THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF SCOTTISH COUNTRY DANCING (Version 1.1)

Mel Briscoe, Alexandria, Virginia, U.S.A.; 29 September 1998

(see also: General Guidelines, in TACNOTES ON R.S.C.D.S. DANCES, Teachers' Association of Canada, 1995)

 

DEFINITIONS

Facts: As written in a form not likely to change, for example the instructions for a published dance. Rumors and hearsay are sometimes mistaken for facts.

Dogma: Considered rules from high authority, e.g. RSCDS Headquarters. May vary in time and interpretation. Sometimes written in The Manual of Scottish Country Dancing or in TACNOTES ON R.S.C.D.S. DANCES, sometimes promulgated verbally, with varying success.

Common Practice: Although not dogma, the way things are usually done. Local variations may exist, giving rise to arguments about what is "right." These are the "Unwritten Rules."

Opinions: Sometimes in agreement with Common Practice or Facts or Dogma, but not necessarily. When Opinions are delivered by someone with "positional authority," they may even be mistaken for dogma. The line between Opinion and Common Practice is grey and demonstrably arguable.

COMMON PRACTICE

Setting in line:

If 3 people, middle person's hands are up.

If 2 people, I know of no common practice. The man, or the first man/woman, often puts his/her hand up.

Two-couple sets dance individually, without trying to join all four people on the side. Local variation is as many people join hands as possible, even between sets, especially in three-and-three across in strathspey setting. In my opinion, one should not force other sets to join in.

Hands across:

No rule on whose hands are on top. Some say first woman's hand is on top. I prefer hands to be taken as they are raised, so the hands on top are those who raised them first. (Hands are taken across, not piled in a clump in the middle. For three hands across, I still prefer no hand on top, i.e. all hands joined "shake hands" grip.)

Circle:

Middle person in line of three has hands up.

End people in lines join across with other line, often with men giving palms up to the women on the other side.

Uncommon local variant: "thumbs right," meaning each person has left hand palm down, right hand palm up.

Final Circles:

Any couples standing out are invited in to join a final circle. (This can produce larger-than-normal circles, so on a crowded floor some caution is advised.) An unusual local variant is for all the sets in a line to join into one, very large, very oval circle at the end.

Casting off:

On a crowded floor, casting off can mean collisions with the next set over. To help, the man lets the woman from the next set go in front.

Anticipation:

SCD is social dancing. If some careful anticipation of a movement will help a figure happen smoothly, it is OK, but phrasing and covering should still be maintained as possible.

Five couples:

If an extra couple "shares a round" with the fourth couple, the fourth couple stays in second place after their first round of the dance (the seventh round of eight), and then the fifth couple starts at the top. In some localities, the fourth couple completes their round and goes to the bottom, while the fifth couple starts at the top; this is sometimes a bit messy.

For an encore, if the band cannot play five rounds, it is polite to let the fourth and fifth couples begin the encore so they get to dance at least their two rounds.

ETIQUETTE (Not always Common Practice!)

Sets are formed from the top, with additional couples stepping in at the bottom of the line. Rushing to be top couples is to be avoided.

Women asking men to dance is a local thing: in some areas it is common, in other areas it avoided. My sense is that SCD is evolving to be "anyone can ask anyone."

Booking ahead is also a local thing. In some areas it is quite common, in others it is acceptable but unusual, in others it is quite frowned upon. Often, couples arriving will agree to do the first (and/or last) dance together. In my opinion, booking ahead tends to exclude new dancers and visitors and makes it difficult to respond to the whims of the moment or the sociability of the dance that just ended.

When casting down the outside, in some areas it is common to take the hand of the opposite gender from the next set over. In my opinion, this tends to ignore your own partner, and can be viewed as rude.

Dance within your own set. That is, big swooping reels that interlock with folks from the next set over are to be avoided.

Twirls/"twiddles" in the middle during diagonal reels of four can be fun to do, but can also be disorienting and confusing to inexperienced dancers in the set. My best advice: avoid them unless the entire set is used to them.

Birls, or extra spins during set-and-turn-corners in quick time, are written into The Hamilton Rant, but otherwise are to be avoided. In my opinion, it is exceedingly rude to force someone into an unanticipated spin by a strong arm during the turn, and can be disorienting and even dangerous.