Vernacular Sociality and Regional Iconicity in Step Dance



Both in Ireland and regions of North America vernacular traditional dance includes the percussive use of feet on the floor by individual dancers that is generally called step dancing.[i] Performance of this widely diffused way of dancing is socially organized in many different ways. Individuals may perform step dancing singly or in groups. It may be thought of as a dance in and of itself or be found in the context of a group figure dance. Step dancing is sometimes improvised, sometimes choreographed before a performance, sometimes codified as a system and formally structured in its performance and sometimes not. Step dancing throughout its range often shares many kinetic elements, that is, the little bits of movement that make up the action of dancing: a tap of the toe, a drop of the heel, a change of weight from one foot to the other. It even shares many kinemic units, that is, natively recognizable coherent groupings of elements.[ii] These are usually called, not surprisingly, steps.

One of the most common ways of characterizing variation in this idiom is in terms of regional style. Popular literature and media publications generally treat step dancing in this way: as Cape Breton step dancing; Appalachian clogging; Ottawa Valley step dancing; and of course, Irish step dancing. In the Irish context the high profile achieved by the “nationalized” schooled step dance idiom has led to a reaction that acknowledges a wider variety of less codified regional vernacular idioms. While seldom nationalized in North America, step dancing is usually seen and presented as regional in style.

In Close the Floor (1985) I examined traditional dance and dance events in rural Newfoundland. That study focused on the so-called figure dances that are performed by groups in various formations rather than on the percussive stepping also found there, partly because at the time I conducted this field research (1978-80) visual documentation adequate to examination of stepping was not available nor easily made on a student budget. Later, I made recordings on a return research summer project to Newfoundland in 1989. [iii] Although that video-8 system has now also become obsolete, it was much better suited to my needs than the SONY PortaPac reel-to-reel machine of earlier years and significantlty augmented my step dance data. For the following discussion I have pulled together a variety of other recorded step dancing that I could locate in other film projects, such as concert performances, profiles of the musicians and their communities, as well as instructional videos. In recent years, as video recording technology continued to advance, much more of such documentation became available.[iv]

It is apparent from even such a desultory database that step dancing is a widely shared dance idiom. From a repertoire of movement resources and possibilities, some constellations crystallize and become seen as emblematic of regional identities. Some of these "styles," are widely familiar, while others such as that found among the Metis of central Canada perhaps less so (CITE Medicine Fiddle). Looking back over the 30 years during which I have been observing step dance in North America, I see evidence that the variety that is characteristic of living vernacular tradition has persisted in social dance practice, and that regional styles seem to coalesce around influential dancers who achieve prominence beyond their immediate locale, usually in concert with a surge in popular interest. Such mass popularizations are a complex phenomenon in their own right in which media attention, exposure, and commercial exploitation, interact with cultural politics and ideologies to create this effect.

A search of the web, for example (nowadays always a good place to look for a measure of popular awareness of a cultural phenomenon) reveals the example of a recent, almost sudden, burgeoning of interest in step dancing as practiced in Cape Breton (MacEachen 2003). In discussions regarding the appropriateness of the schooled Irish step-dancing to adult recreation, one finds it frequently mentioned as a possible alternative that might be better suited to provide the sociality that adult enthusiasts are looking for from their dancing. The music industry has played an important role in this most recent exposure and concomitant surge of interest (Feintuch 2004). A "maritime" regional sound has had commercial success in Canada and one iconic sound element in its mix has been the fiddle. A few younger fiddlers have been building careers in the popular world-music market and dance has been to some extent "brought along" by them to a wider popular awareness (Gurstein 1999; Mead 1999).[v] Also as usual with such revivals of traditional musics, a few individuals emerge as both iconic and authoritative. In Cape Breton, fiddler Buddy MacMaster and dancer Harvey Beaton are perceived in this way. Buddy has made several commercial recordings, including a recent one from Rounder that is particularly well documented (McMaster 2003). He is also the subject of the film that includes step dance sequences (Murphy nd.). The identity discourse to which the dance is appropriated here is a powerful one of Scottish identity and the film shows Harvey teaching dance in Scotland.

It is my thesis that in this and other documented regional “styles” of step dance one sees examples of a shared dance idiom that BECOMES identified as a regional style only when particular conditions are ripe for it. This stylization is often accomplished by a selection of certain movement features based on the dancing of a very few key performers. The selectivity of regional stylization may be so unrepresentative in fact that its regional character might be said to have been "invented."

Broad characterization of any large cultural geographic regions would seem to dissolve into complexity as the focus sharpens to reveal more detail. At smaller scales of collective identification dance style is associated more with social networks such as family or immediate community. On the port-au-port peninsula of Newfoundland the Cornect brothers from Mainland were well known as a musical family, and so on to the Formangers and Benoits at the other end of the coastal region. A tendency to identify style in terms of region obscures the often quite large range of variation within that region as well as the high degree of similarity that exists across these boundaries.

My most extensive fieldwork has been in Newfoundland and I turn there now for further confirmation of this argument. A “Newfoundland step dance style” never really emerged and coalesced, although several distinctive features of individual practice vied, in a sense, for pride of place as markers of a Newfoundland dancing.

Many of the kinetic elements and larger step units documented in the preceding sources are also to be seen in Newfoundland. Such juxtaposition draws attention to the need to investigate in what dimensions of dance movement stylization is manifest. More systematic comparative analysis would help to clarify the traditional vernacular movement resources which have been molded in response to different conditions throughout North America, such as the interaction with African-American culture in the South, the development of contests and other performance settings in many regions, as well as more pervasive and underlying differences in social and economic organizations such as those I believe are represented by the Newfoundland case. A goal is I see it, however, is not stylistic identification for its own sake, not merely classification of the complexity we know is there, but rather an enrichment of our understanding of processes by which stylization occurs, shedding light on how dancers manipulate their traditional resources to make dance meaningful in terms of their experience.