Dance histories: Highland Fling

Rosemary Coupe

Message 51344 · 29 Feb 2008 20:37:01 · Fixed-width font · Whole thread

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Richard Goss writes,
" . . . regarding your "Foursome" rumor, I seriously doubt if any recognized
dance scholar would put his or her name to such an assertion that the
Highland Fling came from this dance."

Here are the first sentences of the "Highland Fling" chapter of Traditional
Step-Dancing in Scotland by the Fletts (actually written by Joan Flett but
based on Tom Flett's notes):

"Today the Highland Fling consists of six or eight steps but prior to 1900 a
dancer usually performed ten steps. The steps used were primarily a
selection taken arbitrarily from the steps used in the part of the Highland
Reel danced to strathspey rhythm. We know of at least sixty possible steps
and in the following pages we give the most interesting of these." They
proceed to describe 29 steps.

Aside from this authority, the process by which dancing masters observed and
recorded the steps of the Highland reel is seen in Francis Peacock's book of
1805 and the anonymous MS Contre-Danses a Paris 1818. It seems entirely
plausible that the Highland Fling began as a formalized sequence of these
steps. The earliest extant description of the Fling, in the Hill MS of 1818,
gives two alternative versions ascribed to two different dancing masters.
Also, early accounts of step dance teaching emphasize the learning of steps
rather than whole choreographed dances: Elizabeth Grant writes, "A dancing
master taught us every variety of wonderful Highland step . . ." Finally,
the term "Highland fling" in its early uses applied to the step we now know
as "shedding," not to an entire dance.

One thing I find fascinating is that the entire process seems to have
repeated itself on Cape Breton Island, where solo step dancing also
developed from a linking of steps drawn from the reels. But Cape Breton step
dances are extemporaneous and not formally named. The dancers draw on their
personal repertoire of steps as did the herd boy observed by Francis
Peacock, who "had a variety of well chosen steps." Highland dancing in
Scotland, on the other hand, evolved in response to the demands of an urban
audience and was shaped by the needs of public performance.

Rosemary Coupe
Vancouver

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