Like musical ability, dancing talent is often considered to run in families in Newfoundland and Labrador. And, like other traditional performance genres, it is mainly learned by observation, emulation and practice.
The aesthetics of traditional step dancing carry over into couple and group dancing. Step dancing is mostly done solo, and performance is usually improvisational, though there are some common steps. Traditionally, the most admired step dancers are those who are able to dance neatly and lightly. That is, they maintain upright posture with little movement of the arms or torso while keeping their rhythmic footwork directly under the body. The quality of lightness in dance is achieved through subtlety of movement (as opposed to springing or stamping) while keeping the weight off the floor. This light-on-the-feet style of dancing and upright posture is a result of Irish influence. The admiration for light footwork is reflected in the compliment that a person "could dance on a plate."
A dancer who adheres to the aesthetics of light and subtle footwork might be said to dance "close to the floor." On the other hand, a dancer who steps more heavily is said to "plank 'er down." Dancers who were accompanied by fiddle music might tend towards quieter dancing in order to be able to hear the rhythm of the music. However, with the emergence of the accordion as a community dance music instrument, dancers could tread more heavily so that the sounds of their own steps could be heard. This type of dancing puts more emphasis on the dancer's ability to produce rhythmic sound, becoming a virtual human percussion instrument.
Reproduced by permission of Candace Cochrane. From Candace Cochrane, Outport: Reflections from the Newfoundland Coast, edited by Roger Page (Don Mills, Ontario: Addison-Wesley Publishers, ©1981) 127.
While individual step dances are usually performed on the spot in accordance with the aesthetic of neat dancing, couple dances move about the floor more. The most popular traditional couple dance is referred to as the "old fashioned waltz" or "Newfie waltz" and is in ¾ meter, with couples travelling around the room.
Traditional Group Dances
Traditional group dances in Newfoundland include longways, square dance, reel and cotillion. When English folklorist Maud Karpeles visited Newfoundland in the 1950s and documented traditional country dances she noted that many "are apparently danced much the same way in England." (Karpeles 1).
For "longways dances" participants divide into male and female roles and move around and across the set repeating progressive figures. Longways dances seem to have been usurped by quadrille-derived dances, referred to as square dances, during the late 19th century (Quigley, Close 46).
The "lancers" was among the most popular quadrilles (square dance for four couples which usually has five movements) of the 19th century. It was introduced in England in 1817 and eventually developed many local variations from which the Newfoundland versions are probably derived (Quigley, Close 43). The lancers is performed in sets of four couples with several major sections that include such dance figure as the star, basket and thread-the-needle.
The "kissing dance" is another group dance. It actually seems part dance, part game. Maud Karpeles recorded and published two versions of it in 1956. The kissing dance may be a derivation of the cushion dance known in England, in which dancers kneel on a cushion as part of the performance. One variation of the kissing dance begins with one person dancing around the room and then kissing a member of the opposite sex through a handkerchief. He or she then passes the handkerchief to the person kissed and holds the new dancer around the waist. The both then dance around until the person in possession of the handkerchief picks someone to kiss. This is repeated until a line of dancers is formed as the handkerchief gets passed on after each kiss.
While most non-aboriginal dances in Newfoundland and Labrador can be traced to Britain, "running the goat" is a group dance indigenous to the community of Harbour Deep. This set dance has its own traditional tune.
Occasions for Traditional Dancing
Occasions for traditional dancing include weddings, house times (domestic parties), hall times (community events), and weddings. In some communities celebrations of St. Patrick's Day would include dancing either within households or as part of community concerts. And at Christmas time, dancers might take to the floor in kitchens decked off in the disguise of mummers. A line from the very popular "Mummers Song" by the local duo Simani has mummers "plankin' 'er down."
Dancing in its least formal contexts might be found at a community wharf or on a bridge on a fine evening. A sentimental folksong whose narrator strolls through "The Old Flatrock Hills" recalls such bridge dances:
On the Big River Bridge on an evening in June
To enjoy the village dancing by the light of the moon,
To hear the sound of happy laughter and an old time quadrille
In mind I'll still be there on the old Flatrock hills (Maynard 13).