Dance Etiquette

Participants in all RSCDS Twin Cities Branch events should also familiarize themselves with our code of conduct.

General Notes on Scottish Country Dance Etiquette and Expectations

Finding a Partner

  • Feel free to ask anyone of any gender to dance.
  • It is customary to dance with many different partners throughout the evening. If possible, try to partner at least one person with whom you have never danced before (SCD is all about meeting new people) – and of course, ask them their name and where they are from.
  • At balls and socials, some people make a habit of “pre-booking” partners for dances later in the evening. Many people consider it rude to do so for the whole event.
  • Beginners shouldn’t be afraid to ask more experienced dancers to dance. Experienced dancers are strongly encouraged to invite beginners to dance, as they are often shy about asking more advanced dancers to partner them. If you are an experienced dancer, look around to see if anyone is sitting out while you are dancing, and consider asking that person for the next dance.
  • If asked to dance at a ball, do not be afraid to politely decline if you are not confident that you can manage that dance. Don’t feel pressured if the MC is calling for “one more couple”. Do keep in mind that you can attempt more with a partner whom you know is a good dancer and good at helping.

Forming Sets

  • Form sets when the dance is announced or the band signals the next dance by playing the opening bars of music. It is generally considered rude to take the floor before one of these two signals has been given.
  • When the dance is announced or introductory music is played, walk onto the floor with your partner, even if this means that you are not in the top set. (Other people may also like an occasional dance near the band or a chance to be first couple.)
  • Try to get into sets with different people, rather than just making up sets with your close friends.
  • Always join sets from the bottom, never dash into the middle or the top of a set that has already formed.
  • If you are the top couple, it is customary to count off the couples so each dancer knows if they are first couple, second couple, etc. If after counting off the sets you find that more couples are needed to complete the set, hold up fingers indicating how many couples are needed. The teacher or MC will usually announce it.

Dancing and Helping Others to Dance

  • If a dance is being taught or “briefed” (also referred to as a “recap”), keep quiet and listen, even if you already know the dance, or you are sitting out, so that others can hear without distraction.
  • It’s great if you are able to help your partner or other dancers in the set through a dance, but be judicious. No one likes to be bossed around, and no one wants to be pushed.
  • Don’t assume that if someone makes one mistake they need you to cue them through the entire dance.
  • The best way to help is through subtle techniques like making eye-contact, good handing, etc.
  • While a few quiet verbal cues from one’s partner can be much appreciated, avoid getting into a situation where everyone in the set is shouting out directions.
  • If someone is going the wrong way, avoid a crash and do your best to be where you are supposed to be. If everyone else is in the correct place it will be easier for the “lost” dancer to see where they are supposed to be.
  • After each dance is completed, thank your partner and the other dancers in your set. It is also considered polite to escort your partner from the dance floor.

»See also the “Ten Commandments for Balls and Socials (King James Version)” from the Frankfurt SCD Club

What to Expect at a Ball

Preparation Options

  • Very often, a set of instructions for the dances on a ball program will be available ahead of time, usually on the hosting group’s web site. If possible, look over these notes ahead of time, or consider going over them with a friend. Maybe even “dance” them on the kitchen table with salt and pepper shakers. Don’t worry about memorizing the dances, but try to “get a feel for them.” Most dancers will not know ALL (or even many) dances by heart. Note if the dance is a “partner can help you” or a “you’re on your own” type of dance, or maybe a “don’t try it” dance. Even for experienced dancers, thorough preparation for a ball can take several hours.
  • Many of the dances on the program for balls in your area will be done in class during the weeks before the ball, so make a point of attending.
  • Many ball organizers will schedule a walk-through or ball rehearsal of some type the afternoon or evening before the dance. Consider attending if you are unfamiliar with or not sure of some of the dances.
  • Don’t feel compelled to find a date. In Scottish country dancing, it is customary to change partners throughout the evening, even if one has come with a date.
  • Trim your toenails. Several hours of dancing in snug shoes has led to many a black toe.

