Vernacular Sociality and Regional Iconicity in Step Dance

Irish and English Newfoundland


The complexity of factors that influence dance culture make it difficult to generalize about the whole of Newfoundland. Communities around St. John's, the provincial capital, for example, have always been more engaged by on-going developments in North American and British popular culture, than the more remote outport settlements. From some bays so-called foreign-going sailors went on schooners to Europe and the Caribbean, while others maintained highly localized in-shore fisheries. Communities located near the Second World War American military bases were strongly influenced by these contacts. Elsewhere radio introduced American music post-war styles and new roads often brought traveling performers. Beginning in the late 60s, television programs served to promulgate mainstream popular music and dance repertoire. In the years of my fieldwork there were some outport areas, however, which remained relatively removed from this mainstreaming trend. At that time in some of those communities, older musical traditions persisted. In yet other areas, such as Placentia Bay, social upheavals such as forced relocation, lead to the self-conscious revitalization of older forms. Such processes have clearly continued. Today one can find a self-consciously revived dance heritage practiced, in part, for tourists; a phenomenon barely beginning during my time there (Pigeon Inlet 2005).

Despite local differences and on-going historical changes there is however an overarching shared experience throughout much of Newfoundland that strongly shaped all of its dance traditions. This is the pattern of outport social life that developed in the context of the merchant fishing economy as practiced in this particularly harsh natural environment (Sider 1986). It is this framework that largely set the parameters for the types of dance events I have previously examined and which has fostered the patterns of meaning with which Newfoundlanders have infused their dance movement.

Step dancing in Newfoundland is performed in the context of group dances, but is also found as distinct genre. At its most formal the step dance is a solo performance for an audience within the largely social context of the dance occasion. It may also take the form of the competition between two dancers, a freely organized group of dancers all stepping together, or a kind of couple dance depending upon the social context.


Video 4. Excerpt from the fourth Bar of the Square Dance, Take Two, in which the men step dance, as led by Lloyd Oldford of Red Cliff Bonavista Bay, at a teaching workshop in St. John’s in March 1978 (MUNFLA, Videotape, 78-364/v. 39, 41, 42).  See Colin Quigley “Folk Dance and Dance Events in Rural Newfoundland,” MA Thesis, Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1981, pp. 88-157, for a detailed discussion and notation of this entire performance.

YouTube video URL:


Video 5. A figure from the “Goat,” a reel, as danced in Harbour Deep, Northern Pennisula; filmed in 1978 A Square Dance, Memorial University Extension Media Services, 1979 (MUNFLA videotape, 80-126) that incorporates men’s stepping.

YouTube video URL:


Video 6. Free-form stepping among a small group of men and women, excerpted from “A Time in Redcliff.” Gerald Quentin [harmonica] Larry Barker [melodeon]. Land and Sea, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (nd but recorded in 1977). (MUNFLA, Videotape, 78-50/v.32)

YouTube video URL:


Video 7. A group of men dance informally, and at times humorously, in Hawke’s Bay, nd. (ca. 1986). Rufus Guinchard (fiddle), Jim Payne (guitar).