Dancing | Bowing Down Home

It’s impossible to get a clear picture of traditional fiddling on Prince Edward Island without also having at least some knowledge about traditional dancing. Nearly all the tunes fiddlers play – jigs, reels, set-tunes, strathspeys, waltzes and so on – were composed for dance accompaniment. Equally important, the rhythms of dancing are deeply embedded in fiddlers’ playing styles – particularly in the way that tunes are accented and phrased. What’s more, no one was considered a good fiddler unless their music was so lively that it made neighbors want to get up and dance.

The Quadrille or Square Set

Throughout most of the period covered by living memory, the square-set or Quadrille has been the dominant form of old-time social dancing on PEI. As originally danced, quadrilles are performed with four couples facing each other in what might be termed a typical square-dance formation.

Both the Quadrille and its cousin the Lancers are divided into discrete segments called figures (in the old days, most local versions on PEI had four figures). Each figure had different steps to it and was accompanied by a different tune. There was always a short pause between figures for dancers and musicians to take a breather.

There was no universal standard on PEI dictating which kinds of tunes worked best with what figures, but each fiddler had his or her own fairly developed notions on the subject.

Largus MacInnis describes in detail the Quadrille once danced in the district of Lakeville.

Since the commercial dance hall era, there has been a trend on PEI towards both a simplification of quadrille steps and a decrease in the number of figures. What’s more, four couple squares have been almost universally superseded by the less space-intensive big circle formation. Here are three video selections that show figures of a big circle quadrille known as the Souris Set, as danced in Lorne Valley.

 

First Figure or "Lead Up": Lorne Valley Dance, 2006 (musicians:"Young Peter" Chaisson, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, pno)

Second Figure or "Swing All Round": Lorne Valley Dance, 2006 (musicians:"Young Peter" Chaisson, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, pno)

Island Square Set, Third Figure or "Ladies in the Center": Lorne Valley Dance, 2006 (musicians:"Young Peter" Chaisson, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, pno)

For other video selections depicting Island big-circle quadrilles, see Events: Ceilidhs and Events: Old-time Dances

Step-Dancing

Step-dancing is a style of solo footwork in which the dancer matches a fiddler's intricate rhythms with precisely integrated combinations of steps. When  the dancer precisely mirrors the rhythms of the music, this interaction is considered a thing of great beauty.

In the old days, step-dancing was most to be encountered as solo demonstrations between square sets at house parties and community dances. Generally each step-dancer had a favourite tune whose rhythms best suited the kind of steps he or she liked to do.

Just as each district once had its complement of fiddlers, each also had its stock of expert solo step-dancers. Good step-dancers were highly prized, and some of them became local celebrities remembered long after their passing.

In terms of esthetics, it was considered extremely important for virtually all activity to be confined to the legs and feet; the older generation also felt strongly that the dancer's feet should barely seem to leave the floor. Dances were performed soft-shoe.

Here are some more stories about old-style step-dancing from Peter Doiron and Dennis Pitre and Vincent Doucette.

The 1970s saw the development of formalized step-dance instruction. Step-dancing became more performance-oriented with higher stepping and more involvement of the upper body and arms. With formal classes and competitions also came the standardization of steps, the use of dancing costumes, and the use of clickers (taps) on the sole of the shoe.

Here are some video selections of Island step-dancing from the 1990s.

 

The Young Acadian Dancers (Les Jeunes Danceuses Acadiennes) at the Atlantic Jamboree, accompanied by Louise Gallant Arsenault

Marlene MacKinnon Gallant at the Monticello Tea Party accompanied by George MacPhee

Kirsten Chaisson step-dances to her father Kenny's fiddling: Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival, 1992

The MacKinnon Reunion Plus Dancers perform at Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival, 1992 (fiddler is Richard Wood)

Helene Arsenault dances to the music of her father Eddy: Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival, 1992 (tune is Princess Reel)

Helene Arsenault Bergeron & Bernadette Leblanc perform at Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival, 1992 (fiddler is Paul MacDonald)

Richard Wood step-dances at Atlantic Jamboree, 1991; fiddler is Louise Arsenault

 

Here are some video clips offering instruction on learning to step-dance.

Marlene MacKinnon Gallant demonstates basic step-dancing techniques

Marlene MacKinnon Gallant demonstates step-dancing techniques for strathspeys

 

Waltzes and Foxtrots

Although waltzes had been popular throughout Britain and much of North America since first decades of the 19th century, they were virtually unheard of in most rural Island communities until the 1940s.

A dance game known as the Paul Jones was once popular on PEI that featured waltzing or waltz tunes as prominent components. Here is a description of one variant.

Fox trots also began making their appearance in Island dance halls in the 1940s. Just about any up-tempo duple-meter pop-tune makes for effective accompaniment, and just about any couples' step that keeps appropriate time also seems to be acceptable. One interesting new development: as square dancing continues to decline on PEI, couples at Island dances can increasingly be seen doing fox-trot steps to jigs, reels and set tunes.

Reels and Breakdowns

In the late 18th Century, Scottish settlers brought with them the Scotch Reel, then the pre-eminent dance of their homeland. The typical set for a Scotch Reel is made up of either three or four dancers, and the dance itself consists of an alternation of two kinds of foot-work: setting steps for keeping time in place and traveling steps for movement. The footwork employed varied from leaping and hopping on village greens to tapping out rhythms with the feet on hard indoor surfaces. The indoor version of the Scotch Reel may well have played an important role in the development of Island step-dancing.

The Eight-hand or Eightsome Reel developed in the mid-19th century. It is performed by four couples in square-formation, who employ setting and traveling steps to negotiate quadrille-like routines. Although the old Eight-handers – known locally as breakdowns – were virtually gone from the Island scene by the 1930s, many older Islanders – such as Hilda MacPhee MacDonald and Largus MacInnis – recall seeing them danced. The footwork employed for breakdowns is always described as "step-dancing."

The last remnant of this dancing tradition on PEI was the Wedding Reel, which once inaugurated Island wedding festivities.

The following video clips show modern-era dancers step-dancing their way through the figures of a square set. These demonstrations probably approximate what the old breakdowns would have looked like.

Women of the extended Chaisson family step-dance through the figures of a square set: Chaisson Family Concert at Rollo Bay, 1991 (fiddler is "Young Peter" Chaisson")

Islanders & Cape Bretoners step-dance their way through the figures of a square set; Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival, 1991 (fiddler is Paul MacDonald)