Talking about reels

Our tutor Rod Downey talks about reels and how in Scottish Country Dancing, ‘reel’ has three meanings.

Dance music structure
Name of dance
Reels as a figure
Reel basics for new (and not so new) dancers
To learn basic reels at home
Reels – beyond basics
Mirror and parallel reels
Reels across
Reels for the more experienced
To learn crossover reels at home


First off, a ‘reel’ refers to the kind of music, being 4/4 or 2/4 and quick-time. For people who want to know more and know a bit about music, the RSCDS site has a lot of interesting information.

The Reel of the Royal Scots (video here) is a commonly done dance in reel time. Typically ‘reel-time’ tunes have two (and very occasionally 3) parts called the A and the B parts (8 bar phrases, so 4 in a 32 bar sequence). In this video the tune is played AABB, which the devisor or the musician has decided is the structure which reflects the way the dance breaks.

Another example of this structure is the club favourite dance, The De’il amang the Tailors (video here), which again uses AABB. Probably both could have been danced to ABAB. Sometimes it is all tradition, and sometimes musician’s or devisor’s choice.

Click here for a lot more about dance music structure

I have included some AABB (showing why it should be chosen), and examples of ABAB and ABBA. I also look at dances of different length – 24, 40 and 48 bars.

Hone your listening skills, enjoy videos and music including some local dancers and musicians, and see if you can solve the questions on Mairi’s Wedding and the Earl of Mansfield!

And next time you dance ask yourself, what is the structure chosen for this dance? Is it ABAB? How many supporting tunes are used?  It will make you really listen to the music.

Dance music structure

Petronella (video here), where the first 16 bars are all the same movement certainly uses AABB.) Crom Allt (video here) (with some familiar faces) uses ABAB. Rarely you might come across an ABBA.

The music on this video of The Laird of Milton’s Daughter is clearly played AABB, and this video of the same dance is played ABAB, whereas the choreography of the dance is clearly designed ABBA, as bars 9-16 and 17-24 (the corners’ chain) are the same movements.

So you might wonder where is there a version played this way? I don’t have a video, but here is a recording of The Laird of Milton’s Daughter by local musicians Peter Elmes, John Smith and Lynne Scott from their album Thistle Hall. This is the version I would select for club nights as it best reflects the dance structure, and is great playing also!

You might wonder what we do with a 24, 40 or 48 bar reel. Sometimes a C part comes to the rescue, but more often you’ll hear, for example, AABBA, or ABABA for a 40 bar dance.

Music structure: Mairi’s Wedding and Earl of Mansfield

Johnsonville members joined other Wellington dancers for Xiaowen Yu’s welcome home dance in February 2020 – here dancing Mairi’s Wedding

What is the structure used for 40 bar dance Mairi’s Wedding in this video? Or in this video for the 48 bar dance The Earl of Mansfield danced by an all-male set,  (remembering that musicians can change things slightly)?

Not just reels, but all Scottish Country Dancing music has these A and B parts, such as jigs and Strathspeys, although almost all Strathspeys are ABAB for 32 bar sequences. Typically, we would not dance the same tune over and over again, so after the ‘lead’ tune, the musician will choose several tunes sympathetic to the lead tune and telling a musical story.

For example, in this video of local deviser Romaine Butterfield’s dance Catch the Wind, they are using 4 tunes, and notice how they come back to the lead tune ‘The Flirtation Hornpipe’ for the 8th time through. I think they are using tunes 1,2,3,4,3, 4, 2, 1.

Traditionally the last tune will be the lead tune, which helps the dancers to recognise when they are finishing. This construction is called a ‘set’ of tunes and involves lots of choices such as key changes and the like.

Some musicians are really adept at constructing great sets, and for a long time we had Peter Elmes here in Wellington who was fantastic at this. I often use his recordings at club. Listen to his set for Catch the Wind (also from Thistle Hall), which has a lovely seamless flow.

In ceilidh dancing and English country dancing, often the same tune will be repeated, perhaps with variations, until either the band or the dancers are exhausted or bored. The Gay Gordons (video here) is a typical ceilidh dance.

Name of dance

‘Reel’ (like ‘Rant’) can also simply mean a dance. Lots of the old dances (especially) use the name reel. For example, The Duke of Atholl’s Reel is a jig! Look at the first 32 bars of this video of a demonstration by the Frankfurt Scottish country dance group (but only look at the first 32 bars as they do something fancy to bring in 2 more couples later on).

The Foursome Reel is a Medley consisting of 32 Bars of Strathspey and 32 of reel-time music. It is a very old dance you might like to try for some easier highland steps. In this video, the dance is set to mouth-music (Puirt a beul), and they are doing Rocking Step in the Strathspey part, Pas-de Basque Coupé and single cuts in the reel-time part.

Here is another video of The Foursome Reel, but using highland Strathspey steps (be glad we don’t do these!), some spring points, and one of the dancers can do double cuts on one leg. A lovely demo, given that they are clearly Scottish Country Dancing dancers and not highland dancers.

