Ceilidh Fitness. Fun for All. Through Participation, not Performance.

This guest article has been penned by Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland board member and accordionist, Bernie Hewitt. As the title suggests Bernie advocates participation in traditional dance with an emphasis on fun, friendship and fitness. 

I have been playing the accordion for ceilidh dancing for longer than I care to remember, and have many years experience working with an Edinburgh based function band performing at weddings and corporate events. The usual form for these is that the band take a break for up to one hour, and the guests are invited to try their hand (or more accurately, their feet) and some simple ceilidh dances.  At the end of the session, people leave the floor dripping with sweat, panting for breath and (usually) screaming for more.  A common comment is “Why don’t you do this as a fitness class?”, so last year I approached a fitness centre with a proposal to do just that. I am now running weekly ceilidh fitness classes in different centers.  The net result of this is that there are now already up to 90 people dancing to traditional Scottish music each week, people who were not doing so twelve months ago.

The emphasis in the classes is on fun, friendship and fitness. Many of the attendees are regulars at other classes, but say that they prefer the ceilidh class over the others as the get to meet and (much more importantly!) talk to other people there. Dances where partners change for each time through the dance (e.g. Circassian Circle, Canadian Barn Dance) are included to encourage this. Teamwork and working cooperatively with others is also a feature of each class through the use of set dances (e.g. Virginia Reel, Flying Scotsman). I have built up a repertoire of over twenty separate dances which each class can now perform after a straightforward re-cap and perhaps one walk through.  Attendees are encouraged to listen and move in time to the music, and make sure they are in the correct place at the end of each phrase, ready for the next. Each class starts with a simple warm-up routine and finishes with a “warm-down”, either using a walking exercise or a dance in slower, waltz time (e.g. The St Bernard’s Waltz, Pride of Erin).

The importance of the social and “fun” aspects of these classes should not be underestimated. In my experience of playing for Royal Scottish Country Dance Society classes is that any attempt to emphasise (or even teach) detailed footwork or dance technique too early drives people away, and so no attempt to teach footwork is undertaken, initially.  The only techniques taught are those necessary for safety, for example correct handholds in rapid turns, although an effort is made to demonstrate the correct steps when teaching dances. What is interesting is that each class has asked, after a period of time, for instruction on steps. This, to a limited degree, has been given. It should, however, be noted that at least one attendee on hearing someone else asking for more “footwork” announced that she would not be coming back if that was the way the class was going to go. The over-riding emphasis in all classes is participation. Dances are chosen, taught, and played for at a speed which allows all participants to fully join in. The “fun” element is greatly enhanced by the use of live music, with tunes and their phrasing chosen (often in real time) to meet the mood and abilities of the class.

It is too early to assess the impact on individuals’ fitness of these classes, but people who are regular attendees are all now clearly capable of sustaining dances for roughly twice as long as they were at the start of these sessions three to six months ago.  The exercise they get meets the Scottish Government’s definition of “vigorous” (results in sweating and shortness of breath) which is maintained for a few minutes five or six times in each hour-long class.  There is also at least one slower dance in the middle of each class.  Participants who wear a fitness monitoring device (e.g. FitBit) are encouraged to report their activity metrics at the end of every class, and while there are not yet enough reports to have any statistical value it is clear that each class has every participant completing at least 3500 steps.

There is a new initiative underway in these classes which is attempting to measure their effect on people’s “well-being”. At the start of each class those present are asked to record their personal feeling of “well-being” on a scale of zero to ten, zero being the lowest and ten the highest. Data from one hundred separate classes has now been gathered, in what must be the most un-scientific data collection exercise I have ever been involved with, but the overall results are quite spectacular.

There were no hard and fast rules as to what any particular well-being value meant. Each individual made their own assessments before and after classes, although scores tended to group around one particular value on most occasions.

Histograms of “Before” and “After” scores are shown below. The average score before each class was somewhere between 7 and 8.  After nearly every class it was noticeably higher, in most cases 9 or 10 (People frequently recorded “After” scores of “10+” or even 12;  these have been treated as scores of 10.)

Those taking part in the classes nearly always record a significant increase in their score (there is only one case of anyone recording a lower one at the end of a class – the reasons for that are not known). The biggest average shift in any one class was 3.6, the smallest 1.0. That is, actually enjoying being able to fully participate in a form of traditional Scottish dance, with scant regard for their performance expertise.  Perhaps there is an important lesson in this.

Bernie Hewitt,