Highland dancing appears to consist mainly of bouncing around to bagpipe music in a slightly silly outfit, usually with one or both arms held above one's head. It's fun to watch.
Like many of the things which define Scottishness internationally - haggises, kilts, bagpipes and so on - it is faintly comical partly thanks to its sheer unfamiliarity, partly due to its inherent old-fashionedness and the seriousness with which it is often treated. To be fair, this obviously goes for many of the traditional defining characteristics of other nations, too - I blame the concept of 'tradition'.
What is now known as Highland dancing is in large part derived from dances of the Scottish Highlands going back hundreds of years, but it was codified in the nineteenth century, and heavily influenced by ballet and other dance forms. From something people did mainly for fun, it evolved into a highly developed, competitive pursuit, with rigidly defined outfits and dances. It was always a prominent feature of Highland games events, and these competitions played a major part in shaping the modern form of the dances.
Other Scottish dances, like Scottish country dancing or ceilidh dancing, should not be confused with Highland dancing, though there has historically been interplay between them and moves from one have been known to migrate to another. Highland dancing is largely a solitary pursuit, and even if performed by ensembles of dancers there is usually minimal interaction between them. Ceilidhs by contrast are inherently social events, and social dances dominate them, usually with couples dancing together.
Highland dancing was once restricted to males, and many of the dances it grew out of were explicitly martial, sword dancing being an obvious example. Since the late nineteenth century, though, girls have come to dominate the field heavily; nowadays only one in twenty Highland dancers is a man. As you'd probably expect, male Highland dancers generally wear kilts. Female dancers are usually outfitted in less heavy tartan skirts, with white blouses and velvet waistcoats.
All in all it's probably fair to say that it is not as silly as Morris dancing, but slightly sillier than ballet.
- EMMERSON, G. (1967) Scotland Through Her Country Dances. London: Johnson.
- EMMERSON, G. (1973) A Social History of Scottish Dance: Ane Celestial Recreatioun. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.
- HOOD, E. (1980) The Story of Scottish Country Dancing: The Darling Diversion. Collins.
- FLETT, J. F. & FLETT, T. M. (1985) Traditional Dancing in Scotland. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- FLETT, J. F. & FLETT, T. M. (1996) Traditional Step-Dancing in Scotland. Edinburgh: Scottish Cultural Press.
Many thanks to Ashley Smith Hammond for her feedback and recent poster presentation on this topic at the University of the West of Scotland, and for providing the above references, about which she remarks: 'The first three books are irritatingly precious, but the Flett ones are better.'