Learn more about highland steps from teacher Angela Young in the first of the RSCDS Dance Scottish at home classes. Watch Angela demonstrate highland steps from 11.55 minutes on the video, with husband Graham Berry on piano.

Yet another rather scary version is done here by some ‘reelers’, and involves steps and phrasing of the agricultural variety. Not sure you’d like the helicopters at the beginning of the video, not part of Scottish Country Dancing. (You can read what reeling is all about in past member John Munro’s article.)

Finally, The Duke of Hamilton’s Reel (video here) is a Strathspey, and I only know of one dance called a jig which is really a reel, and that was done as a joke I think. It is The Black Leather Jig (video here) which is a pun on The White Heather Jig another dance we often do (video here). We don’t usually use elbow turns, though I like them. Note this dance is a palindrome (i.e the same backwards as forwards).

Reels as a figure

Reels are a class of figures ubiquitous in Scottish Country Dancing. Many new dancers have doubted themselves when they hit reels for the first time.

‘Reely’ it is quite difficult to learn reels from a description, or even from a video, but why not give it a go?

The reasons people find reels difficult are that:

  1. in many ways you are on your own (no partner help),
  2. the underlying idea is geometric and you really need to visualise the formation in your head, but most importantly
  3. in the most common reels of 3, the phrasing especially for the 3rd couple is different than for the other couples. They need to go slow (2 bars) fast (2 bars) slow (2 bars) then fast again, and hence it is truly a team event.

Reels can involve 3, 4, or 5 people, but typically will be reels of either 3 or 4. They will be on the sides of the set, across the set, or diagonally with the corners, but for the basic versions are always in a straight line of people. For the more experienced dancers there are other fancier versions I will discuss later, but we will begin at the beginning.

Reel basics for new (and not so new) dancers

We begin with reels of 3. For the simple versions, I will think of these as people 1, 2, and 3 in a line, with 1 facing down and 2 and 3 facing up.

In all reels of 3 there are always 2 people facing one way, one behind the other and the other person who I am calling 1 facing them. This completely determines the roles.

1 is facing 2, and 3 is facing 2’s back, they are all in a straight line. Download my diagram for reels of three below for the starting position.

Basically, what will happen is that all 3 dancers will do a figure of eight in this line simultaneously. If there was nobody else involved, 1 would do a figure of 8 on the side around imaginary posts between 1 and 2, and between 2 and 3, crossing through 2’splace.

The directions are determined by how 1 and 2 pass each other. If 1 was doing a right shoulder figure of eight then 1 and 2 will pass right shoulder and this is called a Right Shoulder Reel.

For a Right Shoulder Reel, 1 passes 2 passing RIGHT shoulders (and hence 1 and 2 move to their LEFT), and then continues their figure of eight, through 2’s place around 3’s place back through 2’s place and then back home.

There are two steps for each position assuming that this is an 8 bar reel:

  • 1 is in in the middle on 2, the bottom on 4, the middle again on 6, and back at the top on 8.
  • 2 follows this track and is at the top at the end of 2, middle on 4, in 3’s place on 6 and home on 8.
  • 3 has the same track, and is in the middle on 2, top on 4, middle again on 6 and back at the bottom on 8.

Look at my diagrams to see the positions for each dancer.

NOTE: 3 will begin by moving RIGHT in the opposite direction to 2 in front of them. If 2 moves left, they move right.  But notice that 1 and 3 cannot be in the same place at the end of 2, and 1 is given precedence so 1 goes in front of 3.

This means that 3 must go less distance than 1 on bars 1 and 2. Download the relevant page below describing the formation from the RSCDS manual.

This description is slightly ambiguous, in that 1 and 3 don’t actually pass until the beginning of bar 3. When I teach this, I have 1 in second place at the end of bar 2, so 1 and 3 are left shoulder to left shoulder.

Now that you’ve got some idea of how it works, let’s learn basic reels at home.

To learn basic reels at home

Look at the diagrams I have drawn, and try these with live bodies taking positions 1, 2 and 3. If you are alone or have only 2 people, use chairs. Go through each position bar by bar.

Watch a video here of a reel of three danced by members of our club

See if you can dance each position without the others. This can be enabled by putting a chair between position 1 and 2 and another between 2 and 3 and these will be the places you dance around.

If confused, try drawing the tracks as figures of 8 on the ground. Now try with some music from the Johnsonville club website. Remember the hardest position is 3rd position who must go slowly and quickly at different times.

The first 8 bars of The Rakish Highlandman (video here) have reels of 3 on the sides for the men and for the women. I have selected an animation so you can see the reels. First man passes second man right shoulder, and the 3rd man moves to his RIGHT. The ladies do likewise.

