Vernacular Sociality and Regional Iconicity in Step Dance

Summary Conclusions


The women dancing in the following example provide a striking contrast that illustrates the general gender distinctions and made earlier. Some women simply stand in their place, at most their may shift their weight from side to side at half the tempo of the men's stepping. This is even clearer in the performance of an older couple demonstrating the Square Dance as it was performed in the Placentia Bay community of Red Island  (MUNFLA, Videotape, 82-092/v. 77).


Video 11. Dancers originating from Red Island, Placantia Bay, relocated to Fox Harbour, perform a square dance. Short section zoom-edited to show stepping. Recorded at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival 1977, “Good Entertainment ‘77”, Memorial University of Newfoundland Educational TV, tape cat. #10 304, 1979.


At certain points these women take a very passive role, merely providing a framework within which the men can dance "to" each other; during traveling sequences, of course, the women do participate more actively. The two men exemplify the very contained the use of space and the lack of free-swinging gestures noted earlier, although their body attitude is not as flexed as that of the Plate Cove dancers.

Another vernacular region in which traditional step dancing continued is the Northern Peninsula. Its West Coast was home to Rufus Guinchard, a fiddler with whom I worked extensively, and who was the primary dance musician of his community for much of his life. At the family observance of his 90th birthday on 6 September 1989 step dancing in the couple format occurred in which the woman, while more active than in the Square Dance, "stepped" by changing supports at half the male tempo, lifted her feet higher, and supported weight on the whole foot, in a manner markedly less intense than the male stepping. .


Video 12. A couple step dances together in Daniel’s Harbour, Northern Pennisula. Excerpts repeated with zoom effect to show stepping. Rufus Guinchard [fiddle] and Jim Payne [guitar] accompany. 1989.


The vernacular regions of Newfoundland represented in these illustrations were settled by both Irish and West-country English people, of both Catholic and Anglican faiths, who had interacted in mixed together while maintaining some with separate identities. It is difficult to distinguish distinct dance tradition between these two groups, although some of the stricter Protestant dominated communities, often of primarily English origin, tended to discourage dancing might employ singing games instead, while strongly Irish settlements were often perceived as more liberal in their enjoyment of music, dance and drink. It is sometimes possible to distinguish the musical repertory, but any particular musician is likely have a mixed repertoire.

Together with step dancing traditions throughout North America, Anglo and Irish Newfoundland shares a largely common repertoire of kinetic elements, among which a few may be characteristically emphasized within particular dance communities or by particular dancers. These units are combined with a range of structural formality depending upon the dancer and the context. What seems to distinguish most of Newfoundland in contrast to other North American regions, is a combination of features including certain tendencies to be seen the use of space, weight overall body attitude, and concomitant preferences among the wider range of kinetic components. This constellation of aesthetic values and expressive meaning is embedded in a shared cultural experience of informants. In the step dancing component of dance tradition extreme emphasis on contrast between male and female is perhaps the most striking feature of Newfoundland dance compared to other regions. Stepping seems to have become an emblem of maleness to be used for personal display as a solo dance, asserted within the context of group figure dances, or to express comradely competition.

English and Irish Newfoundland stepping is marked by its very contained quality. The limbs are kept close to the body and there is often some flexion throughout which contributes to a sense of spatial containment as well. The footwork is rarely far off the floor, movements are small and kept directly under the body. The use of weight is very controlled, seldom passive or released. The lower leg is rarely swung, as in some Appalachian clogging. Expressive intensification is communicated by increased frequency of kinetic variety within an ever smaller spatial envelope, requiring ever more control.

The importance of these features is confirmed by examination of the shared aesthetic concepts reflected in folk speech concerning dance. The most admired step dancers were those described as the "tidiest," and those who did not move all over the floor. Even in a "sidestep "in which the dancer moved quickly, or "cut" across the floor it was considered that the footwork should still be "neat "and kept under the body. In addition to neatness, "lightness," was also much admired.

These two of characteristics were often illustrated by the observation that some dancers were so light on their feet they could dance on a tin, or enamel pan, turned bottom-up on the floor (MUNFLA, Ms. 781-271/pp. 177-181). Short anecdotes of dancing on plates have been reported throughout Newfoundland. The expression "so and is so could dance on a tea plate" indicates lightness on one's feet and the ability to dance without moving from one spot (personal communication from Herbert Halpert May 1981). Another man described this ability by claiming that he could dance on a "thole pin," the wooden peg used as an oarlock (Story and Widdowson 1982, 571), and another informant of mine commented that his father could dance on a two-by-four if need be (MUNFLA, Ms., 81-271/p. 198).

These stories are apparently based on traditional step dancing feats performed by good dancers. The phrase "close to the floor" often used as a shout of encouragement to dancers or in a request for a step dance tune, indicates that dancers, as well as being light and neat were expected to keep their movements relatively small and subtle. The upright postural norm is implied in descriptions of comic dancing which I heard. To get a laugh dancers, often "half shot " or slightly intoxicated, would get themselves "in all kinds of shapes" and "did everything in the world " with their body (MUNFLA, Ms., 79-339/p. 55). It is the upright norm that makes such movements incorrect and humorous. (See the video illustration provided earlier


Video 13. A group of men dance informally, and at times humorously, in Hawke’s Bay, nd. (ca. 1986). Rufus Guinchard (fiddle), Jim Payne (guitar).


The element of display that pervades all step dance performance seems compatible with the emphasis on individuality in style. Each dancer is expected to have their own distinctive step. Indeed in the context of mumming,[vi] characteristic steps are used by the disguised mummers to hide their identity and by the audience to discover it (Chiaramonte 1969, 87). Music and dance performance generally in Newfoundland is one domain of social life in which an otherwise rigidly imposed egalitarianism that restricts self-assertion is suspended and within which rigid social distinctions might be challenged. The assertion of individuality through step dancing is one aspect of this social ethos that is grounded in the relationships of outport economic life. Different vernacular regions, and smaller networks based on community residential and kinship patterns, in Newfoundland displayed preferences for a particular musical repertoire, rhythms and steps. Within a dance community, however, step dance style is used primarily to express sexuality and individuality These two domains of meaning are raised to a dominant level of significance in Newfoundland due to the conditions of social life and the expressive role of dance and music with in this system.

Step dancing has not in Newfoundland become associated with an assertion of all large cultural geographic regional identity, as it has in Cape Breton. The Newfoundland example stands, I think, as illustration of the dynamics of step dancing which existed throughout North America apart from the self-conscious regionalism engendered by changing social conditions that challenge traditional patterns of life.

This situation provides an opportunity for productive comparative research. The processes of stylization can be seen particularly clearly in relation to this dance genre, which is widely dispersed among regions distinguished by differing social conditions that sharing a basic repertoire of movement resources. The distinctive profile of Newfoundland step dancing might profitably be compared to other regions to explore the kinds of manipulation undergone by this medium in response to different social conditions and expressive issues. A thoroughgoing comparative study based on the more complete ethnographic description that is currently available offers the possibility of more fundamental generalizations about these processes.