Celtic Dance Definitions

What is the difference between a jig and a double jig and a slip jig? 
This page will help you sort out the terminology for Celtic dance forms.

Breakdown 

Hardly a Celtic dance form, this is an American term pretty much equivalent to reels and hornpipes set in 2/4, implying a tune in even time with a pronounced rhythm and a quick tempo. The term appears in Scottish titles such as Liverpool Breakdown (a reel) and Banjo Breakdown (a jig commonly played on bagpipes). The term probably came to Scotland through American minstrel shows.

Double Jig 

The rhythm is 6 eighth notes to the bar in most measures and is AABB in form. The dance step is doubled in each measure. (Examples: Gallagher's Frolics, Tobin's Jig, Out on the Ocean)

Fling 

A solo Scottish step dance in moderate 4/4 tempo with lots of swing. The dance is commonly performed to a fast strathspey tune.

Gallop 

A polka played at a fast tempo. Probably more of a Scandinavian dance that might have morphed to the Celtic Isles. Not done very often.

Highland  

An Irish Interpretation of a Scottish Fling.

Hornpipe 

Nearly always moderate 4/4 time with 8 eighth notes in pairs. The first one is always longer than the second of the pair. Played at various speeds, depending on who is dancing, but slower than reels. 60-66 beats per minute (bpm) is common. Step Dance Hornpipes are played quite fast while Demonstration Dances are ponderously slow to allow for many steps. The dance is Irish, but Scotland has hornpipes too, usually in 4 parts (AABBCCDD). Irish hornpipes almost always end a section with two tonic quarter notes on beats 3 and 4 before launching into the next section. (Examples: Rights of Man, Off to California, Harvest Home, Kitty's Wedding)

Jig, Single Jig or Hop Jig 

Usually means that the rhythm is quarter-eighth-quarter-eighth in 6/8 time. Speed is fairly fast, about 110-130 bpm. In a Hop Jig the 4 or 8 bar phrases are not repeated, so instead of an AABB form, you play AB. (Examples: Off She Goes, Joy Be With You, Sweet Biddy Daily, Cul Aodha)

March 

Tunes for walking or marching. They can be any time signature, but are usually in 2/4, 4/4, or 6/8. They can be fast or slow and tend to have the same structure as dance tunes with each part repeated. The exception is 4/4 marches because they usually have 32 beats in eight bars. Modern marches for brass bands are often three part tunes with the third part frequently modulated to a different key, setting them apart from the main Anglo-Celtic tradition. Irish marches usually have 2 parts and are played at 60 bpm. Scottish marches often have 4 parts and are played at 76 bpm. (Examples: Irish: King of Laois in 6/8, Halting March in 4/4. Scottish: Atholl Highlanders in 6/8, White Cockade in 4/4)

Mazurka 

Probably originated in northern Europe. Fast 3/4 with emphasis on the first and third beats. Speed frequently is a dotted quarter equal to 66 bpm. This was once a popular dance that now is virtually non-existent except for the tunes. (Example: Sonny's Mazurka)

Polka 

Mostly a simple melody in 2/4 time with regular timing based on eight bar parts. Polkas often have three parts with one part being in a different key, with the exception of Australian polkas which traditionally have two parts. Irish polkas are very fast and use lots of quarter notes, but not as many eighths. Speed is 98 bpm. (Examples: Dalaigh's, Rattlin Bog, Maire's, 69th Street, Kerry Polka) 

Quickstep 

Can be any of a variety of dance styles, depending on the country. In Scotland it is the equivalent of the Polka. Speed 88 bpm. (Examples: The Celtic Society Quickstep, Leitrim Quickstep which is an Irish Slip Jig)

Rant 

A Scottish reel or hornpipe with 4-bar, rather than 8-bar parts. Seems to be the Scottish counterpart to the Irish polka in speed and style, but the dance is different.

Reel 

The oldest and most basic form of dance done in both Ireland and Scotland. The speed is 120 to 140 bpm for dancing, some sources say as fast as 200 bpm. Usually written as eighth notes in 4/4 or Cut time with emphasis on 1 and 3. Characteristically has winding melodies. (Examples: Irish: Castle Kelly, Musical Priest. Scottish: Jack Broke the Prison Door, Largo Fairy Dance/The Fairy Reel; Jack Ripper Christendor) 

Schottische  

Influenced by Scandinavian music, this is an English variation of the polka. Frequently danced as a country dance with music much like the strathspey. A fast 4/4 walk. (Example: Brig of Perth)

Scotch Measure 

This is an older Scottish form of the reel which is now rarely recognized as a type. It uses longer note values than the usual reel and features a characteristic 3 quarter note pattern in the melody in either the first three or the last three beats of the measure. The 'Scotch Measure' is usually the last bar of the 8-bar phrase, but not always. It is both a musical form and a dance form. (Examples: Petronella, The White Cockade)

Slide 

Popular in the Kerry area of Ireland, this dance is in 12/8 and has distinctive measures with lots of lift. Speed is a quarter note = 120-160 bpm. It is often not clearly distinguished from a jig or a single jig. (Examples: Cooley's Slide, Eibhlin na Riordan)

Slip Jig 

In 9/8 time, this dance is done in both Ireland and Scotland. With three sets of three in each measure it is a powerful dance form for anyone superstitious. More often done as demonstration dance than a social dance. Speed varies but is usually slow for performances. (Examples: New Claret, Butterfly, Fig for a Kiss)

Strathspey 

Musically this is the Scottish counterpart to the hornpipe. Moderate 4/4 time written in four pairs of eighth notes. However, the first of the pair is not always the long one. When the second eighth note is long, this makes the Scottish snap. Snaps are random and there is no formula to the placement of snaps. Snaps can be on two different notes or on the same (repeated) note. Speed varies widely according to the dance and some slow ones are just for listening. Always played slower than hornpipes, except in Cape Breton where they are played faster than reels. (Examples: They Stole My Wife Last Night, Banks of Spey, Moneymusk, Stewart of Grantully, Master Frances Sitwell)

Waltz 

Dance tune always in 3/4 time. Celts like them on the fast side, although they are played slower in performance.

 

These Celtic dance definitions were created with information from workshops and conversations with Sue Richards, 4-time National Scottish Harp Champion, and from Yahoo! Groups HarpList postings from Andra Bohnet, Anita Hales, Fred Gosbee, Beth Kollé, and Nancy Wells.