Mats Melin
on Highland Dance

A Celtic Cafe Exclusive by Loraine Ritchey

There are many people who have found a passionate relationship with the Highland Arts. One of most renowned is a gentleman, Mats Melin. Mats, as it happens is not a Scot. Mats is Swedish. “What is a Swede doing teaching traditional Scottish dancing?” is a question which is often asked. Mats’ dancing background began at the age of eleven, when he took up Scottish Country Dancing - this interest came from a fascination in things Celtic -- primarily Scottish and Irish music, culture, and history.

The first years concentrated on Scottish Country Dancing and from the age of twelve Mats performed with the RSCDS Stockholm branch demonstration team, and it was not long before he started assisting the teachers. Mats then began to teach himself the first Highland Dances from books which were lent to him. Since 1986 Mats has conducted a thorough research into the background and history of Scottish Solo Step-Dancing. This research led him to take a closer look at the other European dance forms as well as North American and other related dance traditions. This work, which is being made ready for publication, includes descriptions of all known versions of well known and lesser known solo step-dances, Hebridean dances and Cape Breton step-dancing. Mats is now working as the Traditional Dance Development Officer for the Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust in Angus, Scotland. We will touch on other important stops along the way in Mats’ journey of discovery. Mats has kindly agreed to help with some of the definitions and explanations.

  1. . The term “Step Dancing” can either refer to percussive footwork, as you may find it in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and many other places where Scots settled. It is the old form of Scottish dancing, but more of that later, or the term may be used for a combination of steps e.g. Highland Fling, Sword Dance, etc.

Looking at the later form first, Donald R Mackenzie, Professor of Dancing, Stirling, Scotland wrote in 1910 that some of the best “Highland step-dancers” of his time were John MacNeil, and William MacLennan ( the world famous piper and dancer) ‘The characteristic dancing styles of these two men were truly Highland, artistic and without any affectation’ D.R. Mackenzie admired them enough to describe some of their reel steps, Highland Fling and Claymore Sword dancesteps in his book “National Dances of Scotland”. This reference to people we would know as Highland Dancers as ‘highland Step Dancers’ here simply means that they excelled in combinations of highland steps.

Percussive step dancing has seen a renaissance in Scotland over the past six to ten years. Cape Breton Gaels have been asked to come over to Scotland to show us their style of dancing, fiddling and piping. Their style of step dancing is often referred to as Cape Breton Step Dancing, which is quite correct, but they themselves often just refer to it as the old Scotch step dancing that came across with their ancestors from Scotland. This style of stepping fits Scottish music but is often now thought of as Irish dancing in this country (Scotland) because its common usage round the country has disappeared. However, when asking around, the memories of percussive footwork being used for solo dancing, in old Scotch Reels and in Country Dances and couple dances, still linger, from the north of Shetland right down to the borders. The association with Irish dancing come from the easy access to Irish percussive step-dance in modern times, and because the arms are not used.

But old style (sean nos) Irish step dancing, as well as modern competitive Irish step dancing and even more recently Riverdance style step dancing are and should be seen as distinctive in their own right, because although the steps are in many cases similar, especially in the sean nos style their dance rhythms respond to Irish music, which has a different emphasis from Scottish music. Essentially the roots of both step dance traditions are similar, as percussive footwork reflects the inner rhythms of the music. This parallel to language, as Scots Gaelic is different but yet similar to Irish Gaelic, so is Scottish to Irish step dancing.

2. Scottish percussive step dancing does not require a turn out -- it is entirely natural. (as opposed to Highland which requires a turn out and use of the head and upper body and arm positions -- L.R.) One has to keep in mind that the solo dance tradition in Scotland, percussive or not, most likely grew out of Scotch Reel dancing. The Scotch Reel is, generally, a two-parted dance where three or four people dance a figure (circle, figure of eight etc.) and then dance steps on the spot to each other. They can then be said to “step it out’ or ‘dance it out’. The two parts were often referred to as ‘reeling’ and ‘dancing’. The Highland Reel and Reel of Tulloch are two modern forms of the Scotch Reel. If a good dancer were asked to perform on his own he would simply string together steps he knew from the reel, thus creating a step dance. Remains of the circular Scots Reel can still be seen at the start of several solo Highland Dances, such as Seann Triubhas, Sailor’s Hornpipe, Irish Jig , and the Sword Dance. Even the old Highland Flings had circling in them. There are many other solo dances that are part percussive and part Highland that incorporate the circular movement, either only at the start of the dance, or between each step on the spot. Thus they could be seen as a Scotch Reel for a single person. A good example of this last category is the dance ‘The Flowers of Edinburgh’ as it survived in Cape Breton, until the 1950’s. There is also a whole group of solo dances from the Western Isles, now referred to as “Hebridean Dances’ most of which can be seen as an intermediate form between Highland dances and the wholly percussive dances. The dance “Till A-Rithist’ or ‘Aberdonian Lassi’ can be seen as a lovely mix of Highland Fling elements and percussive footwork. The dance was known in Barra and South Uist.

Dancers can get in touch with me if they are interested in the step dance revival. There are, however, no governing bodies for either Hebridean dancing or step-dancing at present, as the dances are only passed on by local tradition bearers or enthusiasts only, as used to be the case all over Scotland at one time.

We will bring you more of Mats’ research in the weeks to come. You may contact the Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust Edinburgh.stdt@virgin.net . Mats Melin and Dannsa site: www.dannsa.com

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For the past several years, Loraine Ritchey has been covering the Highland dance scene for Dancer magazine. Loraine would like to thank Owen Goldman, publisher of Dancer magazine, for giving space to the professional and the smallest studios in the heartland. Dancer magazine is a national publication.