Cape Breton Step Dancing


Cape Breton Step Dancing

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 view.

Early Research

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, p. 9.)

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 Dancing Immigrants

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.

Close to the Floor

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.)

Hugh Trevor Roper

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 dancing.

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 crisis?

Barbara LeBlanc

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 step-dancing.

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.

Cape Breton Dance Activities

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 Celtic heritage.


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.


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Cooper, Derek. "Skye - Great Britain.": Morrison & Gibb Ltd., 1977.
Dance Nova Scotia, ed. "Just Four on the Floor, A Guide to Teaching Traditional Cape Breton Square Sets for Public Schools," 1992.
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.
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"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 University, 1985.
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.

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