What to Wear

  • Whatever you wear, make sure you can dance in it!
  • Male-identified dancers are nearly always encouraged to wear a kilt at a ball, but don’t feel you have to stay away if you don’t have one. At a formal ball, other formal wear such as a suit and tie would be appropriate. At a semi-formal ball like the RSCDS Twin Cities Branch Beginner’s/Fàilte Ball, a nice pair of trousers and shirt would be appropriate attire. On the other hand, if you’ve never worn the kilt before, a ball is the perfect opportunity to borrow or rent one to try out.
  • For those who have them, a Scottish country dance ball may be a golden opportunity to wear those bride’s maid dresses and prom gowns you thought you’d never be able to wear again. Unless you are up for an Oscar, there just aren’t many opportunities to really dress up these days, but a ball is one of those few times. Of course, if you don’t have a Vera Wang lying around, never fear. An attractive skirt and top or dress will do quite nicely. Whatever style you choose, make sure the skirt isn’t too narrow or you won’t be able to move your legs freely enough to dance.
  • Ghillies or other soft-soled leather dance slippers are the typical footwear for all dancers. If you haven’t got a pair, any soft-soled shoes will do in a pinch, even Keds. For the safety of themselves and other dancers, we recommend avoiding high heels. Hard-soled shoes are also strongly discouraged, because they are quite painful if they happen to land on someone else’s foot. Stocking feet may be dangerously slippery. If necessary, consider asking the organizers of the event if they can find you a pair of soft-soled shoes to borrow. Many dancers have extra pairs they can lend.

At the Dance

  • There are usually very few walk-throughs at a ball, so try to look over the dance notes beforehand. If you have been going to classes, you will have already danced most of the dances on the Fàilte/Beginner’s Ball program at least once before. At most balls, the dances are “briefed” or “recapped” (i.e. a concise version of the instructions are given aloud) just before they are danced as a reminder.
  • A copy of the dance instructions is usually distributed at the ball. At more formal balls, these are often in the form of little booklets. They fit nicely in a sporran, if you are wearing one. Since women’s formalwear rarely has pockets, some more formal balls will provide a ribbon to tie the notes to your waist or wrist. Consider bringing a safety pin or two to facilitate this, if you think you’ll want to keep the booklet at hand.
  • After more popular dances and old favorites, dancers may call for an encore. The standard way to request an encore is to raise your hand with your index finger pointing up (as in “one more time!”). If a dance is repeated, it is usually “once and to the bottom,” unless the MC says otherwise.
  • Balls usually begin with a Grand March and customarily end with a closing waltz or a polka. Often the evening ends with everyone singing “Auld Lang Syne.”

The Grand March

  • The Grand March is often used to start off a more formal ball. It is simply a march around the room with a partner, usually to the music of a piper. It is extremely easy — no fancy footwork or formations — and very suitable for normally non-dancing partners who may have attended the ball with you. However, at some balls, the grand march leads directly into sets for the first dance, so you may want to find out whether that will be the case before inviting a non-dancing partner to join you for the grand march.
  • When the Grand March is announced, find a partner and line up. If they’ve come with a date, most people partner up with that person for the Grand March, but if you’ve come alone don’t feel bashful about just asking someone.
  • The leader(s) of the Grand March will direct you where to go once the music begins. It is usually different every time.

More Survival Tips for Less Experienced Dancers

  • Be aware of and open to cues your partner and the other members of the set may be giving you as you do the dance. A good partner will try to help you through a dance and remind you what comes next in a subtle way.
  • Don’t feel you must skip a ball if you don’t know all the dances. Few people at a ball know all the dances. They just look like they do, and practice gives them ability to look at the dance notes quickly, watch carefully and work out (i.e. guess) what is coming next. For example, if you are 2nd corner and something is happening to 1st corners, it is likely that you will be doing the same in the next phrase. You can also glance over at the person dancing in your same position in the set next to you. Most importantly, keep an eye on your partner and watch for cues.
  • If the program indicates a dance is recommended for more experienced dancers, consider sitting that one out. Don’t let other dancers coerce you into doing a dance if you are uncomfortable with it, just to make up a set.
  • If you mess up, which most people do during the evening, however experienced, don’t panic! Sort out the set so that you can all dance the next time through.
  • The vast majority of experienced dancers are eager to encourage and help you, and want to make your ball experience fun. If you run across one of those rare stinkers who won’t dance with you or gives you a dirty look when you make an error, DON’T let it discourage you.

Most of all, smile and enjoy yourself! It’s contagious!

By Lara Friedman-Shedlov. Inspired by and partially adapted from the guide on the Edinburgh University New Scotland Country Dance Society web site. Note that in some cases it reflects our local practice and may not be universal.