Vernacular Sociality and Regional Iconicity in Step Dance

Gendered style


There is a pervasive contrast between male and female dance practice. In general, men take a more active role and perform energetic stepping throughout the group dances while the women may simply stand in their places.


Video 8. Introduction to Fogo Island., National Film Board of Canada #106B 0168 065, nd [ca. 1969] illustrates very clearly the non-stepping women.

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Women seldom performed solo step dances. It was more likely to find the occasional woman who would step dance in a less formal manner, coupled with a man or in a group context, but even then it seems that women usually danced at halftime tempo and in an accompanying role. Informants expressed the attitude that while it was expected that men could dance, "it was sort of a bonus of the woman was an especially good dancer" (MUNFLA Ms. 73-89/p.109). Even those women so identified to me, however, performed more rudimentary steps compared to those of the men.

A characteristic use of the body and some aesthetic norms underlie a range of individual variation. Dancers generally perform in an upright posture with little torso movement. Movement articulation focuses almost entirely on the feet with which the dancers perform complex stepping patterns, tapping out the musical rhythms. The feet are kept directly under the body. The arms and hands hang naturally at the dancer’s sides or may be slightly raised with a flexed elbow. Such arm and hand gestures are not considered a significant part of the dance.

Broadly speaking step dance structure consists of a variety of kinetic elements, primarily weight changes between the heels and balls of the feet. Gestural tap and brush movements, again with the heel or ball of the foot and a more forceful stamping of the whole foot. These may be placed around the body in various ways. The significant positions are defined in relation to the body axes: generally slightly in front, diagonally front, to the side, diagonally back behind. Some movements incorporate leg and foot rotations.

These elements are combined into step units of different lengths to incorporate one or more kinetic elements into repeatable patterns. While some dancers express an ideal of formal structuring in which "each foot is used the same, " that is, each step sequence is repeated in a symmetrical mirror image, few adhere to this ideal in practice, and most dancers the seem to think principally of coordinating the structure their steps to the musical phrases. The solo Step Dance, performed in a more presentational manner for an audience, is likely to tend toward the more formally structured end of the spectrum while men's stepping in set dances seems much less formalized. Particular dancers favor a smaller selection from the whole range of available elements and employ a characteristic step, often identified as their step by name, and to which they consistently return after using a few others in a punctuating manner.