Ruidhle an Eilein: aspects of the choreographic processes and ideas when creating a new solo step dance – Mats Melin

To be creative, for me, requires the right frame of mind. Working in the Academic environment with overlapping deadlines, multitudes of parallel work paths and the constant backlog of emails and so forth makes finding peace of mind to choreograph a challenge. However, sometimes I find the spark…


Choreographing in traditional dance in the Scottish idiom is, more often than not, about negotiating what is perceived by many as being ‘traditional’ and breaking or pushing boundaries into other dance genres or other traditions. How far do you push? What will be accepted by an often critical and conservative audience?

In 2016 I took inspiration from two ideas. One was American dance anthropologist Anya Royce Peterson’s writings about survival potential of dance forms and that exploring other dance phrase segmentations might inject new ideas and life. The other was some explorations into the healing properties of movement and how certain combinations of step motifs can assist in healing the body, mind and spirit.

I had in mind a combination of the structure of Hebridean/Highland solo dancing and Cape Breton step dancing. The Hebridean/Highland dances, in hornpipe or reel time, have a ‘step’ which is 8-bars long and is danced off first the right and then the left foot, and corresponds to a long reel A or B part being repeated. Most Scottish dances of this sort have a recurring ‘break’ or finishing motif of a 2-bar duration. The Cape Breton motifs are of different lengths ranging from 1/2 bar to 4-bar or 8-bar segments. I wondered what the outcome would be if you took motifs, or steps, from the Cape Breton step dancing tradition and put them into a Hebridean/Highland solo dance format.

I decided however to introduce a twist to the normal step segmentations of Scottish dances of 2 or 4 blocks of movements to a half step. I thought it worth experimenting in creating two 3-bar phrases and adding a concluding 2-bar finishing motif (3+3+2) for an 8-bar half step. I was not quite sure how this would work with the music but once I started to combine Cape Breton motifs in 3-bar phrases and had come up with a suitable 2-bar finishing motif I started looking for music this would work with.

Should I use old tunes or new tunes?  Initially, I picked two modern Cape Breton fiddle tunes ‘Trolley’s Reel’ by Colin Grant and ‘Sarah’s Fiddle’ by John Morris Rankin. However, when I started teaching and developing this idea for real during the Ceòlas summer school in South Uist in July 2016 I worked a lot with pipers, and these tunes did not work, so we ended up using ‘The Grey Bob’ (trad) and ‘Molly Rankins’ (John Morris Rankin). This was quite fitting as by this point I had decided to call this new choreography Ruidhle an Eilein (Reel of the Islands) to celebrate the connection between Cape Breton and the Hebridean islands. The dance has so far got 8 contrasting steps to it, but I encourage each dancer to make up their own in the required format. See below for a short extract of the dance…

The most interesting thing about dancing 3-bars across 4-bar music phrases is that emphasized beats land in different places in the music which in this case created interesting but favourable sound effects and embodied feeling for the dancer.

Before I started teaching this new choreography I had worked on some 3-bar step combinations with my Cape Breton dancer, tai chi teacher and health teacher Michelle Greenwell. We were looking at the possibilities that the energy within certain movement combinations would be beneficial to the dancer. A lot of my early work went  into finding combinations that helped me recover depleted energy and help recover from injury.

The students at Ceòlas found the idea of this dance interesting and some have moved on to dance it and teach it.  New dances take time to become established and only time will tell if this one will be part of the fabric of dancing in Scotland and beyond.

Mats Melin is Lecturer and dance teacher at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick.


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