By Donald MacPhee

Piping for dancing has been a big part of my life. My two sisters were highland dancers and latterly became highland dance teachers. When I got on to the pipes, my dad and bagpipe tutor (Sandy MacPhee) encouraged me to play for the dancers that were getting instruction in our house from my sisters. My dad felt that time spent in the dance class playing pipes and playing for the dancers would only improve my competitive piping. My wife is a highland dance teacher, examiner, and adjudicator as well as a former six-time World Champion and Chairman of The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (highland dancing’s world governing body). I have been piping for dancers for 40 years and seen many parts of the world because I was able and willing to pipe for dancers. I hope this article encourages you to pipe for dancers and will give you all the necessary information to make the task at hand a wee bit easier.

Having all the information is vital in doing a good job, but practical training and doing it before public performance will make the job easier. When you are confident, your playing is confident and that can only help the dancers. If you can, find a dance teacher in your area and go into the class and play for the dancers. It’s always better to dance to live music in all circumstances and the dance teacher will be able to work with and guide you through the different dances, steps within those dances, tempos, introductions and tune choice. It’s all about gaining confidence and comfort. Gaining that confidence and applying it with practical training will only improve yourself to be a better dance piper.

There are a number of things to consider when piping for dancers:
• What tunes for what dance?
• What tempos for not only the dance, but more importantly the dancer?
• What is the intro (introduction) for the dance?
• When or where does the dance finish in relation to the musical part and to the corresponding dance step?
• Is there a change of tempo or time signature in the dance and if there is, how do I change properly to a different tempo or different time signature?

Braemar, mid-1980s. Sandy Spence pipes for Jean Swanston.

All of these important aspects must be understood. First, though, an overview. Scottish highland dancing can be divided into two specific areas: Highland and National. The Highland consists of four dances: The Highland Fling, The Sword Dance, The Seann Truibhas, and The Reel. These are all competitive dances and the most popular of dances in Scottish highland dancing. The National dances are also mostly competitive dances with a few demonstration dances.

Within Scottish highland dancing there are competitive classifications/levels. Primary dancers are dancers who are four, five, and six years of age. The next level are the Beginners, then the Novice, and then the Intermediate. The highest level dancers are classified as Premier.

There are different tempos for these levels but piping for dancers and tempos correlate to a dancer’s strength. An experienced dancer may be thought of as a stronger dancer but that may not always be the case. Although the different tempos – and metronome settings – might be not that far from one another, throughout the course of the dance a few bpm difference can be all the difference.

Essentially, the Premier dancer has the strength and control to handle a slower tempo whereas the Pre-Premier dancer would find it more difficult to dance to a Premier type tempo. The piper is there to accompany the dancer and understanding tempo is vital.

Tune selection is of importance as well. Most Premier dancers will be able to dance to any tune in that same time signature for that dance whereas, in my experience, the Pre-Premier dancers need to hear a well recognised tune or tunes as they can relate to or recognise for that specific dance. Leave the odd and obscure tunes for the recitals. Dancers have enough to worry about when they are dancing and the last thing they need is wondering if the piper has started the intro or not. Play popular tunes so that the dancers can easily relate to and recognise the tune to the dance.

The ‘intro’ – the introduction – is the beginning of the dance and it sets the stage or tone and tempo for the piece being played for that particular dance. During the intro the dancer will recognise the tune and tempo for the dance, he or she will curtsey or bow depending on the dance to the judge or the audience and then proceed with the dance. Try and maintain the tempo set in the introduction for the duration of the dance, except, of course, in those dances that have a change in time signature or tempo.

Timothy Ness plays for the dancers at Birnam in 2017.

Setting up the pipe – and yourself
Trying to achieve the best possible sounding instrument is a goal for any piper and when involving public performance this should really be of most importance. A bagpipe that is in tune is pleasant for everyone so seek advice if you are not sure of producing the best possible sound from your pipe. A pocket metronome is helpful to have at the ready to keep you right for lack of a better term; however, I do not recommend playing to the metronome as it will not give you confidence and will be more of a crutch when the time comes to start playing for the dancers. Also, watching the dancers and playing to them is not the objective either. Which dancer is right and which is wrong? Remember, you are there to supply the steady music and pulse for the dance. On occasion, look at the dancers and see how they are handling the tempos/tunes you are playing and if they are struggling, consult the dance teacher to see if what your are doing is correct or within the realms of what should be done.

If you are going to pipe for dancers at a competition, make sure you have the confidence in yourself and the foundation work has been done with dancers or a dance teacher to be able to not only play for long spells at a time, but be able to maintain the same tempos from the start of the group to the end of the group. The pipe must be able to last the pace so have a couple of sets of reeds in case moisture, lack of moisture or altitude become factors. Most important is the ability to listen to criticism and to seek advice.

