"Stepdancing: A Canadian Tradition"
Ottawa Valley - Cape Breton - Step Dance - Stepdance - Stepdancing
Written by: Chanda Gibson, Mary Ingram, Celeste Warren, Nicole Magson.
November 28, 1996
Stepdancing is an old and energetic form of art and has recently surfaced as a new trend in dance on the Canadian scene. The following discussion of stepdancing outlines the fundamentals of this unique form of dance and gives an explanation of what it is. We talk about the history of stepdancing, its development from European roots to the Canadian form, the benefits of stepdancing as a form of leisure expression, and the present and future trends that characterize stepdancing in Canada.
FUNDAMENTALS OF STEPDANCING
Stepdancing is not like other forms of dances of tap, clogging or Irish dancing. Stepdancing is purely a unique art. A simple definition of stepdancing is:
"A fast paced, rugged and energetic style of dance usually performed to traditional fiddle music and requiring limited surface movement. The dance is concentrated on foot work involving limited hand and arm motion. Stepdancing requires a board with a hard, smooth surface, character shoes with special clickers attached to the toe and heel, and music."
Stepdancing follows the popular pattern of an eight-bar step. Four bars are danced on the right foot followed by the same pattern on the left foot, making an eight-bar step. The ten "step" is understood to include both right and left foot. Often steps are longer, and consume sixteen bars of music.
Although the traditional method of right then left foot is most common among dancers, many times dancers creatively dance only one foot before moving on to the next step. This is usually done when creating steps defined for a specific piece of music.
Methods of developing steps vary from one dancer to the next. Many dancers create a series of steps then dance them to any selection of music which is of the same quality. Other dancers develop more effective routines when they listen and understand the music and develop steps to "fit" that music or play with the music. This is a special art and requires the ability to "feel" the music. Throughout history, dancing has always been noted as a form of music much like playing the piano or the fiddle. Dancing on most occasions replaces other forms of percussion and adds value because of its high energy and visual aspect.
There are many different types of stepdances to be danced which all have different tempos, timing and accents. The different dances throughout Canadian stepdancing include: reels, jigs, clogs, strathspeys, hornpipes, waltz-clogs, polkas, and two-steps. In all cases, stepdancing requires much flexibility and a relaxed nature of the feet and ankles.
This dance is the most popular and preferred dance for all dancers. It is played at a fast pace or tempo, is highly energetic, and lasts the length of 96 bars of music. The reel originated around 1750 in Scotland and the Irish dance masters brought it to full development (Haurin & Richens). The music is 4/4 time with a count of (ONE-two-three-four). The reel is most commonly used in routines as the last dance in the set because of its fast speed.
The jig is a very popular dance amongst the Irish and the Cape Bretoners. This music is played in 6/8 time which means the hard beats are on the first and fourth count (ONE-two-three FOUR-five-six). In a contest routine, Jigs are danced as the middle dance of the routine and last the length of 48 bars.
The clog is a slower dance and is much more graceful than the reel or the jig. A clog is played in either 414 time or 2/4 time and the accent is on the first and third beat (ONE-two THREE-four) or the first and second beat (ONE-and TWO-and). The clog is usually danced as the opening of a routine and is short, only lasting the length of 32 bars.
Hornpipes are also played or danced in 4/4 time and are reminiscent of a slow reel with accents on the first and third beat: (ONE-and-a two-and-a -and-a four-and-a) (Haurin & Richens). This dance is most popular among Irish dancers both male and female and is danced in hard shoes as opposed to soft shoes. Ottawa Valley stepdancers also dance this dance, but it is danced much the same as a reel is danced.
This is traditionally a Scottish dance, danced by females in soft shoe and is very graceful. This dance resembles a very slow reel with more melodic embellishment and the dancer uses more floor space than in the other dances. The music is played in 4/4 time and is characterized by a dotted eighth note or a sixteenth note that is a rest instead of a note, known as a Scottish "snap’ (Fiddlers Fake Book p. 1).
A polka is a very sprightly dance, similar to a reel but sounding slower than a reel because it is in 2/4 time. It is characterized by a paradigmatic rhythm and one measure includes two sets of an eighth note attached to two sixteenth notes. The Polka was brought to Canada with the Germans and the Slavs and became popular west of Ottawa and in western Canada (Brody, 1983, p. 12).
