Reeling, Precision, Storytelling

Reeling dancing aloneReeling is an odd concept. In one sense the word means staggering, lurching violently. Also, losing one’s balance, as when under the influence of illness, shock or alcohol.

In another it refers to the controlled performance of a dance. But not just any old dance, where you have one partner, or none, and do whatever takes your fancy. This has a pattern which conforms strictly to bars of music. Every performer co-ordinates with a number of other people in a variety of figures. It employs both travelling steps and dancing on the spot. The result is a shifting pattern, like a kaleidoscope, only you’re in the middle of it instead of watching from above.

Believe me, there’s no room for the first definition in the second activity. There would be blood on the floor. Reels are nothing if not precise.

They also often reflect some activity, such as weaving (Shifting’ Bobbins), or event (Mhairi’s Wedding). And sometimes they can deliver a surprising emotional impact.

Reeling Experience

Reeling in EdinburghMy first reeling experience was in one of those public hooleys in which Dancers, who know what they’re doing, try to educate the other sort. This was in Edinburgh at Festival time. I was very young, still at school. The Dancers were a mixture of restrained and elegant drawing room dancers and muscular soldiery.

The latter must have been largely drawn from the Scottish regiments. They approached the task with the sort of resolution that Nelson’s gunners brought to the Battle of Trafalgar: brisk, accurate, effective. I remember feeling very safe in their hands — because mostly they passed me round like a parcel, in time to the music. My feet touched down often without my direction but always on the beat.

Later I went to classes. But I don’t think I’ve ever repeated that sense of being able to fly. And goodness, it was inspiring.

The Laufen Reel

The dance I particularly loved was the Reel of the 51st, probably because I picked it up more quickly than others. It has a remarkable history.

Reel of the 51st battle St ValeryIn the last days of the Fall of France in 1940 the 51st (Highland) Division fought to defend the town of St Valery, 32 Km west of Dieppe while waiting for evacuation by the British Navy. The enemy commanded the cliffs and there was dense fog in the Channel.

Major General Fortune and General Rommel at St Valery

So by the morning of 12th June Major General Fortune accepted that he had no option but to surrender to Rommel. The evacuation from Dunkirk was 27th May – 4th June, so already over.

Among those taken prisoner was Lt Jimmy Atkinson (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders). On the march to POW camp he devised 16 bars of dancing to reflect the Saltire shoulder flash of the 51st (Highland) Division. He said that he started thinking “about dance tunes to keep my mind clear of grisly thoughts”.

Laufen Reel He was imprisoned with other officers in Oflag VIIC , in the 15th century Schloss Laufen built for the Archbishop of Salzburg. There he found that  Lt Peter Oliver (4th Seaforth) had organised a thrice weekly reel club. Over the winter of 1940 they developed the reel (which was initially danced to whistling) in consultation with Lt Col Tom Harris Hunter (51st Division Logistics Group RASC). He had been Chairman of the Perth and Perthshire Scottish Country Dance Society.

Reel of the 51st

On Hallowe’en 1941 they danced it to honour Major General Fortune, clearly a truly remarkable man. He approved the name the 51st Country Dance.

Sending details of their new dance home, however, hit a snag when the Germans decided that the instructions represented a coded message. So they gave their captors a demonstration and Harris Hunter’s letter to his wife went through.

The Perth branch of the SCDS printed copies of the dance and sold them for the benefit of the Red Cross. The main Society did not print newly invented dances as a matter of policy at the time.

Reel of the 51st, Queen ElizabethOn this one, however, they came under some Royal pressure, as their 1944 Bulletin records. “On hearing about the dance the 51st Division Reel, sent from a German Prisoner of War camp, Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother] said she hoped it would be published some day.”

It was published in Book XIII.

They called it The Victory Book.


18 thoughts on “Reeling, Precision, Storytelling

    1. Sophie Post author

      I so agree, Katy. Haven’t danced for a while but I’m starting to feel the urge again.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh that’s brilliant. Thank you. Of course the POWs were all men anyway and, indeed, the dance was originally designed for 10, instead of the traditional 8. I believe that the Perth RSCDS branch were intending to dance the original 5 couple all male version as a tribute on the 60th anniversary in 2005.

  1. ruralwifie

    George MacDonald Fraser’s “The Complete McAuslan ” contains a wonderful description of a manic reel which went from an eightsome to sixteensome, to a thirtytwosome to a sixtyfoursome and if my memory serves me correctly ended with a onehundredandtwentyeighthsome. Well worth a read

    1. Sophie Post author

      That rings a bell. Must certainly have a read. I once took part in a thirty twosome, and it was a seriously high anxiety activity. Wouldn’t want to go any higher up the arithmetical tree, myself!

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    What a fascinating story. Never knew reels had such poignant history behind them. Love the idea of dancing reels in the Schloss. I can just see The Colditz Story redone including this dance.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Well, reeling is very, very good for the concentration, so it would certainly take your mind off other things, Liz.

      Interestingly, when I was looking for a black and white picture of Laufen, I kept being offered something much bigger and more threatening. My instinct said no, and, indeed, when I dug a bit deeper, I found that it was actually Colditz.

  3. rosgemmell

    Absolutely fascinating story and I’ve never heard it before, even though I’ve lived in Scotland all my life and have danced many a reel!

  4. Sue McCormick

    I find this a truly fascinating story (like everyone else who has posted).

    U. S, “folk dancing” includes some reels, but my only exposure was to our “square dancing”. I think they may be related somewhere in the mists of time, but square dancing isn’t as formal as reels appear to be.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I love square dancing, Sue. Used to grab every opportunity that offered to go to a barn dance!

      I think the formality of the reels comes from this kaleidoscope effect of the movements. I have the impression that in most folk dances and square dances, everyone does the same thing or certain people follow some figure while everyone else circles, or watches, so you can have a caller.

      By contrast, the classic 6-person-at-a-time Scottish Country Dance often means that each individual is following their own trajectory, so no caller could keep up. I’ve helped out a bit at a friend’s annual Burns Night parties, and really there’s no option to walking it through, possibly a couple of times, depending how many of the unpractised are in the set. Then you just have to start the music and basically commit your soul to God and the other dancers.

  5. Rae Cowie

    Being a Scot, I was taught country dancing at school but only heard the origins of the Reel of the 51st earlier this year, at a local ceilidh dance. I confess I found the reel quite tricky to master. I would have benefited from having some of those muscular soldiers you mentioned to guide me through! Fabulous reminder of a wonder story, Sophie. Off to share.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I suspect that the Reel of the 51st is a bit easier if you have no well-trained expectations. It was the 3rd reel I ever danced and I found it much the most straightforward. (After the Duke of Perth and Hamilton House, I think.) But I heartily recommend muscular soldiers as tutors, Rae!

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