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What is the Virginia Reel?

The Virginia Reel is a folk dance steeped in American history, a lively social dance that dates back to the 17th century. It's a blend of Irish and Scottish reels, adapted by early American settlers, and is characterized by its energetic music and sequence of figures. How has this dance endured through the centuries? Join us as we explore its timeless appeal.
A Kaminsky
A Kaminsky

In the days before television, Internet and even radio, the way people entertained themselves was often by holding a community dance. This event brought the towns together with each other, and was usually a great social event. Most people knew the most popular dances, such as the waltz, and particularly in the Southeastern United States, the Virginia reel was one of the most popular group dances.

The Virginia reel has its origins in Scottish country dance, and was introduced to the U.S. in the late 1600s. It had been popularized in England by Sir Roger de Coverly. Some variations were introduced, and before long, the Virginia reel was known all over the Southeast.

An abbreviated version of the Virginia reel is featured in the movie Gone with the Wind.
An abbreviated version of the Virginia reel is featured in the movie Gone with the Wind.

This dance is a contra dance, which means it is danced in a line, partners facing each other. In the Virginia reel, about six couples form a line, men in one line, ladies in the other, about six feet apart. The Virginia reel often has a caller, as with a square dance. When the caller indicates, the couples step forward about three steps, and bow to their partners. Partners then do elbow swings, returning to their original places, a do-si-do and the head couple (the couple nearest the band) joins hands and sashays (chasees) down the line and back.

The Virginia reel was popularized in England by Sir Roger de Coverly.
The Virginia reel was popularized in England by Sir Roger de Coverly.

The head couple then “reels down” by joining elbows and doing a full turn with each person down their line (men with ladies and vice versa) and then the head couple joins hands and sashays back to their original position. The head couple then leads their respective lines in the “cast off,” taking themselves to the foot of the line, and raising their joined hands to form an arch. The second couple then leads their lines back under the arch to the front, and they become the head couple.

The Virginia reel is a lively dance and should be accompanied by lively music. Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone with the Wind,” opined that “Dixie” was the best of all reel tunes, and this gives a good idea of how spirited the dance is. In the movie Gone with the Wind, an abbreviated version of the Virginia reel is included in the scenes at the bazaar. It is worth watching to see a little of how the dance was performed.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Virginia Reel and where did it originate?

The Virginia Reel is a folk dance that dates back to the 17th century, originating in Scotland and Ireland before making its way to North America with settlers. It is considered a social dance that involves a series of figures, or dance movements, performed by couples in two lines. The dance was especially popular in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries and is often associated with American colonial culture and early American social gatherings.

How is the Virginia Reel danced?

The Virginia Reel is danced by couples who form two lines, with partners facing each other. The dance consists of a sequence of figures, including hand turns, arm turns, do-si-dos, and promenades. The most distinctive feature is the reel, where dancers form a line and weave in and out in a snaking pattern. The dance concludes with a swing at the end of the set. The steps are called out by a caller, and the dance is typically performed to lively, upbeat music.

What type of music accompanies the Virginia Reel?

The Virginia Reel is traditionally accompanied by lively, upbeat folk music, often played on instruments such as the fiddle, banjo, and piano. The music is characterized by a strong, rhythmic melody that matches the energetic pace of the dance. Tunes like "Soldier's Joy," "Mississippi Sawyer," and "Arkansas Traveler" are commonly associated with the Virginia Reel, providing a spirited soundtrack that encourages participants to keep in step with the dance's quick movements.

Is the Virginia Reel still popular today?

While the Virginia Reel is not as widespread as it once was, it remains a cherished tradition in certain communities, particularly in the United States. It is often taught in schools as part of physical education or cultural heritage programs and is a staple at folk festivals, historical reenactments, and community dances. Its simplicity and sociable nature make it a favorite for group events and gatherings where traditional dance is celebrated.

Can beginners easily learn the Virginia Reel?

Yes, beginners can easily learn the Virginia Reel. It is known for its simple, repetitive steps and patterns that are easy to follow. A caller typically guides dancers through the movements, making it accessible for people of all ages and skill levels. The dance's structure allows newcomers to quickly join in and enjoy the experience without needing extensive prior knowledge or practice, making it an ideal dance for social events and community gatherings.

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Discussion Comments

gravois

I went to a wedding once that had a bluegrass band and a square dance caller. This was the entertainment instead of a regular DJ or a band that played the hits. I have to say, it was amazing and so much more fun than your normal wedding.

What was so great about it was that everyone got into it and the dances are very high energy. people run around the room, duck low and high and spin around in circles. You change partners over and over so you get to dance with everyone. And they call out all the moves so that even timid or inexperienced dancers can get in on the fun. It really worked. The room was filled with spinning bodies and huge smiles. I have never been to a happier wedding.

tigers88

I like to go line dancing on the weekends and at the club I go to most often there is a DJ who will occasionally play and call out a dance that is inspired by the Virginia reel.

It is not exactly the same of course. The steps have been simplified and they are designed to be performed individually. But they are fun to do and a nice change of pace from the usual line dance fair. The dance seems to go over well with the crowd too but they are most there to here what they know so the DJ doesn't bust this out very often.

EdRick

I had a third grade teacher who was fond of these old dances and used to teach them to us! It was a nice way to get us some exercise (get the wiggles out) right in the classroom.

I've read that because these line-type dances were the norm, when the waltz came out, it was considered scandalous! Without all the whirring and twirling and so forth, all that was left was a man holding a woman in his arms. How inappropriate!

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    • An abbreviated version of the Virginia reel is featured in the movie Gone with the Wind.
      An abbreviated version of the Virginia reel is featured in the movie Gone with the Wind.
    • The Virginia reel was popularized in England by Sir Roger de Coverly.
      By: kameonline
      The Virginia reel was popularized in England by Sir Roger de Coverly.