Community Dances | Bowing Down Home
Community dances featuring fiddling and square sets went year round in rural PEI. In the colder months, most dancing took place at house parties, which in Acadian communities were known as soirées or veillées musiques. In more clement seasons, fiddle-dances were incorporated into larger celebrations such as frolics, weddings and wedding showers, church picnics, and socials. Dances held in the school-houses and community-halls had no special season and took place through the year.
House-dances, or house parties were by far the most common form of community entertainment. A family would clear its kitchen or “front room” (parlor), the fiddler would take a seat in the corner and start to play, and the company would dance square sets into the wee hours. Here is vivid description of Island house parties from Neil MacCannell.
Those who liked to travel might take part in several house parties per week – each in a different district.
Click for a more detailed description of traditional Island House Parties.
Since no square dancing was allowed in Acadian communities during Lent, people tried to get in as much as possible in the weeks leading up to it. Two days before the fast was to begin, a house party would commence after supper, with participants square dancing until dawn. Everyone then gathered the next afternoon for a final round of dancing, which had to cease precisely at midnight with the start of Ash Wednesday.
When house parties were held during the growing season they were often associated with a frolic, or bee. A family needing to plow the fields, dig potatoes or carry out other labor-intensive activities would invite the community in to help. After the work was done, the host family offered up a substantial meal, followed by a night of dancing. Wood-chopping frolics are described by Joseph Doucette and Leo Farrell.
Square dancing was an essential element of the old-time Island wedding. A number of fiddlers from several neighboring districts would generally be on hand, and they would take turns playing. The dancing was often held outdoors on specially constructed platforms known in eastern PEI as dancing saloons and in western PEI as dancing booths. Here are accounts of Island weddings from Emmett Hughes, Attwood O’Connor, and Ervan Rafferty.
In many districts with a strong Scottish heritage, the bride, groom and other members of the wedding party opened the wedding celebration by performing a dance involving elaborate footwork known as the wedding reel.
In the old days, rural communities on PEI were responsible for supporting three local institutions – church, school, and community hall. In lieu of collecting taxes or tithes, most churches or districts would appoint committees to organize benefit events. Alternatively, community events were often organized by local chapters of the Women’s Institute, a Canadian organization founded in 1913 to better the cultural lot of rural inhabitants.
As a result of these activities, there would be church picnics or school picnics in summer, indoor socials in winter, and schoolhouse or hall dances year-round. At nearly all such events, the opportunity to dance square sets was offered as a major incentive for attending. Local fiddlers were usually expected to be on hand for all these fundraisers, and donated their services free of charge.