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A Brief History of the Scottish Ceilidh and Ceilidh Dancing
By Scotland's Ceilidh Band


"An informal social gathering at which there is Scottish or Irish folk music and singing and folk dancing and even story telling", is how you would find the word 'ceilidh' described in a dictionary. A Ceilidh (pronounced "Kay-lay", emphasis on 1st syllable) is many things to many people. It derives from the Gaelic word meaning a 'visit' and originally meant just that. It can also mean a 'house party', a 'concert' or more usually an evening of 'informal Scottish traditional dancing to informal music'. Ceilidhs in the Lowlands tend to be dances, in the Highlands they tend to be concerts. Dances in the Highlands and traditional ceilidhs in the Lowlands are often referred to as 'ceilidh dancing' or 'ceilidh dances'.

Ceilidh dancing is a more relaxed, non-competitive version of Scottish country dancing. Ceilidh dancing is much less formal - its primary purpose being the enjoyment of the dance. Scottish Country Dancing is much more orientated towards being a demonstration or exhibition. Ceilidh dancing over the last 20 years have become increasingly popular with young people, particularly students, and often attract from a few dozen people to several hundred. To many of us, going to a ceilidh goes hand in hand with good company, fun times and having a laugh while you swing and jig with friends on the dance floor to great music.

In Britain and Ireland, there is a fair amount of similarity between ceilidh dancing and barn dancing. Chambers dictionary states that 'barn dancing', for example, is: "a kind of party at which there is music and country dancing, originally held in a barn". The country or folk dancing associated with a barn dance, uses dances mostly from within and around the British Isles and you may be familiar with terminology such as do-si-do, right hand star and swing your partners, etc. These terms and instructions certainly also feature prominently in ceilidh dancing.

In simple terms, ceilidh dances tend to be either a partner dance or a group dance, and they also frequently have callers who shout out the moves - which makes a ceilidh ideally suited for novices in an audience. It's a relaxed opportunity to meet and dance with a lot of people, friends old and new. Because the dances are so energetic, it is quite usual to pause for a chat and a drink between dances - or you can choose to just watch the other dancers whilst you are soaking up the energy-charged atmosphere.

Angela Dreyer-Larsen, director of Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust, in a recent article in the Scotsman wrote: "There's been a little bit of a revival of young people dancing, as opposed to just 'shaking it all about' on the floor." Her belief is that the youth are responding to a "lack of proper dancing in their culture". Perhaps the main reason that Ceilidhs are such a popular form of dancing among the young is because it's a relatively easy form to learn - and involves having fun in the process. "No one gets upset if you take a wrong step," says Dreyer-Larsen. "They're more likely to kill themselves laughing!"

If you've never been to a ceilidh before, just remember that the dances at ceilidhs are for everyone to dance. Whether you're an expert or a novice, it doesn't matter. You could have two left feet, or even three. You could be from Cowcaddens or Katmandu. Believe us, culture, experience, nationality or ability don't enter into the proceedings. Yes, everybody is welcome at a ceilidh. It's socially inclusive and breaks down barriers and builds bridges between participants. Try out the ceilidh experience if you haven't done so - and you'll be astonished how hard it is not to end up permanently on the dance floor.


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