The two-step is also in 2/4 time and is like a slow polka or more characteristically like a fox trot.
Canadian Stepdancing Styles
Although stepdancing is unique to Canada, there are three distinct styles within the country including: Cape Breton Style, French Canadian Style and Ottawa Valley Style. To speak of stepdancing as a whole for the purpose of this paper, we will term it "Canadian Stepdancing". Canadian stepdancing has been formed and has evolved over many years from the influences from Irish, Scottish and French dancers. This evolution will be explained in the next section on the history of stepdancing.
Although Canadian stepdancing originated from other of dances, it looks like no other dance and has unique characteristics. The three different dances stated above all have their unique differences are explained as followed.
Cape Breton Style is a style unique to the Cape Breton Region of Nova Scotia. This dance is performed with straight arms as compared to the Ottawa Valley Style. Dancers are noted for dancing with straight backs and emphasis of the body is from the knees down while the upper portion of the body, mainly arms, are held straight at the dancers’ side so that they are not a distraction from the footwork (Mclnnes). The footwork in Cape Breton Stepdancing is close to the floor with fragments of the steps repetitive, meaning that the same movement is repeated several times in a row as compared to the other two styles of dance. The most popular types of dances danced in Cape Breton are Strathspeys, jigs, reels and hornpipes.
French Canadian style of stepdancing developed as its own in the province of Quebec in the lumber camps. This style is characterized by intricate footwork close to the floor but includes spurts of aggressive energy at times throughout the routine. This adds to the excitement of the dance because it is usually unexpected. It is also typical for French Canadian stepdancers to hold their arms straight at their sides but not as tight as the Cape Breton stepdancers. There is more freedom for arm movement but this is not characteristic of the dance. Reels are the most common form of French Canadian stepdancing. The traditional clothing worn by the French Canadians for dancing is a simple costume consisting of black pants, white shirt with a long sash worn around the waist and dangling on the side of the dancer.
Ottawa Valley Style stepdancing originated in the Ottawa Valley which includes a large area North of Ottawa and a small area across the river on the Quebec side. This dance is very different than the other two styles of stepdancing, but still has influences from the Scottish and Irish. The Ottawa Valley style is characterized by the constant aggressiveness of the dance and the steps are danced high off of the floor. The better dancers include a wide variety of steps and different moves in their routines so that no step looks similar to another. The dancers’ legs look very "rubber like" and much coordination is required of the legs, feet and ankles. A distinguishing factor in this style is that there, is use of the dancers arms. Arms are controlled to an extent but because this dance is done high off of the floor, arms are placed out from the dancers body and are used to naturally flow with the dancers movements. This emphasizes the aggressiveness and energy of the dance and is as much a part of the dance as the feet are. Both men and women dance the same dances and also compete against one another in contests.
Clogs and two-steps are often danced in this style more commonly compared with the other two styles of dance. There is no required costume to be worn for this dance. The individual may chose his/her own wardrobe for contests and shows in which it is fairly conservative and dressy.
Contests are a big focus for many stepdancers and fiddlers alike. There are many contests around the Ottawa Valley in the summer and a few throughout the winter. Competing is used to encourage dancers and fiddlers to dance and play and helps keep the tradition alive. Contests are mostly made up of solo dancers of all ages; however, there is a category for group dance also. Solo dancers are required to dance a routine made up of a clog, jig and reel danced consecutively in that order. The routine cannot go over 4 minutes or a bell will ring and judging will cease at that time and the dancer will be docked marks. Competitors are judged 25% on timing, 25% on variety of steps meaning that the steps in the routine incorporate different footwork and different beats. Twenty-five percent of the mark is on the execution of steps or clarity of steps and the last 25% is on showmanship which takes in the presentation as a whole.
Music & Equipment
Fiddle is the most popular source of stepdance music now for all styles of stepdancing. A variety of instruments, including accordions, flutes as well as fiddles were traditionally played for dancers in Ireland at their feises or contests (Haurin & Richens). The Scottish traditional music used for dancers was tunes played on the bagpipes as well as the fiddle.
