Silicon Glen, Scotland
> Celtic FAQ
View the Silicon Glen Blog. Contact Us about advertising rates.
Want to move jobs?. New free social marketing tool for job seekers
Sign up now at www.movejobs.com.
This was published at the Cork Cape Breton Festival a couple of years ago.
Prepared by: Sheldon MacInnes, Program Director, Extension &
Community Affairs, University College of Cape Breton.
Writing about Cape Breton step-dance is difficult; in fact, writing about any dance is difficult. Most people enjoy "participating in" fun activities rather than writing about them. Cape Breton step-dancing is an excellent illustration of an activity which one would rather "do". However, at the request of the organising committee for the Eigse Na Laoi, I will attempt to write this short paper on Cape Breton step- dance and its origins. Readers of this paper should simply view the following observations and comments as one person's opinion.
It is obvious to most people familiar with the dance culture of Cape Breton Island that the art of step-dancing is alive and well, and, like so many of our cultural treasures and initiatives, step- dance has an impact on Cape Breton's cultural history and tradition, island identity, social cohesion and the economy. Traditional dance provides an instrument for exploring our unique heritage and may serve as a means to attract outside attention to Cape Breton among students of folklore and history and the general travelling public. Therefore, the debate on the origins of step-dance has some relevance.
In the most extreme parochial sense, some people say step- dance has
its origins somewhere in Cape Breton, i.e. in an area like Inverness
County, or Victoria County. Some people may even argue that it began
in Waterford (as in New Waterford, Cape Breton, not to be mistaken for
Waterford, Ireland.) Documented discussions, however, among elders in
several Cape Breton communities, elders not far removed from the
generation of Scots who emigrated from Scotland, give some credence to
the notion that the dance originated in Scotland. A review of
literature by scholars who have taken the time to research the origins
of different traditional dance forms also gives some validity to this
In 1958, Frank Rhodes, a renowned scholar, visited Cape Breton and
spent considerable time in a number of rural communities chatting with
older people. As a result of his visit and subsequent research, he was
satisfied that his findings supported the notion that Cape Breton
step-dance has its roots in the Highlands of Scotland. Works by other
researchers like George Emerson, Joan and Tom Flett, and Cape Breton's
own Allister MacGillivray would later support Rhodes' view. (Rhodes,
Of particular interest to me, upon reviewing the literature, was
MacGillivray's interview with Flora MacNeil, well known ambassador of
Scottish culture and Gaelic singing especially. Flora, during her
early visits to Cape Breton from Scotland in the late 70's, would
often engage in the debate on the origins of Cape Breton step-dance
always doubting that the dance had its place in Scotland. This kind
of response from the Scots of the "old country" and other strong
advocates of the "old country's" music and Gaelic language may be
typical. In other words, if the proponents of the Scottish culture in
Scotland can not relate to the art of step-dancing, then surely this
form of dance is not part of the Scottish tradition. This may have
been the view that Flora held for some time. However, after many
visits to Cape Breton, and after many discussions about this lively
art form, Flora took it upon herself to do some research in her own
country and as a result, she was satisfied that step-dance was very
much a part of the traditional culture of the Scottish highlands.
(MacGillivray, p. 24.)
The historical facts disclose that in the late 1700's and early
1800's, immigrants from all over the British Isles began to settle in
the eastern half of the island of Cape Breton. Between 1800 and 1820,
immigrants from the Scottish Highlands began to settle the western
side of the Island between Inverness County and the Grand Narrows
region. (Dunn, p. 19.) Among other things, these settlers handed
down to their children the memories of life in Scotland and the early
days of life on the Island of Cape Breton. MacGillivray's research
states that the publication, "A History of Inverness County" records
this information in detail, including stories and recollections about
the art of step-dancing.
"A History of Inverness" describes, for example, Alan MacMillan who
was born in Lochabar, Scotland in 1820. He settled in Rear Little
Judique in Inverness, Cape Breton. Alan MacMillan was a celebrated
dancer. After his arrival to the Judique community, he established
dance classes in Judique and Cregnish. From the same source, I learned
of Lauchlin MacDougall who settled in Broad Cove Banks and like his
father, as well as his son, was a noted dancer. In these accounts, I
learned that the style and the technique of the dance were similar to
the step-dance of today. (MacGillivray, p. 24.)
The early styles of step-dance, like today, featured the art of solo dancing. Subsequently, early formations known as the four-handed reels and the eight-handed reels evolved. In the 1920's and the 1930's, Cape Breton captured a unique interest in various square dance styles from Europe. Activity at the Gaelic College, beginning in 1939, emphasised the more popular forms of dance including Scottish Country Dancing which is now associated with Scotland. The latter included many of the characteristics which were very much a part of any number of dance styles found outside the Scottish tradition at that time.