Lower Hutt have reels of 3 in their beginners’ videos. Watch Damon (who is the tall guy in first man’s place for the Right Shoulder reels of 3) and see how he takes precedence over the 3rd man each time. 3rd man must slow down for him twice, as the first man ‘cuts’ between the other two, and same on the ladies’ side.

Here are two short video clips of right shoulder reels of 3 from the RSCDS, viewed from the top of the set and from the side.

For a LEFT shoulder reel of 3, 1 and 2 pass each other left shoulder moving to their own RIGHT, and 3 moves to their LEFT. Then it is the same.

The Cane Toad Jig (video here) begins with a left shoulder reel on the side with the first and second couples doing a wee bit more to finish in progressed places at the end of 8. That video features our fabulous President Kristin and some other local dancers, including Loralee Hyde in the bottom set.

Reels – beyond basics

Once you understand basic right and left shoulder reels, you can move on to more complicated variations, such as:

  • Mirror and parallel reels
  • Reels across

Find out more about them below. They are combinations of basic reels.

Mirror and parallel reels

If the three women and three men all do the SAME shoulder then these are called parallel reels since the movements are in parallel. If you have an experienced partner, then you should be staying at the same place as them throughout.

If the ladies and men do different shoulders, typically left shoulder on the ladies’ side and right on the men’s, then these are called mirror reels. So when your partner comes in so do you, and when your partner goes out so do you.

Sometimes these are called ‘meeting and greeting’ reels, and you can make them `touchy feely’ by taking your partner’s nearer hand when they and you come in together. (Some dances actually specify this, though it is not usual.)

Reels Across

These are the same except that you have less distance. There will still be 3 people 1 facing one way and the other 2 facing the other way, one behind the other.

The one facing the other two is the lead dancer who cuts. Otherwise all is the same, but phrasing is much harder as you have less distance to go, in particular 3 must use tiny steps on bars 1 and 2.

Iain Boyd and Noeline O’Connor dancing Catch the Wind (a dance devised by Romaine Butterfield for them) at the RSCDS New Zealand Branch 50th Anniversary Ball in 2018

Catch the Wind (video here) has right shoulder parallel reels of 3 across on bars 17-24 after the chase. The first lady is between the third couple and first man is between the second at the top.

Notice that this means second man and 3rd man are taking the role of the lead person (the 1, in my description), and note that e.g. first lady and third lady are both facing the same way, towards the third man.

This means the third lady will move to her right and take a small step at the beginning of the reel. (You might note how hard the phrasing is for the 3rd person. In this demonstration set, the first time through the lady dancing in 3rd woman’s place arrives back to her place nearly a bar early, spoiling the effect of all the dancers moving in unison.)

Reels for the more experienced

So you have now ‘mastered’ reels across and on the side. (Are reels ever mastered?). The next thing will be crossover reels of various kinds.

The simplest are the crossover mirror reels as in Maxwell’s Rant (video here), also known as reels of three on opposite side and then on own side. I love the determination of the first boy in this video, as he is concentrating fiercely and never looks up.

The key as usual is phrasing, especially for the 3rd couple since they must dance on bars 1 and 2 and in this dance 9 and 10 (for the second reels) so as to allow the extra time that the first couple need for crossing through second place on opposite sides.

The first couple have further to go and hence the first lady controls the show, if she is late then everyone will be late, since she crosses in front of the first man. This means 3rd lady’s job is even harder than usual, as she must allow first man to cut in the reels.

Download the description below from the RSCDS manual for crossover mirror reels.

Download my diagram for crossover reels below giving a bar by bar breakdown of where you need to be throughout the reels.

In crossover parallel reels such as in Cadgers in the Canongate (video here) the person in 3rd lady’s place has a really difficult job. She must wait for the poor first man, who has a very long way to travel across the top of the set so really entering the reel at least one bar late.

Similarly the first lady after she crosses through second man’s place must slow down to allow the first man to ‘catch up’.

Cadgers in the Canongate at the Johnsonville & Island Bay Joint Annual Dance in 2018

This video of The Prince of Sutton Coldfield (video here) has the third couple closest to us and you can see what the 3rd lady does on bars 1-3.

See how to learn crossover reels at home below.

To learn crossover reels at home

Look at the diagrams I have drawn for crossover reels of three and my diagram for Cadgers’ crossover parallel reels which you can download below.

Watch a video here of Cadgers’ crossover reels danced by members of our club

Try these with live bodies taking positions 1, 2 and 3. If you are alone or have only 2 others use chairs. Go through each position bar by bar.

See if you can dance each position without the others. This can be enabled by putting a chair between position 1 and 2 and another between 2 and 3 and these will be the places you dance around.

If confused, try drawing the tracks as figures of 8 on the ground. Now try with some music you can get from the Johnsonville club website. Remember the hardest position is 3rd position who must go slowly.

In the Cadgers’ reels the 3’s must go very slowly on bars 1 and 2, and bars 9 and 10. Note the changes of speed and length of step for 1M and 1L.

21 April 2020

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