Stepdancers usually dance on hardwood boards, masonite boards or on sanded Plexiglas. There is no other equipment really necessary except for the main items which are the shoes. Canadian stepdancers dance in typical leather shoes made for jazz which have a genuine leather sole. There are special clickers (staccato) made from metal to amplify the sound. The clickers include two pieces of the metal held together by a rivet to create the "jingle" sound made by the dancers. These clickers are placed on both the toes and the heels of the shoes and are held on with either small nails or screw nails. As described, stepdancing is a very low cost sport or hobby.
THE HISTORY OF STEPDANCING
In the late 1700’s there was the beginning of a mass exodus from the Scottish Highlands that continued throughout the 19th century. The settlers were full of hope and dreams about their new home, eager to begin again and seek a better life. The Scots came to Canada and settled in ‘pockets’ of which some were situated in Ontario and the Maritimes. Stepdancing came with these early settlers into the new land. Traditional dance "provides an instrument for exploring our unique heritage" (Maclnnes). Stepdancing was a symbol of national allegiance, a traditional dance that has evolved from simple leisure and entertainment into serious leisure and entertainment. It is essential to begin a discussion of stepdancing with a history of this form of dance and distinguish the various styles of stepdancing that have evolved in the past few centuries. All forms of stepdancing eventually trace their roots back to Scotland and Ireland.
Roots of stepdancing stem all the way back to the ancient Gaels, or Celtic peoples who, in the 10th century and earlier, once covered many areas of ancient Europe. They were conquered by the Germanic and Roman empires but were able to preserve their Celtic culture in Ireland. There are records of types of stepdancing in the 16th century, some jigs and sword dances. Irish dances were known to "have a faster tempo and included side steps" (Haurin & Richens, 1996). Severe repression and depression was characteristic of the Irish people in the 17th century. Culture was sacred and had to be kept in secrecy to some degree as a result of the English oppression. Initially, even the early forms of Irish stepdancing were kept in secrecy (Haurin & Richens, 1996). Dances became a focal and celebratory part of weddings and other special occasions. In the mid 18th century, there was the evolution of Dance Masters, who were people who traveled around and would stay in a village for a few weeks, teaching forms and techniques of stepdancing. These teachers were highly respected and would often have another skill that would add to their repertoire of skills. First, the dance students would learn the jig and the reel. These Dance Masters enabled dance to be a widely respected and sought after skill. They were paid quite well, and occupied many established dance schools.
Dance Masters were influential and a transition for the Irish culture at the time. In the late 19th century, Irish culture no longer needed to be repressed and it was free to express itself once again. The Dance Masters laid the groundwork for modern Irish Dance. For example, the tradition of using half doors and table tops for teaching and performing as "stages" has continued until today. The places of competitions have changed as well, transformed from flatbed trucks to hotels and fairgrounds. With this revival of Irish culture came a desire for traditional Irish costume for dance performance. Males wore kilts and female dancers have evolved by majority from shawls and cloaks to a simple small cloak, a tassel around the waist and a simple outfit. As for the feet, hard shoes with fiber glass soles have been a trend in the past century, different from the no shoe tradition of dancing.
Though Ceili dances are French in origin their characteristics are Irish because of the influence imposed upon them by the Dance Masters. "A Ceili is a gathering for music and dance" (Haurin & Richens, 1996).
Stepdancing has used a variety of instruments that add colour and life to the dance. The most traditional and characteristic to Irish dancing is the pipe and the pipers who were the musicians. However, with the repression of the Irish culture in the 17th and 1 18th. centuries, these traditional pipers did decline. Fiddles are popular in the Scottish tradition as well as the accordion, the mouth organ, and the cute little ‘ew’s harp.
As stepdancing was distinctly Irish, there were dominant Scottish roots as well. Both evolved and moved with the Irish and Scottish settlers to North America.
