Jenny Douglas starts a tradition

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According to tradition, the old kings and chiefs of Scotland, used Highland dancing as a way of choosing men for their retinue and men at arms. Dancing was one of the ways men were tested on agility, strength, stamina and accuracy. Scottish regiments used Highland Dancing as exercise to keep the troops in shape, and ready for battle. The dances are indeed excellent exercise; for example, in a typical six-step Highland Fling, a dancer will jump vertically 192 times (the equivalent of running a mile), while performing complicated and intricate footwork, and using the muscles from head to toe. Highland dancing is therefore akin to sprinting, with dancers using fast-twitch muscle, which is also required by soldiers. The regiments did not just dance six steps they danced upwards of 20 steps in one dance! The leaps were said to be used to leap over a sword trust at their heart. iginally only men were allowed to do these dances, but in the late 19th century a 10 year old girl, Jenny Douglas, decided to enter a Highland dance competition. As this was not expressly forbidden, she was allowed to enter. It was a shock for everyone when the first female Highland Dancer took to the platforms to do battle with the men. She made so much of an impact on the scene, dressed exactly as the men, that shortly afterwards other ladies took up the idea and the seed was sown.

Initially, women were expected to appear in the same cumbersome outfit as their male counterparts - kilt, doublet, plaid and sporran - a vast difference from today’s light-weight outfit that is designed with the dancer’s comfort and ease of movement in mind.

They adopted the look of a male soldier, with military dress and with their hair pulled up and off the neck in a high bun or a French braid. This also gave the dancer a clear view, allowing them to maintain the correct body alignment throughout the dance. Later during the World Wars, women began dancing more often desiring to preserve their rich culture and history, while the men were defending their homeland. Since then the number of females participating in the sport has increased until today in excess of 95% of all competition dancers are female.

In 1952, the Aboyne Games sponsored a more feminine costume for girls based on seventeenth and eighteenth century Highland dress for women as seen in portraits of Flora MacDonald. Ladies’ dances such as Flora MacDonald’s Fancy, the Scottish Lilt, and the Village Maid, were introduced to the repertoire as ‘national dances’, to offer hand movements where ladies would hold their skirts and, above all, more feminine dances using a softer, more balletic style rather than the more military style used by the earlier male dancers.

So, we can be proud that a Douglas led the way in highland dancing, as in so many other fields.


Sources for this article include:

• The Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association

 Any contributions will be gratefully accepted


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Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024