The foregoing information reflects a preoccupation with the idea that
the step-dance as it is known in Cape Breton has its origins in the
highlands of Scotland. Cape Bretoners believe that the Gaelic language
of the Island has a place in the Outer Hebrides as is the case with
the Scottish violin music of Cape Breton. It should not come as any
surprise, therefore, that dance enthusiasts also want to be part of
this linkage with the "old country" despite the fact that many of the
traditional qualities of the Cape Breton music, song and dance are no
longer found in Scotland today. (MacMaster Video.)
It is interesting to note, however, that sometimes in researching the place of culture and traditional art forms in society, one can fall victim to 'inventing tradition.' Perhaps Cape Bretoners indulge in this useful avocation from time to time. This is an issue which requires a series of further reflection and research and cannot be dealt with adequately in a brief paper. However, let me explore the matter briefly in the context of traditional Cape Breton step-dance.
The work by Colin Quigley, well known researcher of traditional dance,
offers some interesting information. Quigley's research culminates in
his publication "Close to the Floor". Sound familiar? Of course! It is
the title of a traditional tune often played by Cape Breton fiddlers
for dancers. The tune often receives the same response as the lively
strathspey, "Welcome to Your Feet Again" which is a favourite in Cape
Breton. Quigley's publication describes, in detail, the formal
structuring of steps commonly used by step-dancers. He describes the
notion that the steps are presented in intricate detail and move in
rhythm to select music including jigs and reels. He describes the body
posture of the dancer with the emphasis on movement from the knees
down while the upper portion of the body is more relaxed and subtle
and not to be a distraction from the footwork. The dancer's main
objective is to gain equal co- ordination of both legs and feet, a
basic requirement of a good Cape Breton step-dancer.
According to Quigley, the art of good step-dancing requires a great deal of individual style as well as an inclusion of some regional variety in styles. Quigley learned that styles may differ in body stance, arm use or in characteristic ways of using the feet. He explains how most traditional step- dancers strive to achieve a light and near-silent dance style. This describes two great Cape Breton step-dancers rather nicely: Harvey Beaton and Willie Fraser.
Quigley goes on to describe how traditional step-dancers aspire to the
music played. Quigley could be describing step-dancing as it is known
in Cape Breton. But he is not! He is sharing his findings of
traditional step-dance in the province of Newfoundland which is
situated on the extreme East Coast of Atlantic Canada. His description
of the solo step-dance in Newfoundland appears to describe what is now
known as the Cape Breton step-dance. Quigley's research outlines the
similarity between Newfoundland step-dance and Irish step-dance in
terms of technique and the terminology applied to both dance and
music. Quigley makes a direct link between the traditional step-dance
of Newfoundland and Ireland. Cape Breton Island does not enter the
equation in Quigley's research. It is highly likely that Quigley had
never heard of Cape Breton step-dance while he was researching in
Newfoundland. (Quigley, pp. 54 - 83.)
Quigley may not change people's minds about the origins of Cape Breton
step-dance, unless people have spent some time reading the essays of
historian Hugh Trevor Roper. Trevor Roper presents an interesting case
in his essay "Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of
Scotland". He writes out of particular concern for the place of the
tartan image among the Scots, but his work may have some implication
for how people view other aspects of the culture like music and
As a result of his efforts, Roper has given cause for Highland
Scottish culture enthusiasts to do some serious reflection on the
origin of Highland Scottish tradition. Trevor Roper in his research
suggests that the Highlands of Scotland were culturally deprived
approaching the 16'th century and that the literature of the Highland
Scot was a crude echo of the Irish literature. Trevor Roper claims
also that the bards of the Scottish chieftains came from Ireland, and
that the Scottish bards were the "rubbish of Ireland" who were
periodically cleared from Ireland and deposited in that convenient
wasteland, Scotland. Also, according to Trevor Roper, while Ireland
remained culturally an historic nation, Scotland developed, at best,
as its poor sister. He further claims that Scotland did not develop an
independent Scottish tradition. (Roper, pp. 271 - 293.) Is it possible
that if Cape Bretoners were to pursue this matter in any serious
manner, that Cape Bretoners might plummet into some kind of identity
It might well be that this Cape Breton dance, "step-dance," does not
belong to the Scots after all. It might be an extension of the Irish
tradition. Barbara LeBlanc, a native Cape Bretoner is currently
conducting traditional dance research at graduate school. In her 1986
report on "Dance in Inverness County," for the Museum of Man in
Ottawa, she cites examples of conversations with members of the Cape
Breton Irish community who say that step-dance in Cape Breton is an
Irish dance. (LeBlanc, p. 13.) Some day, someone might invite Colin
Quigley and Barbara LeBlanc to do a comparative analysis between Cape
Breton step-dancing and the Newfoundland-Irish traditional
Clearly, the cultural expressions of Cape Breton Island are well
entrenched in a global sense regardless of their traditional origins.
