Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

The Evolution of the 'Eightsome Reel'

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

The Evolution of the 'Eightsome Reel'

Article excerpt

The 'Eightsome Reel' is a fusion of opposites: the elegant quadrille with its French roots and the energetic reel native to Scotland. In the three-part structure of the 'Eightsome Reel', which evolved from the mid-1880s to the late 1890s, communal figures derived from the quadrille frame a long core section in which individual dancers display their prowess in reel steps of their choice. The community expressed by the dance was originally aristocratic, as the dance first appeared on the programmes of the exclusive Highland balls. Dance publishers stressed its social prestige and soon included it in the canon of Scottish national dances. In particular, the vigour of the reel steps and the traditional reel tunes used for the 'Eightsome' were perceived as emblematic of the robust energy of the Scottish character. So cultural nationalism enhanced the dance's popularity, and the community it expressed grew to encompass the nation itself.


The 'Eightsome Reel' is a fusion of opposites in several ways. It has been enshrined as a 'national' dance of Scotland, yet it is comparatively recent in origin. It gives a perfect opportunity for the individual display of dancing prowess contained within a communal dance. It is known as a dance of 'reelers' in kilts and ball gowns, of the Scottish regiments, and of anyone with an occasion to celebrate. In their 1964 study of social dancing in Scotland, covering the period prior to 1914 for which living informants were available, Tom and Joan Flett found the 'Eightsome Reel' in the standard repertoire of the itinerant dancing masters, on the programmes of balls given by lairds for their tenants, and on the programmes of grand Highland assemblies attended exclusively by the gentry. (1)

Many regional variations of the 'Eightsome Reel' are found in Scotland today, with different versions in Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides, Sutherland, and many other areas. The styles in which the 'Eightsome' is danced range from the relaxed informality of ceilidh dancing to the precise formality of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. One essential feature of the dance, however, is its distinctive three-part structure, the result of an evolution that started in the mid-1880s and culminated in the middle or later 1890s. This development, seen in successive editions of David Anderson's Ball Room Guide, has been described by the Fletts. (2) The current study attempts to place it within a wider context and in particular to relate the 'Eightsome Reel' to the concept of the 'national dance' in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scotland.

The 'Eightsome Reel' is rooted partly in the polished French quadrille and partly in the native Scots reel. Its progenitor, the early nineteenth-century 'Reel of Eight', was a quadrille in form and a reel only in its name, which it probably owed to the popularity of reel tunes. However, the 'threesome reel' component of the 'Eightsome Reel' grew as the dance developed, giving the dance its energetic core as well as its music. The quadrille component survived to 'frame' or contain the reel and give it a suitable aristocratic elegance. The main influence in the development of the dance, then, was a romantic Scottish nationalism, in which the music, dancing, and culture of the Highlands came to stand for the spirit of Scotland itself. This nationalism emanated from the upper classes but became a powerful marketing tool for publishers selling their dance manuals to the middle classes.

Description of the dance

First, a description of a typical form of the dance will show its three-part structure. The movements are described in non-technical terms, and the equivalent technical terms are given in square brackets. Some of the commoner variations are also described.

   'The Eightsome Reel'
  Sets of four couples, arranged in a square formation, each woman on
  her partner's right. Couples are numbered clockwise 1-4, 1st couple
  having their backs to the music. … 
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