top of page

Devil's Advocate: Is CalSoc's Partner Application Outdated?

No… Amelia Perry

Ah, Cal Soc. From beach reels, to Burns Night and spawner of a million post-ball Instagram posts with the caption ‘Had a reel-y good time’, it’s pretty likely you’ve had an encounter with the society. For those of you who aren’t so well-acquainted, they teach and practice traditional Scottish dancing (reeling), culminating in two balls a year — one black tie and one white tie.

I think it’s fair to say the balls are renowned for being good events. Well organised, great value for money, and held in a literal castle, I’ve never heard anyone complain (apart from about the state of their feet the next day, which I can confirm is never pretty). The only pre-requisite to applying is you must do so in a boy-girl partnership, something which some feel is exclusionary, outdated, and unnecessary.

Reeling balls as we know them date back to the 1840s, when the Duke and Duchess of Atholl decided to give their Scottish friends in London a taste of what they were missing from back home. By 1849, it had become a charity event and gained its Royal patronage, becoming known as the Royal Caledonian Ball. Having celebrated its bicentenary last year (barring only a few disturbances from the Boer War and COVID-19), there’s a strong sense of tradition being upheld; with a doorman checking you are upholding the strict dress code to the nth degree (trews are still not allowed), the Duke and Duchess of Atholl are still the first on the dancefloor, and, yes, opposite sex couples dancing together. And part of the joy of it is everyone embracing the slightly excessive formality, the old conventions, not to mention the dancing, for the evening.

And fundamentally, CalSoc — like so many of these societies — is all about celebrating and upholding these very same traditions. And reeling traditionally sees a couple comprising a man and a woman dancing together. Moreover, a large part of reeling is the visuals created — long lines of floor-length gowns on the one side, and kilts, trews, or plain black dinner trousers (for the non-Scots) along the other. Think of that one scene in Pride and Prejudice (2005, obviously), except Keira Knightley isn’t there, and there’s a lot more tartan. The dances often revolve around partners being ‘returned’ to their side after dancing as a couple, and so there are logistical reasons for this distinct format, too, as an imbalance in female or male dancers could make things a little complicated.

There’s also no requirement for any degree of romance, or chemistry between you and your dancing partner. I know, I know, while a ball might sound like an inherently romantic occasion, in reality, the focus is often less on what an individual couple is doing and more about the set as a whole. Whilst some heterosexual couples may be able to attend the ball ‘as a couple’, you choose a different partner for every dance — and the majority of pairs are simply going with their friendship group as a whole, they just partnered up for the purposes of the application form. After all, at its heart, reeling is supposed to be a bit of a laugh with your mates (Town and Country Magazine doesn’t bestow the term ‘a bit of a knees-up’ upon just any event, you know).

Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, popular formats like Strictly Come Dancing have introduced same-sex couples, and yes, I can see how it might seem a little antiquated. But I’m not sure you could accuse CalSoc of attempting to be maliciously exclusionary. Instead, it should, I hope, be clear that in the organisations of their balls as a whole, they are simply adhering to and honouring these customs dating back to the 18th century, rather than there being anything more sinister at hand, and one of the easiest ways of ensuring that there are equal numbers of male and female attendees is to ask applicants to partner up.

It also feels worth pointing out at this is not a St Andrews-specific issue — most, if not all, university reeling balls apply the same rule (as far as I’m aware, though I’m happy to be proved wrong), hopefully showing there’s some degree of logic behind the decision to retain the opposite sex partner rules.

As a university, we tend to be extremely good at embracing tradition — culty red gowns, unhingedly running into the North Sea at silly o’clock, and slathering each other in shaving foam to celebrate the end of a long weekend of being (affectionately) bullied by your academic parents. So what’s one more to add to the list?

Yes… Zainab Haji

The fact that this rule stands in the way of Cal Soc’s aspiring reelers from engaging with an activity that they enjoy — solely because they do not have a dance partner of the opposite sex — is simply absurd. As is the fact that since the society is female-dominated, this regulation only limits the number of women who can attend the ball and encourages men to take their places, thereby forming a system where women who are truly passionate about reeling end up missing out on the annual balls if they cannot find a partner. Who would have thought that in this day and age you would only be able to attend a ball with a man by your side (or vice versa)? So what if there is not an equal number of male and female dancers, or if the ball is female-dominated? Cal Soc should be a place to enjoy dancing with friends and immerse oneself in Scottish culture, not a place where others are excluded from joining in on the fun because a quota has already been filled.

Moreover, a large range of solutions and alternatives can easily be found to the argument that an equal number of men and women is necessary in order to facilitate reelers to navigate their routines without complication. For example, different coloured sashes or badges could be pinned on dancers separating them into two groups of ‘leaders’ and ‘partners’ rather than dividing them into groups based on gender. This idea is by no means revolutionary: due to the fact that a much larger number of women are involved in CalSoc — and Scottish country dancing as a whole — it is already not uncommon for women to dance ‘as the man’ . This is what female members of Caledonian Society already do at weekly Tuesday night dance practices as reelers are not split into groups of male and female dancers due to the much higher number of women.

The partner application method also does not welcome those who may identify outside of the two boxes of male or female. For these reasons many secondary schools around Scotland have made the decision to scrap the requirement to pair up with a dancer of the opposite sex, as they found that this left certain students feeling uncomfortable and in some cases has led to homophobic bullying.

Although CalSoc’s partner requirement is not directly discriminatory towards same sex couples, the question remains: why should you be deprived of the opportunity to attend a CalSoc ball and reel the night away with your significant other just because they are not of the opposite gender? There is no arguing that the balls are well executed: with a night of dining and dancing at an actual castle, they never leave reelers disappointed, but how much is that all worth if you are restricted from attending with your significant other?

Furthermore, in response to the argument that the steps would not logistically work with two members of the same sex, you only have to take a look at just about any dance competition playing on TV this year to find clear examples of how this can be successfully executed. In Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing on Ice, same sex dance partners have become the norm, and, last year, Jojo Siwa placed second alongside her partner Jenna Johnson in Dancing With the Stars in the US. So if these ballrooms have seen Viennese waltzes, Paso dobles, Argentine tangos and much more complicated dances performed by members of the same sex, why would it be so difficult to extend this accepting notion to CalSoc’s dancefloor?

The notion that the partner application method is crucial in upkeeping the legacy of reeling is simply nonsensical, because changing this rule would not betray the history of Scottish country dancing but instead allow more people who are interested in reeling to celebrate and participate in this tradition. Even if it is the case that the majority of Caledonian societies across the UK also implement the same rule - why can’t St Andrews CalSoc be the leader of this movement? Blindly following the line of tradition and ignoring the voices of the people has been known to never achieve anything.

CalSoc’s partner application method is a dust-covered antique of the past. Not only does it exclude those who have a (reel) interest in the art of reeling — in particular female dancers — but it is a symbol of the stuffy rules that should have been left behind whilst watching the latest season of Bridgerton. CalSoc should do better, by welcoming all into the folds of Scottish country dancing — regardless of gender. And rather than preserving the outdated tradition of male-female partner dancing founded by a Duke in 17something, Cal Soc should focus on preserving their own generation’s motto of inclusivity and progression by thinking about the legacy that they themselves are leaving.

Photo: Unsplash

227 views0 comments


bottom of page