The traditional music, song and dance, perceived by people as having
evolved on the Island, are part of the unique Cape Breton identity.
Generally speaking, rightly or wrongly, the step-dance activity of
Cape Breton Island is such that it is recognised world-wide as being
unique to Cape Breton. To illustrate the level of interest in
traditional dance locally and to recognise its real and potential
impact, one needs only to visit any number of select communities in
Cape Breton and, in particular, rural communities like lona,
Washabuck, Glendale and, of course, Glencoe Mills.
When one mentions the word "Glencoe" among the Scots outside of
Scotland, one would envision the notorious exchange between the
Campbells and the MacDonalds of Glencoe. The Scots in the Highlands of
Scotland, however, think of the ship "the Glencoe" that sailed the
waters of Scotland up to 1935 and served as a means of travel,
industry and commerce. (Cooper, p. 126.) In Cape Breton, however,
people know Glencoe to be a tiny rural community in Inverness County,
which boasts, among other things, of beautiful landscape, pastoral
farm settings, a church, a sandy road, and a small parish hall. The
hall, to many people, justifies the pride of Glencoe as it
accommodates one of the more popular dance sites on Cape Breton
Island. The "Glencoe dances" (as they are commonly known) have become
renowned to many people in various parts of the world. In addition to
many local activities promoting the dance tradition, Cape Breton step-
dancers are frequently called upon to demonstrate their unique dance
styles and techniques beyond the physical boundaries of Cape Breton
Island. Through the medium of television, in particular, and personal
appearances at major national and international festivals and
workshops, Cape Breton step-dancers are often seen on regional and
national programs in Canada as well as in the United States and
Britain (Scotland). There is a history of interest in Cape Breton
step-dance among the general public who already have an interest in
Whether the origins of Cape Breton step-dance are within Cape Breton itself or Scotland or Ireland or all three, the step-dance is a rich component of the Cape Breton heritage. Furthermore, Cape Breton step-dancers are perfectionists in their own right. In any initiatives they engage, they are truly professional and committed to the promotion and preservation of traditional step-dancing. Their dancing is as important to them as music is important to the Cape Breton fiddler. In this sense, they truly complement the efforts of Cape Breton's greatest fiddlers. Allister MacGillivary's book, "Cape Breton Ceilidh," highlights in excellent detail the stories, anecdotes and traditions of many of Cape Breton's outstanding step-dancers.
Brown, Richard. "A History of Cape Breton Island."
Belleville, Ontario: Mika Publishing Co., 1979.
Cooper, Derek. "Skye - Great Britain.": Morrison & Gibb
Dance Nova Scotia, ed. "Just Four on the Floor, A Guide to
Teaching Traditional Cape Breton Square Sets for Public
Dunn, Chades W. "Highland Settler: A Portrait of the
Scottish Gael in Nova Scotia." Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1953
Emmerson, George S. "Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A
History of Scottish Dance Music." Montreal: McGill Queens
University Press, 1971.
Flett, J.P. and T.M. Flett. "Traditional Dancing in
Scotland." London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.
Garrison, Virginia. "Traditional and Non-Traditional
Teaching and Learning Practices in Folk Music: An
Ethnographic Field Study of Cape Breton Fiddling." Ph.D. Thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1985
Hunter, James. "The Fiddle Music of Scotland Edinburgh."
T.A. Constable Ltd., 1979.
LeBlanc, Barbara and L. Sadousky. "Inverness County Dance
Project." Museum of Man, Ottawa, 1986.
MacDonald, Keith Norman. "The Skye Collection." 1987.
MacGillivray, Allister. "A Cape Breton Ceilidh". Sydney,
Nova Scotia: Sea Cape Music Limited, 1988.
MacInnes, Sheldon, "Folk Society in An Urban Setting." M.A.
Thesis (unpublished). Detroit, Michigan: The Merrill Palmer
Institute (Wayne State University), 1977.
"MacMaster Video," produced by Peter Murphy, Seabright
Productions, Antigonish, 1992.
Quigley, Colin. "Close to the Floor: Folk Dance in
Newfoundland." St. John's, Newfoundland: Memorial
Rhodes, Frank. Appendix. "Dancing in Cape Breton Island,
Nova Scotia - Traditional Dancing in Scotland." By J. P. Flett and T. M. Flett. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964, pp. 267 285.
Celtic FAQ > FAQ Contents > Step Dancing > Top
Q-HTML V3.4 by Craig Cockburn created this page on 13-Jun-2012 at 22:51:54