Scottish dance heritage is a rich and colourful story of tradition and art- Scottish stepdancing tradition is most prevalent in the Cape Breton style of stepdancing. At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century there was an exit from Scotland known as "the infamous Highland Clearances" (Moore, 1995). Because many did not settle in the Cape Breton area much of the Scottish culture was retained in this area until today. As Stanford Reid outlines, "Cape Breton’s relative isolation from the rest of Canada" has resulted in the old culture of stepdancing remaining true and continually revived. Up until the mid 20th century there was minimal travel by road or vehicle in Cape Breton. Therefore, there were less means for external influences, such as radio or other forms of mass communication, to be pumped into the area. Thus, the Scottish tradition and its method of entertainment became and remained a popular and favourite pastime. Cape Breton developed a means of social cohesion as it remained isolated to the rest of Canada. The Dance Masters, described earlier, came from Scotland and began teaching communities here in Canada, passing along this traditional dance. As Moore writes in an interview with Dan Beaton of Mabou Coal Mines (a family of famous stepdancers), there is obviously a strong generational tradition of stepdancing: "Dancing is in the blood and will go from one generation to the other" (Moore, 1995). This passing down of skills and culture is not just prevalent in the Scottish tradition but as well in the Gaelic roots of Irish tradition.
The Reel is the frost popular and most traditional form of Scottish dance. It is famous for its distinctly Scottish heritage. "Reels of one sort or another were known in every district of Scotland, in all classes of society"’ (Moore, 1995). When danced well, reels are brilliant and lively.
Solo dances, rather than four or eight person dances were once more popular. The complexity that solo dances demanded, though once taught by the famous dance masters, required more time and effort to practice with more precision demanded of the dancer. Many people abandoned this solo form of dancing. However, it should be noted that in the 19th century, there were still solo dances regularly seen in competitions and performances, in larger arenas as compared to the informal leisurely based forms and styles of stepping. To this day the best dancers are measured as to whether they can dance solo, are light on their feet and appear relaxed as if "dancing on a dime".
The style and art of stepdancing was not carried into the 20th century by the once famous and revered Dance Masters. Rather, that integral and unique inherited characteristic of stepping being passed from generation to generation, became the medium of learning. Interestingly, the essentials had to be observed, not verbally or literally taught.
It was through observation and imitation that the rhythm of the steps were learnt to perfection. As Moore compares, "this method of learning is similar to learning music by ear rather than from a written score" (Moore, 1995). Music and dance are intimately related. It is essential for a stepdancer to know and understand the music experientially rather than theoretically. As Moore explains, "it is hard to over-emphasize just how closely the music and the dancing are linked".
Cape Breton Style
The step dance is a rich and vital component of Cape Breton. There has been a resurgence of stepdancing in Cape Breton in the past generation. The history of stepdancing coming to Cape Breton began from those years of exodus from Scotland and Ireland. In the late 1700’s, many British immigrants chose to settle on this island off present Nova Scotia. The style of stepdance that evolved here was again, passed down from generation to generation. This link to one’s past in the Mother Land provided, undoubtedly, comfort and subsided pangs of loneliness for the new Scottish and Irish settlers.
Because of the fear that the Cape Breton style may be dying, there has been an interest placed upon the younger generation to take classes and instruction from the well known stepdancers. This does however, lead to the emphasis being placed more on mechanics of theory and not on the music or on the tradition and colour of centuries gone by. However, the tradition is still rich and abundant in Cape Breton:
Step into the kitchen of a weathered Cape Breton house where the floors have had the plan’er down treatment from the neighbours lively steps as they danced to the jigs and reels of the fiddler. The walls still resonate with the haunting strains of the harp and chanter ... the same feeling is there too! http://www.morandan.com
Ottawa Valley Stepdancing
This style of stepdancing is a very powerful dance that needs energy to execute and hard work, stemming from the Scottish and Irish roots of the late 18th century. Interestingly, American tap dance is an ingredient to this unique style of stepdancing.
There were also settlers who came from the British Isles who settled in the Ottawa Valley. Here, they set up villages and lumber camps. Hard work and toil on the long days needed a balance of relaxation and recreational avenues. The settlers had no material possession to offer so they used what they already knew: their traditional and valuable dance. They shared what they held most dear to their hearts: their music and their culture. Combining fiddle and the traditional stepdancing, the Scottish settlers created a unique blend of Scottish tradition that brought in a new style heard in the ringing rhythm of the fiddle in the night air long ago. Today, old time fiddle music is incredibly popular in the Ottawa Valley. There are many step and fiddle competitions in this area which supports the statement that there are "more fiddlers and step-dancers per capita in the Ottawa Valley than anywhere in Canada, except possibly in Cape Breton" (Wadden, 1996).