Style of play
Alex Duthart, the great drummer in not only the Scottish pipe band world but, more importantly, the wider percussion world, best explained to me that the secret to music lies within the rhythms of the tune. In the Scottish idiom we have what people outside our idiom call ‘Scotch-snap’ or ‘Scottish-snap’. Strathspeys are one major tune style and tune type that is attributed to Scotland and Scottish culture. Within a strathspey there consists four beats in a bar of which the scantion can be described as strong, weak, medium,weak. There is ‘tension and relaxation’ within the beats creating this style of play where not a lot of time is spent on the beat. As soon as a dancer’s foot hits the floor during the Highland Fling they are taught to jump up again to the next beat, so for every beat they are thinking ‘jump’ and spend more time in the air then on the ground while dancing the Highland Fling (think of a golf ball bouncing on a hard floor). This is the ‘Scottish-snap’ that musicians from outside our idiom call our style of play or rhythms during strathspey playing.

In my years of playing with Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band, I’d watch Pipe Major Richard Parkes MBE tap the strathspey tempo with his foot in an ‘up’ motion as if the ground under the foot he is tapping is too hot for it to stay on the ground. Once his tapping foot hits the ground he picks it back up again immediately until the next beat occurs. He is trying to create that Scotch snap or ‘lift’ or just good strathspey playing. All that coincides with what the dancer is dancing to – that lift, that expression, that Scotch snap.

Now, we’ll turn to the dances:

Andrew McCowan at Cowal piping for champion dancer Ellis Hayes from Newton Stewart.

The Highland Dances
The Highland Fling
The Sword Dance
The Seann Truibhas
The Reel
The Half Tulloch or Half Hullachan
The Full Tulloch of Full Hullachan
The Strathspey and Highland Reel
The Strathspey and Half Tulloch
The Strathspey Half Tulloch and Highland Reel
Primary Dances (steps)
The Pas de Basques
The Pas de Basques and High Cuts

The Scottish National Dances
The Sailor’s Hornpipe
The Irish Jig
Flora MacDonald’s Fancy
The Scottish Lilt
All the Blue Bonnets are over the Border
The Scotch Measure
The Earl of Errol
The Village Maid
Highland Laddie
Wilt thou go to the Barrack’s Johnnie

Demonstration Dances
The Broadswords
The Cake Walk
Tribute to J. L. MacKenzie

The Highland Dances:
The Highland Fling is the most popular of all the Scottish highland dances. The type of tune that is played for the Highland Fling is the strathspey. The introduction is a four bar or 16 count intro and each step is equivalent to a part of music (eight bars or 32 beats). Dancers dance either a four step Highland Fling or six step Highland Fling. The tempo for the ’Fling is recommended at between 112-124bpm. As stated the tune type is the strathspey and the more popular or easily recognisable tunes for this dance for the dancer would be The Marquis of Huntly’s Highland Fling, Orange and Blue, and Devil in the Kitchen. Possible introductions for the Fling would be playing the last four bars of the first part or the second part and then playing the tune as written, keeping in mind as stated earlier eight bars or one part of music equals one step, so for a four step fling you would play a four bar intro and then four parts of a strathspey (two two-parted strathspeys) or for the six step Fling you would play a four bar intro and six parts of a strathspey.

The Sword Dance is easily recognisable as it is danced over a crossed pair of swords (or a crossed sword and it’s sheath). The tune that is played for this dance is Ghillie Callum. Unfortunately, there are no substitute tunes for this particular dance, and I state that because Ghillie Callum is a difficult and technically demanding piece of music. This dance has a slow and a quick time (the slow time will be the first number and the quick time will be the second number) and is danced either as a 2&1, 3&1, or a 2&2. The introduction for this dance is a four bar introduction (generally, the last four bars of the first part or second part) and one step of dance is equal to two parts or 64 beats of music. Unlike most other dances where a step is equal to one part of music this is not the case with the Sword Dance. The slow time tempo for this dance is between 104-116bpm. The quick time is the same tune played more as a reel and its tempo is between 112-124bpm.

The ‘break’ from slow time to quick time can be thought of like this – the fifth beat of the last bar of the slow time would be the first beat of the quick time. I realise that the last bar of music in the slow time only has four beats, but, in piping and pipe bands we have many different breaks going from one rhythm to the next rhythm. For piping for dancers, the break is steady and clean and lasts for one strathspey beat i.e. the fifth beat of the last bar of music of slow time is the first beat of quick time.

A vintage postcard.

The Seann Truibhas also has a slow time and quick time generally danced as three slow and one quick (3&1) or four slow and two quick (4&2). The tune for this dance is Whistle O’er the Lave O’t for both the slow time and the quick time, however, other strathspeys have been used and are popular for the quick time only. The introduction for this dance is a four bar or 16 beat introduction. As in other dances pipers generally play the last four bars of the first or second parts as the intro. The slow time is generally danced at 99bpm for the pre premier and 94bpm for the premier and the quick time is played at 118bpm for the Pre-Premier and 114bpm for the premier. The break from the slow time to the quick time is a clean steady break where the ‘fifth beat’ of the last bar of the slow time is the first beat of the quick time.

* In Part 2 Donald discusses the five derivatives of the Reel dance and the Pas de Basques. He also look at Scottish National Dances, Demonstration Dances and suggests the appropriate tunes for the piper.

• From the June 2019 Piping Times.