Dance/Ball Guide for Beginners

Beginners’ Guide – So it’s your first Dance?

The notes below are designed to be helpful tips to various aspects of a dance. What is described is what happens at dances which New Scotland attends during the year. We cannot, obviously guarentee that ‘rules of conduct’ will be the same at every dance everywhere – although hopefully politeness and helpfulenss are universal! If in any doubt about anything related to a dance ask someone (e.g. the organiser or someone who has been to a similar dance before).

Happy dancing!!


Check the time and place (obviously). Dance programmes and instructions (known as ‘cribs’) are usually acquired with your dance ticket, which may (but frequently does not have to) be purchased in advance.

At the New Scotland Beginners Dance, and many other beginner dances, all dances are called and walked through at least once so there is no need to spend long hours studying your cribs in advance. However, although it is slowly becoming more common for all dances or at least some (usually the less well known or more difficult dances) to be ‘called’ at non-beginner dances, this is by no means always the case. If the advertising for the dance does not say that dances will be called and/or walked, assume they will not be! If this is the case, it is advisable to read your ‘cribs’ and try to understand them in advance – perhaps dance them on the kitchen table with salt and pepper pots (it has been done many times!). But don’t spend the whole week before worrying and panicking – there is no way you are going to learn all the dances on the programme off by heart – no one does! The most you need to do before the dance is to have a look at the cribs, maybe mark any dances which sound familar or which you remember doing and perhaps try to work out how the others go with the salt and pepper pots!

Be on time! Unlike many ceilidhs the dance music will start (and finish) at the time advertised. So try to turn up on time or you may find you’ve missed the first dance (very annoying if it’s the one you’ve spent most time making sure you know!).

What to wear?

Perhaps the most important thing is that, whatever you wear, make sure you can dance in it!

The dress code for a dance (which will appear on you ticket/crib and on any adverts for the dance) will usually be ‘Formal’ or ‘Informal’. However, the meaning of these terms has evolved over time and is probably still evolving, so there is often some degree of confusion! To try to help sort this out, here are two interpretations:

The ‘original’ meaning – this is the strictest interpretation from the days when those incorrectly dressed might be turned away. If you know nothing about the dance you’re going to, you can’t go wrong if you go by this interpretation!

The current University meaning – this is the meaning as interpreted on the Scottish University (and associated) dances circuit – i.e. relevant to most of the dances you are likley to go to with New Scotland.

If in any doubt ask around or, if it is a regular dance which New Scotland attends each year, try looking at the photos from previous years which can be found on our photos page.

Formal – ‘original meaning’
MEN: Kilt and Jackets with black bow tie; or dinner suit with black bow tie.
LADIES: Ball-dresses, or evening dresses.

Formal- current University meaning
MEN: Kilt and Jackets with bow tie (any colour) if you have these; otherwise kilt and shirt with or without tie; or trousers and shirt with or without jacket and tie. Basically as smart as you have is a good guide!
LADIES: Mixture of ball-dresses, evening dresses and summer dresses; or if you have no dress then skirt and top or even smart trousers. As smart as you have is a good guide!

Informal – ‘original’ meaning
MEN: Kilts or smart trousers with a shirt and long tie.
LADIES: A ‘summer’ dress, or skirt and top.

Informal – current University meaning
MEN: Long ties are becoming increasingly uncommon. More usual these days is kilt with open-necked shirt, ‘Jacobite shirt’, or T-shirt; or trousers with open-necked shirt. Jeans and T-shirt is less usual, but OK if it’s all you have.
LADIES: A ‘summer’ dress, skirt and top, dressy trousers and top etc. Jeans and T-shirt are not commonly worn but are fine if that’s all you’ve got. (A handy hint – wrap around skirts with only a waist fastening are a BAD idea and strapless tops are only for the brave!)

If you do not have a ‘suitable outfit’ for any dance do not worry. The majority of dances do not have a strict dress code and you will not be turned away simply because you are ‘not dressed correctly’. If in doubt ask someone. At the end of the day, everyone’s there to have fun, and nobody really cares what you wear.

A brief guide to dance cribs


Dance cribs come in a number of forms and may seem to have a lot of confusing notation when you first see them!

Diagrammatic dance cribs
These follow the symbols in the ‘Little Green Book’ a.k.a. ‘The Wee Greeen Book’ a.k.a ‘Pillings’ a.k.a. ‘Scottish Country Dancing in Diagrams’. If you want to learn how to read these, get a copy of the Little Green Book and study it. If you don’t know how to read diagrams (and many dancers, even experienced ones, are not confident at it) you will not be able to pick it up on the night; so ditch the diagrams and look at the written cribs….

Written dance cribs
Written dance cribs vary depending on where the dance is being held (e.g. cribs at Newcastle dances are very different from those found at most Scottish dances); however all have some or all of the following features:

•A dance name at the head of the instructions

Some numbers and letters which indicate the length of the dance and what type it is (Reel, Jig Strathspey etc). e.g 4x32R is a reel, danced 4 times through with each time being 32-bars long. R = reel, J = jig, H = hornpipe, S = strathspey, M = medley (this may be broken down into e.g. S+R or S+J). Dances in 3-couple sets are 3×32, 3×40 etc; 4-couple dances in 4-couple sets are 4×32, 4×40 etc; 5-couple dances are 5×32, 5×40 etc; 3-couple dances in 4-couple sets are 8×32, 8×40 etc (each couple dances twices and there are 4-couples which makes 8 time through); 2-couple dances in 4 couple sets are also 8×32, 8×40 etc (so you can’t tell it’s a 2-couple dance until you realise there are no instructions for third couple to do anything!).

