Recently, to the great amusement of my friends, I clicked ‘attending’ on the Facebook event page for a ceilidh happening at a local church hall back home in Glasgow. Upon seeing it, they assumed that this was a prank centered on my regional heritage. That someone had obviously gone onto my Facebook account and found an obscure event for eccentric retired Scottish farmers who practise historic re-enactment in their spare time.
Known as I am for usually wearing normal person clothes instead of a Tam O’Shanter costume, for voting ‘No’ in the recent independence referendum, and for not sharing either an accent or world view with Groundskeeper Willie, they couldn’t picture me wheeling and braying to the sound of bagpipe-based Gaelic folk music and the instructions of a kilted dance caller. While I choose to think this is partially to do with my reputation as an ice- cool femme fatale, I’d say the main reason is because they couldn’t picture anyone doing it. That they couldn’t picture Scottish country dancing, as I know it, at all.
So I decided to educate them, as I now attempt to educate all youse sassenach readers (that’s Scottish for ‘you Saxon/English readers’ – we have a second person plural pronoun, comme les francÌ§ais). I played some modern ceilidh music on Youtube. I explained the drinking and dress culture involved. I even demonstrated the Canadian Barn Dance and the Gay Gordons with the help of a very unwilling and uncoordinated volunteer. It wasn’t the most accurate demonstration as I had to lead, we were both sober, and when I shouted “Polka!”, he didn’t realise he was supposed to fast waltz for a few metres so I ended up just tripping him over. I’m not sure exactly how I expected them to react, but my expectation wasn’t a few blank stares and a dismissive, “So it’s basically like Scottish Morris Dancing, then?”
No, it is not. While this question suggested an utter failure on my part, it did identify the key stumbling block in their attempt to understand – unlike many Scottish inventions, such as Chicken Tikka Masala or the word “minging”, it could not integrate with English culture because it could not be adapted to the English cultural mindset. The closest thing to an English version of ceilidh dancing is not Morris Dancing (that would be Highland Danc- ing, a strictly choreographed, competitive and archaic tradition practiced by Highlanders and teen girls with aggressively nationalistic par- ents) but Regency Dancing. This phrase in itself may not ring a bell, but most people would recognise it as the dancing done in Jane Austen films – or books, since youse are all Oxford scholars who know better. These portrayals are hardly accurate to tradition, despite the retro garms of the cast and the pretty, National Trust-style settings. During the Regency period of around 1790-1825 when this form of dancing was at its most popular, dances were lively and bouncy and surprisingly vigorous, and would leave a young lady quite red-faced and glowing.
The reason for this inaccuracy is twofold. Part of it is just convenience: doing the same dance on repeat for film takes at the same energy level as our ancestors would cause Elizabeth Bennets and Mr Darcys to grow unseemly sweat stains on their often unwashable period costumes. Following the subsequent out of breath staccato conversations would be jarring and less romantic for watchers. The other part is the need to preserve a historically inaccurate reflection of what we expect the past to have been like. We often generalise the Georgian era as more uptight than our own hip, liberal age and so assume that the parties must have been as stuffy as the textbooks on them, and that everyone was too dignified and repressed to have fun.
In films, it makes sense that they prioritise aesthetics and perceived accuracy over participants’ enjoyment. But even at the few Regency dances still held in England, there is the same attempt at utter seriousness. I went to a Regency dance class recently in the hope it would give me a greater understanding of the social life of Austen’s heroines; only to spend a depressing 90 minutes in a painfully brightly lit conference centre, having a woman in a full length muslin dress, bonnet, lace gloves and petticoat laboriously demonstrate in slow motion the exact timing and shape of the basic steps. We spent less than a third of the time actually dancing, and at one point Ms Muslin actually physically corrected my posture. No wonder no one goes to Regency dances any more. I mean, who even owns a petticoat?
Posture and correct steps are not so necessary at ceilidhs, nor technical nor historic accuracy. My school held a few each year, where for the first half we’d do ceilidh dancing to a traditional folk band, complete with tin whistle and fiddle, and the second we’d jump and shuffle to Calvin Harris and Nikki Minaj, in a scene more reminiscent of a Thursday night at Bridge than any period classic. We’d dress up, but usually in bandeau dresses from Jane Norman and Topman shirts instead petticoats and kilts. We’d pre-drink and sneak vodka in in plastic bottles clamped between our thighs, which we’d gulp down in the toilets. It wasn’t dignified. But it was fun, and sold out every year, meaning most of my year were practically pros by graduation.
While the church hall ceilidh in 9th Week probably won’t have Nikki Minaj, I’ll be wearing a bandeau dress, this time from H&M, taking full advantage of the promised £1.50 pints instead of doing shots in the loo. It won’t matter that I’ve forgotten half of the steps since we were made to learn them in school and that I’ve got two left feet and the grace of a shot goose, the sequences have evolved over centuries to be easy to pick up in under a minute (even when you’re too drunk to walk on your own – that’s why they’re all partner and group dances) and to be impossible to disrupt when a pair of dancers or five go totally wrong.
Evolved is the key word there. It is through refusing to preserve the dances as they are that Scotland is able to keep the culture alive. It may not look too traditional at first glance. But I’d argue it’s a lot more authentic than any artificial enactment and a lot more enjoyable, too. Try it some time, and maybe you’ll see what I mean.