals (sent all the way from Scotland) as they go!

Dance Exam Benefits

Why we offer these tests year after year:

  • Gives dancers a non-competitive opportunity to progress
  • Dancers receive valuable feedback on what they’re doing well and what they can improve on from experienced examiners
  • Moving up through the levels challenges dancers to master new movements, steps and dances
  • Dancers of all ages feel an immense sense of accomplishment mastering what’s needed for their test, executing it, and working their way up through the grades

If we had to equate it to another activity – think swimming or piano exams (This is written by someone who has done neither… But seems like they’re similar lol).

Now let’s get into the test specifics!

About the Scottish Dance Teachers Alliance

First of all, we are a Scottish Dance Teachers Alliance (SDTA) studio. All of our instructors have received their teaching certifications through the SDTA, so that’s who we offer our exams through.

There are other associations, the British Association of Teachers of Dance (BATD) and the United Kingdom Alliance (UKA), and they have their own set of exams and syllabus (similar but slightly different to SDTA).

This blog will be giving the run down primarily for the SDTA exams, but still relevant to the other associations!

How It Works

Here in Fredericton, we’re able to be a part of the Fall SDTA exam tour. The examiner typically flies in from Scotland, tours throughout Nova Scotia dance studios, and then travels to tour New Brunswick dance studios. Our exams have been in November for years, but the specific date always varies.

It’s important to know that exams can fall on a school day! Those in the upper test levels sometimes miss the full day due to the number of exams they’re involved in. Those in lower exams can expect to be there for anywhere from 30 – 90 mins, as an estimate!

The examiner will come to Fredericton where we host them for 1-2 days. They evaluate the dancers, give them an overall grade, and then send these results back to Scotland, where they’ll start packaging up the awards to ship to us.

We get the evaluation sheets right away before the examiner leaves, so those will be distributed to your dancer the next time they’re at the studio! This will contain all the feedback from the examiner and the overall grade they received on their test.

Awards will take a little while to arrive, but is always a fun day at the studio when we get to present them to the dancers for all their hard work.

Types of Exams

At Saorsa, we pick & recommend exams for you – which you would have received in an email from us!

If you’re new to exams, we pick these based on the dancers age, level and experience.

Once dancers get started on the exam track, we just have them work their way up through the levels in order, and they become seasoned pros at it!

There are a few categories of exams:

Dance Stars

  • These are for our littles! Dancers age 3 – 6 years can do these tests.
  • There are 6 Dance Star levels (Dance Stars 1, 2, 3… etc)
  • Very age appropriate & straightforward! Tests the dancers on dance fundamentals like points, jumps, clapping to music, etc.
  • Dance teachers are allowed to accompany dancers into the test to guide them through the movements and make them feel comfortable
  • Dancers get to fill up a plaque with their Dance Star awards they learn over the years! A great keepsake for their early years.

Highland Exams

  • There are tons of levels to work through. Examples of test names include Preparatory, Preliminary, Pre-Bronze, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Scottish Award 1, 2, 3… etc
  • We send along individual recommendations each September to dance families! We pick tests based on where your dancer is currently at
  • Tests include dances like Fling, Sword, Seann Truibhas, Reel
  • As dancers work up through the grades, the test requirements get more challenging, requiring dancers to show steps they might not normally do, which is great experience.

National Exams

  • Similar to Highland exams for levels and test complexity
  • We will also send recommendations for what level your dancer should be doing
  • Tests include dances like Lilt, Flora, Blue Bonnets, Village Maid

Jig & Hornpipe Exams

  • Similar to Highland and National exams with the levels, but there are less levels to complete
  • Since these are more advanced dances, these won’t be recommended until the dancer has a few years of experience or has learned these dances in class

Theory Exams

  • Tests dancers on their knowledge of definitions of positions, movements and more from this book
  • Takes a different kind of preparation & studying than the practical dance exams!
  • We HIGHLY recommend these exams because it’s the exact format of a teaching exam. They help dancers feel well prepared to take their first professional exam at age 16, which allows them to start teaching at our studio
  • It’s not required to complete all the theory grades before your teaching exam, but it makes dancers feel a lot less overwhelmed when they work their way up to the bigger exam, instead of diving into the deep end at 16 with no other experience!

