Skip to main content

Highland Dancing

Insider Info

Highland dancing is a type of traditional folk dancing that dates back to the 11th or 12th century in Scotland. In fact, both modern ballet and square dancing can trace their roots back to the Highlands.

There are a variety of different dances, each made up of a series of different movements called steps.

The dances involve lots of jumping, which is physically demanding.

"Highland dance involves jumping up and down, more or less, for an hour non-stop. It's tough on the knees, but I love the sheer physical reach involved," says Donald Robertson, a Highland dancer in San Francisco.

Despite the energy required, many people have begun Highland dancing in their 40s or 50s. It's an activity that's good for all ages, and requires flexibility and strength.

This again is due to the dance's historical uses. Originally, the old kings and chiefs of Scotland used a series of events known as the Highland Games as a way of picking the best men for their retinue (attendants who accompany an important person).

The dancing was a test of men's strength, stamina, accuracy, and agility. Even Scottish military regiments used Highland dancing in their training!

Scottish Highland dancing is a great aerobic exercise. Dance competitions are a big part of any Celtic event.
Courtesy of: HighlandNet

There are a number of traditional types of Highland dances. They range from the Highland fling, which is a good beginner's dance, to the Hullachan and the Earl of Errol, which are much more complicated. However, people continue to invent new Highland dances, as well.

Dancers say it takes a bit of memory work to get the series of steps down properly.

"Most people find it difficult to grasp the sequence of movements which make up a step and eventually a dance," says Vicky Millar, a Highland dancer in Dundee, Scotland. "Memory is essential, but if you do it often enough, it finally sinks in."

Only within the last 100 years or so have women been allowed to participate in Highland dancing. It used to be associated with war and battle and was only done by men. Now women make up the majority of Highland dancers.

Dances such as the Highland fling were originally victory dances. The famous sword dance, which is performed by a solo dancer in one spot, also has a strong history.

"The sword dance was danced before going into battle, and swords were placed on the ground in the shape of a cross," says Leighann Warnock, a Highland dancer.

"If a dancer completed the dance without touching one of the swords, it was a good omen. If a sword was touched, it meant bad luck."

Beginning Highland dancers don't need to spend much to get started. Classes are usually group oriented and cost about $5 to $10 per lesson. Good comfortable clothes and a pair of dance shoes, which may cost about $40, are all that's required.

If you're going to get serious about Highland dancing, experts say all that nice tartan doesn't come cheap. You'll need a kilt, a vest and special wool socks called hose. Prices for this can range from $150 for used goods to as much as $700 for new plaid gear.

Highland dancers say they not only enjoy the exercise Highland dancing provides, but the feeling that they're experiencing a bit of Scottish tradition firsthand.

"Highland dance is different from other forms of dance in that it's a symbol of the Scottish tradition," says Millar.

Many other people are drawn to Highland dance because of the music.

"In addition to the physical high, there is a musical high you get from locking yourself into the beat. I'm a percussionist and I like to think of dance as playing my drum with my feet on the floor," says Robertson.

There are competitions for those people who are serious about their Highland dancing. Participants usually perform three to a stage.

While they are dancing, they are ranked by judges for their skills in different levels of dance. The categories range from primary to beginners, novice to intermediate, to premier.

Premier dancers take Highland dance to a new level. "The premier dancers are incredible athletes and make it almost an athletic event," says Sarah Rae Lemnus, a Highland dancer in Milwaukee.

While you may not be aiming to become a premier dancer, it's a good idea to watch them if you get the chance. "I recommend going to competitions, even if you're not competing, to watch the higher-level dancers so you know what to strive for," says Lemnus.

If you love this activity, you might find a career in the field. For instance, there are opportunities for experienced dancers to become teachers, but it takes a lot of training and hard work.

"In order to teach Highland dancing, you have to pass a number of medal tests before you're allowed to take an associate teacher's exam, and only after that are you allowed to take a teacher's exam," says Warnock.

Once you become a teacher, you can make a fairly good income, but it doesn't really become a full-time job for most people.

Whether they dance for competition or just for fun, Highland dancers agree it's an excellent way to meet people and to keep fit.

"I've met lots of great people at competitions and in classes. It's a great way to keep fit and learn a new skill," says Millar.

Getting Started

Think you're ready to don the tartan and dance the Highland fling?

"Go for it. You'll really enjoy it. I've realized from performing at places like charity concerts and old folks' homes how much enjoyment you can bring to a lot of people," says Millar.

A good way to introduce yourself to Highland dancing is through attending a Highland games event or Scottish festival.

These events feature Highland dancing as well as piping and drumming competitions, genealogy displays, entertainers and activities such as tossing the caber (tree trunks), throwing weights, tug of war and much more.

You can also try asking other people about Highland dancing. Check into local classes or try asking for information on an Internet newsgroup.

Once you've decided you'd like to try it, experts suggest you begin with lessons. Sit in on a class before you decide to take it, because choosing a good teacher is important.

"Spend some time watching a class or two, then check your teacher's credentials. A good teacher should be knowledgeable and provide students with lots of positive reinforcement," says Sarah Rae Lemnus.

Don't be intimidated. After all, everyone has to start at the same place! While it may take a while for you to get the hang of it, you'll soon be dancing.

"It's actually easier than it looks. If you can figure out your left from your right, you can dance," says Lemnus.

Finally, have patience. It took hundreds of years for these dances to develop, so you should expect to spend at least a couple of months learning the basics.

"It takes a while to grasp the basics, but this is what everything will be based on. It takes time and patience and those starting out may find it takes a while before they see positive results," says Lemnus.


Council of Scottish Clans and Associations (COSCA)

Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing


Scotland Through Her Country Dances
by  George S. Emmerson


Introduction to Highland Dancing
Find fun information about highland dancing

Highland Dancing Federation
Dedicated to promoting highland dancing and culture in the U.S.

Scottish Dance Groups in the United States
Check out this huge list of links!

Back to Career Cluster


  • Email Support

  • 1-800-GO-TO-XAP (1-800-468-6927)
    From outside the U.S., please call +1 (424) 750-3900


Powered by XAP

OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.