2012 – From Scotch Reel to Western Reel; a Scottish dance becomes American

In Sketches Relative to the Practice of Dancing, in 1805 Francis Peacock described a variety of Scottish steps to be used in the Scotch Reel. He tells a story about two professional dance teachers travelling to Edinburgh specifically to learn the steps and take them back to London. This story attests to the popularity and worthiness of the dance. In 1815, Thomas Wilson gives diagrams and instructions for the Scotch Reel in his Complete System of English Country Dancing. The Scotch Reel is described in Barclay Dun’s 1818 book, A Translation of nine of the most fashionable quadrilles… To which are prefixed, a few observations on the style, &c. of the quadrille, the English country dance, and the Scotch reel. Dun talks about the high spirits that are demonstrated in Scottish music and steps. He mentions that the Scotch reel has special steps, which have a particular style and cannot be replaced by French steps. He doesn’t break down the steps, but discusses their style. “There ought to be little or no genuflection used in these steps when the dancer sinks, as the rapidity of the music and dancing will not admit of much yielding or bending of the legs; in which case, the sinking steps should be chiefly performed by the motion of the ancle, and spring of the instep.” Using Peacock for the steps, Dun for style, and Wilson for the pattern, we can come up with a plausible early nineteenth century Scotch Reel.

Coulon’s Hand-Book Containing all the Last New and Fashionable Dances attests to the continuing popularity of the Scotch Reel in mid-nineteenth London. He says it ”is a truly national dance, and used to be performed by the nobility before her Majesty at her state balls.” Almost immediately the description is copied in dance manuals by both Thomas Hillgrove of New York and Charles Durang of Philadelphia.
Hillgrove’s Complete Practical Guide to the Art of Dancing copies Coulon’s description exactly, but Durang’s Fashionable Dancer’s Casket adds a few words here and there, adapting the description for his American audience. The most interesting thing he adds is the parenthetical comment, “(It is danced by our people, under the name of a straight four, throughout the U.S.)” Where Coulon does not describe the exact step used in the reel, Durang describes it as “our Polka Valse step,” which takes the characteristic steps and flattens them out, essentially democratizing the dance.

After this, the trail of the Scotch Reel in America goes quiet. It is occasionally mentioned, but doesn’t seem to have extensive popularity. If, however we go to Elias Howe of Boston, we find the same Coulon description of the Scotch Reel in Howe’s American Dancing Master of 1862 and his parenthetical comment, “This is called a straight Right and Left, or a 4-handed Reel in this Country.”
This leads us to a dozen dance descriptions in various manuals of the Straight Four, Fore and After, Charley Over the Water, Mischief, and The Western Reel. All these dances are recognizable as the Scotch Reel. The dance manuals, and mentions in popular literature, show that the dance was popular throughout the United States from the 1850s well into the 1890s.

My paper will trace this history of this specific dance, from its origins in Scotland, though its nationalistic connections with Queen Victoria, into its American adoption and mutations. This dance craze touched different societies, connecting and reflecting them, as it crossed the Atlantic and the decades.

Barbara Menard Pugliese