This story is part of a Madison Commons series produced by master's students in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. These stories explore how people in Madison and Dane County find different ways to develop cultures within our community, looking look for opportunities to draw connections with each other to learn more about our world.
A centuries-old tradition has made its way across the pond and into the hearts of Madisonians
There’s a jolly clamor that erupts from the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center on Madison’s east side each and every Sunday night: the rhythm of clapping hands, feet in ghillies — soft-soled shoes used in Scottish dances — squeaking across the floor, and the rousing melody of traditional tunes.
To the uninitiated, it may seem unfamiliar, but to a Scot, it’s likely one of their favorite sounds.
They may be over 3,000 miles away from the homeland of the tradition, but the Madison Scottish Country Dancers have brought their culture all the way to the Badger state.
“I started Scottish country dancing because I took a ballet class and hated it. It was so unfriendly. It was so strict,” said Nancy McClements, the chair of the group. “I wanted something fun that was exercise and social.”
While arranging to attend the weekly meeting with McClements, I excitedly shared my Scottish heritage with her. To my delight, she responded with enthusiasm and a welcoming invitation for me to join in on the dances. It’s been almost a year, after all, since I left Bonnie Scotland — my home of nearly 22 years — for Wisconsin. How could I ever deny that fiery, “Braveheart”-esque passion in my veins for some good old Scottish country dancing?
It’s an art that has its roots in the early 18th century, an evolution from the court dancing of France and England imbued with lively Scottish passion. In its professionally practiced variant, as the Madison group performs it, its precise and prided footwork emulates that of French ballet. The vast canon of Scottish country dancing contains everything from intimate couple dances to intricate formations achieved by sets of four pairs.
For the Scottish, it’s common to celebrate life events, holidays — or just a regular weekend — with a cèilidh, a social gathering that has become synonymous in modern times to traditional dancing. People don their kilts to spend the night spinning each other around the dance floor to a harmonious backdrop of bagpipes and fiddles (never called a violin). Sore arms from energetic performances of crowd-pleasing, fast-paced jigs like “Strip the Willow,” are likely, expected and prized.
I, too, spent my childhood stepping and twirling through cèilidhs, Hogmanays and primary school P.E. classes. Oftentimes, everything ended in breathless laughter, rosy cheeks and a sense of gleeful camaraderie. I’ll tell you — it was far more fun than running the pacer test.
“First class, I was hooked,” McClements said. “It was everything I wanted.”
Here are some Scottish words and phrases you’d hear around the country dancers:
Bonnie — gorgeous, beautiful, charming
Cèilidh — a social gathering with traditional dancing
Ghilles — soft-soled shoes
Hogmanay — a Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration
Tunes — individual works of music used for Scottish dances
Fiddle — a violin
Setting step — a jaunty move wherein the dancer hops and kicks while alternating their balance on their left or right foot
The Madison Scottish Country Dancers approach the art with just as much enthusiasm as their Scottish brethren. They, like every formally recognized Scottish country dancing group in the world, are endorsed by the historic Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in Edinburgh, Scotland. They’ve helped to facilitate countless events across the Midwest to celebrate the art, and they show no signs of stopping. The group recently hosted the Midwest Scottish Weekend alongside the Chicago and Milwaukee groups in early June.
Many of the group’s members have been a part of the Madison Scottish Country Dancers for decades, at a point in time where their weekly meetings were held on the UW-Madison campus at the Memorial Union.
“We’ve had some marriages in the group. And divorces,” McClements said with a laugh.
But there’s a wide mix of ages and faces practicing their skills together tonight. There’s a little something for everyone when it comes to Scottish country dancing, McClements said. “It has those three things they say you should have when you’re older: sociability, learning new things and exercise. For younger people, it’s a way to meet people.”
Back home, you can see all sorts of faces crammed into the local village hall on a cèilidh night. Families and children, teenage sweethearts, the elderly and even university students from town on rural adventures — everyone’s welcome to join in on the fun. This sort of dancing spans generations.
One of the group’s youngest members is Isabella Palange, a graduate student in UW-Madison’s German, Nordic and Slavic+ department. Her studies, which include folklore and literature, sparked her interest in the Madison Scottish Country Dancers.
“It’s nice to meet such an interesting range of people,” she said. “It’s interesting because a lot of people don’t even know that the group exists. And it’s interesting how we all ended up here together. It’s cozy in that way.”
After a warmup, the group progresses from learning easier to harder dances. After couples bow or curtsy to one another, the room erupts in a flurry of movement. Partners turn each other around by their right or left hand, before the group joins hands to spin in a circle to a steady eight beats.
Traveling steps take dancers in brisk straight lines across the floor. Occasionally, the dance requires some more fancy footwork, like the setting step, a jaunty move wherein the dancer hops and kicks while alternating their balance on their left or right foot. In fact, the setting step is a hallmark from Scotland’s Highlands, a region that touts a dancing style completely its own. Scottish Highland dancing, a course of study I personally abandoned after participating in a single competition at the age of 8, is a sister style performed solo on competitive levels, and often serves as entertainment in seasonal Scottish Highland Games common throughout Scotland’s north.
On the contrary, Scottish country dancing is much more sociable. Persistent eye contact is a sign of a synergized couple and a great guide for new learners.
“There are some times in the dance where everyone is what we call covering perfectly,” McClements said. “You catch your partner’s eye when you should, and it all gels. That makes it special.”
“I love how, when you’re dancing, you’re not talking to each other,” Palange said. “You might say a couple words, but generally you’re not having a conversation. But you’re still connecting with people…you’re still together in that moment.”
The chance to spend a pleasant Sunday evening engrossed in my favorite of my country’s traditions was one I gladly took. Being surrounded by others who share the same love for the art that I so fondly grew up with made me feel so much more connected to my dance partners, my Scottish roots and ultimately to Madison itself.
Everywhere you look in this city you can find a rich tapestry of interwoven cultures, and I can’t say how lucky I feel to find a little piece of my own home here, too.
Not only that, it’s a fantastic way for curious individuals to get involved with an important tradition, no matter if they’re Scottish or not. Despite the group's clear technical ability overall, it doesn’t mean they’re at all inaccessible to beginners.
Mistakes are always met with encouraging words and shared laughs, and when someone in the set figures out a difficult step or move, there’s a shared sense of pride among their peers.
“I’m one of the newer members, but I feel so welcome here,” Palange said. “I look forward to Sundays every week.”