BENEFITS OF STEPDANCING
Stepdancing is a recreational activity dust can be enjoyed by members of all age groups and of all ability levels. This " of dance is quite unique since it can easily be altered in order to allow both passive and active participation. It is an extremely individualized exercise that can begin at a level that is appropriate to any skill level and that can increase in intensity at any time the participant requests. Stepdancing, no matter how it is enjoyed, can have physical, mental, and social benefits on those that engage in it or just even watch.
Since Stepdancing is an activity that requires the movement of body parts, it can be considered a form of exercise. A book ~ the benefits of dance called, Choosing an Active L stated that cardiovascular fitness, improved muscle tone, a fitter body, and weight loss are all results of engaging in exercises such as dance (King, 1990). This " of exercise has also been associated with a decrease in stress levels of participants (King, 1990). Because stepdancing is so versatile in how it can be done, individuals at all levels of physical ability can engage in it. The only few exceptions would be those who do not possess any use of their legs, although they would still be able to benefit in social and/or mental ways by being a spectator.
If stepdancing is properly learned and the challenge equals the participants’ skill, it can possess other excellent physical benefits. Such an exercise has been found to slow the processes of physical aging (i.e., due to increased blood circulation), reduce muscle pain, increase levels of flexibility, and decrease the chances of a person developing diseases (Levy, 1983). Because Stepdancing programs can be individualized based on skill and ability, everyone, including those who are disabled, can enjoy the benefits of this exercise. A book called Leisure Today stresses that it is not physically beneficial for someone to engage in an exercise that is too challenging or strenuous for his/her body to handle (Levy, 1983). This is the reason why stepdancing is an ideal activity for the 90’s: it can be enjoyed as either a high or low impact exercise.
Stepdancing is fun, versatile, and non-threatening since it is fairly simple to learn as a leisure activity. Some final physical benefits of Stepdancing include: increased coordination, balance, and strength.
In the Ottawa Valley, a huge following of Stepdancing has accumulated over the past years. The people who come to enjoy the dancing also come for other reasons, like to listen to the music, to engage in the social aspect, and to feel that they belong to something. Once people begin learning how to stepdance, they often find themselves meeting others that enjoy this same art. Eventually, they may travel to or see or participate in stepdance/fiddle contests. There is a strong sense of satisfaction of being around people who possess similar interests as you and this is what is often experienced within the stepdance/fiddling community.
Stepdancing experiences can encourage: communication with others, a feeling of control of the situation, a level of satisfaction, and a sense of group effort in watching or participating (Levy, 1983). There is a strong sense of togetherness of the people who gather to watch stepdancing, especially if they have decided to take it up as an interest of their own. This togetherness can be said to satisfy the belonging needs that are described by Abraham Maslow which be states help to make a per-son feel whole" (Meyers, 1993). If a dancer becomes good enough to participate in contests, he or she will often travel around with others who compete, become friends with them, and develop their own social networks. Even for people who are disabled, going different places to watch stepdancing can help them to develop closer social ties with friends, other spectators, and even the competitors.
Becoming involved in an exercise like stepdancing can prove to be socially rewarding in many ways. One other common characteristic of being involved in such an activity is that it provides an opportunity for family members to also become involved by either participating with you or just by watching. It is often soon observed that those who engage in stepdancing are often accepted into a friendly atmosphere. Someone just entering this type of activity will quickly learn that it is a really fun, safe and healthy environment to meet new people and it is a chance to improve communication skills. For all of these reasons, getting involved in stepdancing can be extremely socially rewarding.
One of the most profound psychological benefits of engaging in an exercise such as stepdancing is its ability to help a person to relax (Levy, 1983). The social and physical benefits of an activity such as this can really reduce stress, anxiety, and tension to create an overall sense of well-being which can contribute to relaxation. This sense of well-being can in turn help a person to achieve "self-actualization", which is also described by Abraham Maslow (Meyers, 1993). It is stated by Joseph Levy that individual appropriate leisure and exercise can provide a person with the opportunity to explore the meaning of life, and to explore ourselves (Levy- 1983).