•There may be a surname such as ‘Drewry’ or ‘Bowie-Dickson’, or other reference such as ‘RSCDS 34’ or ‘SCD II’. This is the ‘provenance’ of the dance which is either the name of the person who wrote the dance or the dance book in which the dance is published. You don’t need to pay any attention to this unless you have a load of dance books and want to look up a dance. You may, however, eventually start to notice that you particularly like dances by certain people!

•Dance instructions will be listed in sections – most commonly ‘8-bar phrases’ (i.e. instructions for each 8 bars of music), although there are a few dances which are in 10-bar phrases and some instructions are broken down into 4-bar or 2-bar phrases. The instructions for each phrase may be prefixed by bar numbers (e.g. ‘1-8’, ‘9-16′, ’17-24′, ’25-32’ for a 32-bar dance) or separated from the preceding phrase by some symbol (e.g. ‘//’).

•Most cribs use abbreviations such as ‘1C’ or ‘1s’ for first couple, ‘1L’ or ‘1W’ for first lady, ‘RH’ for ‘right hand’, ‘LS’ for left shoulder etc.

If you don’t understand what a dance crib means, don’t hesitate to ask someone!

At the Dance

How a dance is run.
The person in charge of running the dance on the night is the MC (Master of Ceremonies). This is the person who will announce each dance, check all the sets are complete and, if necessary, call the dance. There may be more than one MC during the evening – 2, 3 or 4 is quite common – with each one running half, a third or a quarter of the dance.

Finding a partner.
Some people continue the habit of ‘booking’ partners for dances later in the evening – some consider it rude to do so for the whole evening. Most people ask someone just before or just after the dance is announced. You can ask anyone to dance! If you’re a beginner it’s a really good idea to ask an experienced dancer, especially if it’s a dance you’re not familiar with, because they’ll be able to help you through the dance. Don’t be scared to ask experienced dancers or people you don’t know to dance!

When long-wise sets are forming up, always join the set from the bottom (the end away from the music).
Never join a set at the top or in the middle. If the couples have already been counted, you will mix them up if you do not join from the bottom.

Repeats of dances. (encores)
These tend to be of the more unusual dances (especially medleys or “old favourites”) or of dances where each couple only gets to dance the dance once (e.g. the dance is only 3 or 4 times through). Encores will be once through for each couple unless otherwise stated. This may mean repeating the whole dance again or, with 3-couple dances in 4-couple sets (marked as ‘8x’ e.g. 8×32, 8×40 in the crib), it will be ‘once and to the bottom’. 2-couple dances in 4-couple sets are rarely encored (after all most couples will have dances it 3 times through already!), however if they are, they will also be ‘once and to the bottom’ unless otherwise stated.

If there is calling or there are walk-throughs.
You probably will not have to refer to your dance cribs during the evening. However, if you are sitting out a dance you may decide to swat up the next one. If you know you are not familiar with the next dance, it looks complicated and you’re not sure you’ll be able to manage it even with a walk-through – ask an experienced dancer to dance, they will be happy to help you! For the New Scotland Beginners Dance you will have danced all the dances at least once if you have been attending Beginners Country Dance class and Social Dancing regularly.

If you are at a dance where there is little or no calling or walking of the dances.
You will find that everyone is frantically studying their cribs at some time during the evening. Experienced dancers may appear to know every dance there is but this is not the case – very rarely does anybody know all the dances on a dance programme (the exception, who is swanning around looking smug, is probably the person who wrote the programme!). You will usually find that as the sets form up, you are all taking a last chance to study the cribs. Unfortuantley you then have to find somewhere to put the crib – it is alright for men who can put it in their sporran, but women have to throw theirs on the floor, hand it to their partner or stuff it down their dress! Some cribs do now come with a ribbon and safety pin to attach it to your dress which can solve this problem. The skill of being able to read a crib for a dance you don’t know and then be able to dance it takes time to learn, so don’t expect to be able to do it instantly.

Top tips!
The best ways to cope with any dance, and particularly one with no calling are:

Do not worry when you mess up (everyone does, even experienced dancers and far more often than you might think!)

Find a partner who knows the dance (just ask if they know the dance before asking them to dance!) If everyone is looking as blank and confused as you feel, this might be an occasion to request the MC to call or walk the dance!

If you find yourself as first couple, or another dancing couple position, and neither you nor your partner know the dance, try asking if there is another couple in your set who knows the dance better and is happy to swap places with you.

When you are not a dancing couple watch carefully and you may be able to work out (guess) what is coming next (i.e. if you are 2nd corner and something is happening to 1st corners, it is likely that you will be doing the same in the next phrase.)

If you don’t know the dance, there is probably someone in the set who does and can call it for you. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know a dance, or to ask your set to help you.

Be buoyant! If you are buoyant you are easier to push into the right place than if you are a sack of potatoes!! If you are unsure of a dance do what others tell you – there will usually be someone in your set who knows it.

If you mess up – which most people do during the evening however experienced – don’t panic! Sort out the set so that you can all dance the next time through. It is better to stand for 4 phrases to the start of the next time than to get yourselves into more of a mess trying to dance when it has all gone horribly wrong!.

If you are a beginner, you will have more chance of success if you dance in sets with people who know what they are doing! Getting up on the floor early when a dance is called is often a good bet, and ask experienced people to dance – they’re not really that scary!

After the last dance the band will play Auld Lang Syne and/or a polka.

Most of all: Smile and Enjoy it!!!!