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The reel is a folk dance type as well as the accompanying dance tune type. In Scottish country dancing, the reel is one of the four traditional dances, the others being the jig, the strathspey and the waltz, and is also the name of a dance figure (see below).
In Irish dance, a reel is any dance danced to music in reel time (see below). In Irish stepdance, the reel is danced in soft shoes and is one of the first dances taught to students. There is also a treble reel, danced in hard shoes to reel music.
The reel is indigenous to Scotland. The earliest reference was in a witchcraft trial of 1590, where the accused was reported to have "daunced this reill or short dance." However, the form may go back to the Middle Ages. The name is probably of Old Norse origins, cognate with Suio-Gothic rulla, meaning "to whirl." This became Anglo-Saxon hreol and Gaelic ruidhle or ruidhleadh, which is the origin of the word now.
After being introduced to Ireland in the late eighteenth century it thrived. Later it was introduced to North America, and remains central in the traditions of Cape Breton fiddling and square dancing.
Reel music is notated in simple meter, either as 2/2 or 4/4. For example the same reel Rakish Paddy is notated in 2/2 time with an alla breve ("cut time") time signature in O'Neill's Music of Ireland, New & Revisited but in 4/4 time in English, Welsh, Scottish & Irish Fiddle Tunes each measure in both cases spanning the same part of the melody.
All reels have the same structure, consisting largely of quaver (eighth note) movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar. A reel is distinguished from a hornpipe by consisting primarily of even beats. Reels usually have two parts (A and B); in most reels each part is repeated (AABB), but in others it is not (ABAB). Each part (A and B) typically has eight bars, which in turn are divisible into four-bar and two-bar phrases. (An exception is the "auld reel" of Shetland which tends to irregular structure and may have been influenced by the Norwegian halling.) The example of Jimmy Shand performing Mairi's Wedding follows the pattern ABABB, giving a pattern of 40 bars. The group of 32 bars (four times eight) is itself repeated three or four times before a second reel is introduced. The grouping of two or more tunes in medleys or "sets" is typical in Celtic dance music. Today many Irish reels are supplemented with new compositions and by tunes from other traditions which are easily adapted as reels. It is the most popular tune-type within the Irish dance music tradition.
Reels are popular in the folk music of South West England. It crossed the Atlantic ocean with Irish and British immigration and thus entered the musical tradition of Atlantic and French-speaking Canada including that of Quebecers and Acadians. Reels are featured in many pieces of Quebec singers and bands; for example: La Bolduc, La Bottine Souriante and even the more modern néo-trad group Les Cowboys Fringants (like the song Mon Pays suivi du Reel des aristocrates).
A reel performed by Dancing Willow
A reel featuring viola da gamba and recorder, performed by Dancing Willow
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- Newes from Scotland. Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie last. London 1591. (Glasgow University Library: Sp Coll Ferguson Al-a.36)
- Francis Collinson. "Reel". In Macy, Laura. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. (subscription required)
- Krassen, Miles (1976). O'Neill's Music of Ireland, New & Revisited. p. 158.
- Williamson, Robin (1976). English, Welsh, Scottish & Irish Fiddle Tunes. p. 69.
- "Jimmy Shand – Mairi's Wedding". YouTube. Retrieved 7 April 2015.