Individuals who engage in some form of the Stepdancing experience are said to be better able to achieve a healthy psychological balance between their body, mind, and emotions (Alvin, 1975). Some psychological benefits of watching, listening or engaging in a stepdance experience include: communication (to self and others), identification (with self and others), association (i.e., feelings of happiness associated with uplifting music), creativity, self-expression, and self-knowledge (Alvin, 1975).
There are so many beneficial aspects of stepdancing that social, mental, and physical ones are only the beginning. If a person becomes quite serious in this area, there are also financial rewards (i.e., through competing), rewards associated with being able to entertain others, and even possible rewards of knowing that the capability exists to be able to spread such knowledge of a wonderful activity to others (i.e., through teaching). Stepdancing is adaptable, enjoyable, energetic, and often group-oriented so the benefits can be clearly seen to encompass a broad range. It is definitely not an activity that is just appropriate for one specific age or skill level; it can easily be enjoyed by all.
Although stepdancing has a vast history of being a Canadian tradition the popularity is only now increasing. Growing interest can be attributed to the trend of Celtic music in the last decade. In the 1940s, swing was the major dance component of the big band trend, much like stepdancing is the major component of the trend of Celtic music. Characterized by the fiddle, Celtic music has been received with open arms by the Canadian population. With artists such as Ashley McIsaac, Mary Jane Lamond, Barra McNeils, Rankin Family and Brenda Stubbert, the Celtic wave of music is gaining popularity and becoming recognized as part of Canada’s culture. The trend of stepdancing and fiddle music has increased awareness to new levels. With increased awareness comes increased demand. Stepdancing has never before been so popular.
Numerous contests are held each year all across Canada and the United States. With anywhere from 30 to 300 people competing. The biggest stepdancing and fiddling contest in North America is the ‘Pembroke Old-time Fiddle and Stepdancing Contest’, held labour day weekend in Pembroke. Ontario. It attracts thousands of people from all over North America. Contests offer an opportunity for people interested in this form of dance and music to experience a localized gathering of experts. competitors. and spectators. Contests and competitions are social events which promote the trend of fiddle music and stepdancing to all who attend.
Stepdancing is fairly popular among people of almost any age, including those under the age of twenty. Summer camps for stepdance and fiddle are another trend that is steadily increasing every year. They are offered across North America, including, Montana, Nashville, and Orangeville Ont., Emma Lake Sask., and in British Colombia. These camps are instructed by professionals and offer children and adults the opportunity to learn and increase their stepdancing and fiddle skills. The youth of Canada now have more opportunities than before to experience and learn stepdancing.
The traditional dance masters are now represented by stepdancing professionals, who offer their expertise to the general public. No longer is stepdancing a family and community orientated tradition. The demand is high, and professionals are teaching in many areas across Canada. Along with the leisure aspect of stepdancing, there is also a business side to stepping. Instructional stepping videos are available for those who do not want or who cannot take lessons. People are now beginning to devote much time to promoting Canadian stepdancing because of its potential profitability.
From music, magazines, Internet, museums, competitions, youth organizations, camps, and professional teachers, stepdancing has become a popular and essentially long-lasting trend for the Canadian public. What started as a family oriented tradition passed down from each generation, is now developing into a mass population activity.
King, Billie Jean. The Bodywise Woman. (1990). New York: Prentice Hall Press. Levy, Dr. Joseph. Leisure T. (1983). Toronto: Back Door Press.
Meyers, David G. Social @chology-4th Ed. (1993). Michigan: McGraw-Hill Inc. Reid, W. Stanford. The Scottish Tradition in Canada. (1987). New York: McCielland Stewart.
Boughner, Nancy. Debbie McWatty Reid.. Keeping In Step in the Ottawa Valley.
Maclnnes, Sheldon. Cape Breton Stepdancing: An Irish or Scottish Tradition?.
Wadden, Nix. Fiddling Flourishing in the Ottawa Valley.
No Author. (no date). Ceilidh Trail School of Celtic Music! (online)
Moore, Maggie. (1995). Scottish Stepping. (online).
Haurins, Dan and Richens, Ann. (no date). Irish Step Dancing. (online).
NOTE: Nothing has been on the net about
"Ottawa Valley" stepdancing, which has become very popular in Canada. Any
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