Vernacular Sociality and Regional Iconicity in Step Dance

Individual style in Red Cliff, Bonavista Bay

 

Since much of the preceeding description is widely applicable throughout North America, Ireland and the British Isles, a closer examination of several dancers is needed to provide a finer grained image of step dancing in Newfoundland. I have documented dance traditions in several vernacular regions. Within each region particular settlements form quite distinct social groupings, which may be made up in turn of quite separate family networks. I spent nearly a month in Plate Cove West, Bonavista Bay, for example, among the Keoughs and their relations before I met families from the "other side of the harbor " in the natural course of social life, and had similar experiences elsewhere.

The communities of Plate Cove, Open Hall, Red Cliff and Tickle Cove on Bonavista Bay South constitute one such area, in which much my fieldwork was conducted. Their dancing was recorded by CBC television in 1976 for the program Land and Sea (MUNFLA, Videotape, 78-50/v.32). Gerald Quentin was both one of the area's dance musicians and a performer of the solo step dance. In the brief performance shown one can see that he characteristically supports his weight on the ball of his foot, keeping the heel slightly lifted. His preferred steps consist of rapid alterations of weight between the ball and/or heel of the foot, stepping directly under the body on the accented (down) beat and gesturing slightly to the front or side.

 


Video 9. Gerald Quentin dances the “double.” Zoom-edited to better show the stepping. CBC television in 1976 for the program Land and Sea (MUNFLA, Videotape, 78-50/v.32)

YouTube video URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dq8eCkd6TQA

 

When performing, he would begin with simple steps and progress to the more complicated, which were often those which sounded more subdivisions of the beat or increased the parts of the foot used in each step, creating more movement density. In a culminating step the weight is transferred from one ball to the other while quickly striking the heel of that foot before taking the weight in rapid repetition. This requires more "lift" off the ball of the foot to sustain the weight off the ground for that short moment longer than in easier steps; something one feels as an increased energy in the dancing. None of these steps, however, are unique to Newfoundland. This dancer's distinctiveness is to be found more in a sense of control, and a "held "quality which is conveyed by his body attitude, which is slightly flexed throughout, the restriction of movement to a very small "near reach" space around the body, and a lack of release in the lower weight and foot gestures.

Lloyd Oldford, another dancer from the same community is shown in this film dancing in the Square Dance. While performing within the same broad parameters outlined above, he dances quite differently than Gerald. He tends to maintain his weight more towards the back and to gesture diagonally to the side with slightly outwardly rotated legs. He favors an energetic step, again transferring weight from one foot to the other while interpolating a gestural heel-strike of the floor, as in Gerald's duple time Step Dance above. Lloyd dances to the compound time meter generally used to accompany figure dances using a triplet rhythm. After taking his weight quickly on the ball of his foot at the final third beat, he drops back onto the whole first foot rather than springing back as in Gerald's step. The effect is a persistent pounding of the first beat of the triplet marking the pulse of the music with an insistent impulsive drive. Other dancers in this excerpt use even simpler steps and even more forceful stamping.

 


Video 10. Excerpt zoom-edited to show Lloyd Oldford’s stepping more clearly. CBC Land and Sea 1976. (MUNFLA, Videotape, 78-50/v.32)

YouTube video URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmdLYwPBSRA

 

The differences between these two examples reflect the shifting context, from solo Step Dance performance with its heightened focus on aesthetic valuation, to the more social figure dance in which the juxtaposition of male and female movement statements is emphasized. Some informants noted a shift from light dancing to heavier more forceful stamping between these two generations that may also be at work in this example. Surely there are individual idiosyncratic contrasts here as well.