Scottish dance terminology

Scottish Country Dancing is full of terms that are used to describe aspects of the dance. Some of the most frequently used are described below with diagrams and videos to help you visualize these commonly used words.


The part of the dance floor nearest the band or music is referred to as the top, with the part of the dance floor furthest from the band being the bottom. Dancing towards the top of the room (i.e. towards the music) is called dancing up, and dancing away from the top of the room is called dancing down.


In a longwise set the dancers stand opposite their partners. If a dancer finishes a movement or formation on their partner’s side of the set they are on the opposite side.

Opposite (sometimes called vis a vis) is also used in sets of two couples, where one couple faces another, when dancing with a dancer from the other couple.

Petronella turn

This is the name given to a two bar turning movement on the diagonal. The name is taken from the dance Petronella where the movement was first described. The formation can be danced from the sidelines into the middle of the set, or from the middle of the set into the sidelines. It may be preceded by or followed by setting. It is danced turning to the right.

The dancing couple, each dance diagonally to the right, dances a three quarter turn, rotating clockwise, to finish facing their partner, either up and down the set or across the set depending on the starting position. For example, when the turn is started from the sidelines the dancers end up facing each other up and down the set.

One Petronella turn takes two bars of music.


A Set is a group of dancers that will be dancing together for the duration of the tune. Sets contain a certain amount of couples, and depending on the type of dance (Reel, Jig or Strathspey) or how the dance was written, the amount of couples could be anywhere from two couples to eight couples.

A couple is two individual people, either male or female, dancing together. Also referred to as partners, as they will be dancing together. In some dances there is a change of your partner, but in most Scottish Country Dances you will always begin and end the dance with your partner. 

Sets of four (or more) couples in longwise formation, men stand with left shoulder to top of room women on opposite side of the set facing partner. 

  • The first couple is the couple nearest the top of the room.
  • In a longwise set, as each couple reaches top place they become leading or dancing couple.

The simplest type of progression is where the top couple finish at the bottom of the set after one turn through the dance with the 2nd couple becoming the new top couple. The dance is repeated until all couples have completed their turn as top couple.

One of the most common types of Country Dance progressions is where there are four couples in the set, but the formations of the dance only involve three couples. After one turn through the dance the top couple finish in second place, and repeat the dance with the bottom two couples (the original second couple stand without dancing at the top of the set).

After this second turn the top couple finish in third place, from where they step quietly to the bottom of the set, changing places with the 4th couple. The 2nd couple now begin their turn as top couple. After eight turns through the dance all the couples should be back in their original positions.

Some of the dances are two couple dances where the dancing couple dance with the couple immediately below them. These dances are danced in four couple sets and each couple dances the dance three times through before they get to the bottom of the set. 

Note: Whilst four couple sets are the most common sets found in Scottish Country Dancing, some dances are written with three couples and five couples in the set.

Couple facing couple round the room, men with their partners on their right.

One of the couples faces clockwise round the dance floor and the other faces anticlockwise. The last formation of the dance is a progression with each couple moving on past each other to meet a new couple. 

Four couples in a square set, men with their partners on their right. 

The couple with their backs to the top of the room (towards the music) are 1st couple, and couples are numbered clockwise around the set. So the couple on the left of 1st couple is 2nd couple, the opposite couple is 3rd couple and the couple on the right of the 1st couple are 4th couple. 

What type of music will you be dancing to?

Scottish Country Dancing mainly uses three musical rhythms types - Jigs, Reels and Strathspeys although it is not uncommon to find a waltz or a march thrown in for good measure.

Navigate to our music resources page to learn more on the types of music you will encounter out on the dance floor, and to access resources for musicians, teachers and dancers. 


We are keen to help you explore this dance culture and learn more about how music has such a large impact on Scottish Country Dancing.

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