The Benefits of Traditional Dance by Mats Melin

The gift of moving without being self conscious about it

As part of TRACS’ Gifting Every Child resource, Mats Melin details the benefits of traditional dance for children and all ages.

It is important to enable children to move with ease and enjoy themselves, which means they relax and become less self-conscious. A good way to achieve this is through learning one basic movement pattern. I always start teaching simple side by side (keeping the feet parallel or with a natural turnout to each other) Pas de Basque’s – but I just call them 123s. This movement enables the dancer to dance on the spot, from side to side to side, and moving forwards or backwards. It can be applied in waltz, jig, reel, hornpipe, polka, and also in strathspey time if needs be. When the learner acquires this one movement without the pressure of dancing in a particular style with perfect technique, they start to enjoy the sensation of moving with the music.

I then move on to applying the step in a socially inclusive dance where all are active (nobody stands out or is being perceived to be watched and judged) like the Circassian Circle (round the room circle version). Once the children have got used to this dance, I suggest adding the progressive element of the partners swapping position. This makes the dance more interactive, as you meet many partners. The sense of good achievement and personal and group fulfilment is always strong.

The next basic movement I would teach is the waltz turn. Again using 123s but this time interacting with a partner. I make sure the child’s concentration is on a firm hold of the arms and dancing from the core of the body. I worry less about the feet to begin with. Initially, taking the emphasis away from the foot work and concentrating on the arm hold and the helpful interaction from your partner to turn, enables couples to move with each other and listen to the music when applying the 123s learned previously. If waltzing is enabled, then you can start to dance sequence waltzes (St Bernard’s etc), but also doing the same turning in jig, reel, march and polka timing as in Two-steps, Three-steps and marches (Boston, Military, Eva, Gay Gordons etc.) because you have had the turn at the end of these dances made simple.       

What next? In my years as Dance Development officer around Scotland I always anchored my teaching in social dances of the local tradition (Shetland Reels, Orkney Reels; Rory O More and Duke of Perth in Angus and so forth) but I always picked dances that were inclusive and easy. My main goal was always to make people enjoy the dance and feel that they achieved something good, before moving onto more complicated dances and movements.

In my own experience I always found teaching percussive step dancing to children was beneficial. One simple strathspey routine followed by a few basic reel steps created a challenge to the youngsters but also a great sense of achievement when they mastered it within a short time frame. I picked steps such as variations on 123s in strathspey time so it would feed into and out of the social dances. It taught them to listen to the music, not to rush, but to hear the beat and the melody line. The music does tell you what to do if you allow yourself to listen to it…

So in short:

  • Enable sociability and enjoyment.
  • Enable one simple movement (123s) that can be applied in many dances and in different music time signatures, and which enables the dancer to move in any direction and to turn.
  • Enable and empower the individual to move and relax by listening to the music and interacting with another and/or many other dancers (it is not about the individual but about the unit/group).
  • Enable a sense of local identity by teaching local dances that quickly can be enjoyed and thus fuels enthusiasm and a sense of wellbeing and enjoyment (I want more!)
  • Enable the individual to move and express themselves initially without worrying about the technical details. This can all be applied easily and quickly (if needs be) once the initial inhibitions, worries and struggles have been overcome…

Rather than focusing on a core set of dances, it is important to enable children to feel safe and enjoy Scottish dancing on their own terms. But I would gift every child with the ability to move (with music), enjoyment, exercise, and a heightened sense of self fulfilment, thus reducing self consciousness.

List of useful dances:

Dances that I taught in Scottish schools and in the community in the initial meetings during my dance residencies included: Circassian Circle, Circle Waltz, Military Two Step, Rory O More, Haymakers Jig, Foula Reel and Hullachan’s Jig, moving on to Virginia Reel, Duke of Perth, Strip the Willow, Highland Schottische, Eva Three Step, Eightsome Reel and so forth. These ones combined with some basic percussive step dancing and specifically local dances such as the Shetland Reel, for example.