Professional Exams

  • Professional exams = teaching exams!
  • Everyone who turns 16 at our studio is recommended to start with their Associates Highland exam, which is the first teaching exam offered
  • Other professional exams include:
    • Associate National
    • Members Highland & National (age 18 – needed to take your judges exam)
    • Fellowship (needed to become a medal test examiner)

Choreography Exams

  • Done less often at our studio, but an option! Dancers can perform choreographies and receive awards.

Do I Need to Buy Dance Costumes?

No! Another benefit to dancing exams, which keeps it extra accessible to recreational dancers, is that all tests can be completed in the practice gear your dancer wears to class at Saorsa.

Exam Results

We’re writing this purely from memory, so forewarning there may be some inaccuracies (ie. can’t remember what grades are available for Dance Stars – it might just be Pass).

Each exam sheet has grades at the bottom, kind of like school.

They are, from lowest to highest:

  • For Highland, National, Jig, Hornpipe, Choreography, and Dance Stars
    • Pass
    • Pass Plus
    • Commended
    • Commended Plus
    • Highly Commended
  • For Theory
    • Pass
    • Merit
    • Honours

If dancers get Highly Commended in their Highland, and Honours in their theory exams, they can be nominated by their examiner for the SDTA Scholarship event. That likely needs a whole other blog post (we have dancers travelling to Calgary this month to attend the 2023 SDTA Scholarships so we can deliver on that!). But basically, dancers who receive top marks get to compete for a financial scholarship award at a yearly event that moves around North America.

Another great opportunity medals testing can bring!

Exam Fees

Included in your email beside your test recommendations are the exam fees. These are set by the SDTA and covers everything from the examiner touring around to the physical awards you get.

You pay for each exam listed as it includes the awards – we don’t require these fees until November 1st!

Extra Classes

For dancers doing the upper-level exams, there gets to be a point where there is just too much to cover in regular classes, especially while the regular competition season still forges ahead. SO, we typically add a few additional classes to make sure we get through all of the exam material. These classes get communicated to you shortly after the exam list is finalized mid-September!

For those doing theory exams, we require additional prep classes (often done via zoom so we can all be in the comfort of our homes), to get dancers used to the oral exam test format. The schedule will also get communicated to you around mid-September.

For the lower-level exams (aka Bronze, Silver), we can typically cover all of this content in class so no extra practices required. However, we usually have one class closer to the test with ALL exam dancers to do a final run through and talk about the format of the day.

Timeline at Saorsa Studio

September to November at our studio becomes a bit of a blur for our instructors.

We’re busy welcoming everyone back and getting classes started up.

Then there are new Championship and Premiership steps to cover with our Premier level dancers.

Regular competitions are still happening that we’re prepping dancers for.

And on top of all that, we add in a bunch of exams, and typically have a couple dancers doing their teaching exams too!

But we wouldn’t have it any other way❤️

Exam Day (some time in November)

Ahead of the big day, we send out a complete schedule of which dancers are doing which exams at what time. Here’s what your day will look like:

  • Check the schedule and see what time your exam is
  • Get hair & outfit ready for exam (we recommend arriving in the first costume needed for your tests, or your practice gear if not wearing a costume + hair in a bun)
    • If you don’t want to get ready in advance, get to the test venue EXTRA early
  • Arrive 20-30mins ahead of your exam
  • Dancer gets stretched & warmed up for the test
  • A volunteer will call your dancer in when it’s time for their test
  • They’ll enter the exam with their exam sheet to hand to the examiner
  • There are also other dancers who go in with them. Everyone doing same or similar levels will go in together to give each other a break between dances
Dancer completes their exam
  • There will be a volunteer in the room playing the music (facing away from the dancers so they aren’t watching)
  • The examiner will tell the dancers what dance they’re doing first or what step they need to see, etc.
  • There will be a row of chairs in the studio facing away from the dancing which is where dancers will wait for their next dance (tests will be scheduled so dancers get breaks between dances)

Once done their exam(s), they’re free to go for the day!


Dance exams, or Medals Testing, is such a unique experience for both recreational and competitive dancers. We see dancers feel such a sense of pride as they work their way up! It gives dancers a goal to set their sights on and work towards. We’re grateful every year that we have the opportunity to host these for our dancers.

We’ve watched countless dancers rise to the challenge every year, working through their new list of steps, movements and theory definitions to master, developing their dance and general exam prep skills every year.

(Trust us, the exam prep skills come in handy for every test your dancer will ever take!)

If you have any questions about medals testing, reach out to us with your questions! We’re happy to help.

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