Folk Dance

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has a rich history of folk dance. With the predominance of British and Irish settlers in the province, it seems inevitable that the dances found in the province bear a striking similarity to those in the homelands of the early settlers. This by no means suggests that the dances have remained stagnant. Indeed, while retaining many of the characteristics found in Irish and English folk dances, the dances of Newfoundland and Labrador have evolved to become a unique part of the cultural and social history of the province. Most of the folk dances of Newfoundland and Labrador grew from nineteenth-century folk dances of Ireland and Britain. One of the most striking similarities of the province's dances with the older dances of Britain and Ireland resides in the physical traits of the dancer. Colin Quigley describes this in Close to the Floor: Folk Dance in Newfoundland as follows:

Dancers generally perform in an upright posture with little torso movement. Movement articulation is primarily in the legs and feet, with which the dancers perform complex stepping, tapping out the musical rhythms with their heels and toes. The feet are, nonetheless, usually 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. Arm and hand gesture are not considered a significant part of the dance, and too much movement of them is usually thought to detract from the performance (Quigley 19).

There are, however, distinctive features that belong to the province's folk dances. Nowadays, the accordion is as likely to be an accompaniment for the dances as is a fiddle. The classification of the music into single, double and triple time, rather than by the name of a particular dance, marks another difference. Unlike British and Irish dancers, who dance mostly on the balls of their feet, dancers in Newfoundland use both their heels and toes while dancing. Furthermore, the number of dancers and their gender mark other differences between the folk dances of Newfoundland and Labrador and those of Britain and Ireland. But differences do not only exist between the dances of the old world and the new. The relative isolation of regions created a climate in which regional differences in dance could emerge and survive.

Dances performed throughout the province exhibited a great variety. The Square Dance, the Lancers, the Step Dance, the Reel, the Sir Roger, and the Kissing Dance were among the most popular and widely known. These dances would be performed at a wide variety of venues and at vastly different events-from the formal to the very informal. Whether held at halls, garden parties, holiday celebrations, community festivals, houses, weddings, mummings, or even at bridges or wharves, the dances served as one of the major forms of social entertainment and interaction.

With the introduction of popular social dances found throughout the rest of the world, the wide-spread knowledge of these dances has slowly dissipated. With the advent of war and the presence of military bases in the province, as well as increased exposure through the media to the more "sophisticated" contemporary dances, folk dances decreased in popularity. Young people no longer learned the dances that had been an integral part of the province's social life. While there are still individuals and groups who perform these dances, for the most part they are no longer passed on from one generation to the next like they once were but survive largely through folk-dance groups. Today, many other ethnic dancers, along with the folk dancers of Newfoundland and Labrador, appear at folk festivals, community festivals and concerts, where these groups raise the public awareness of these dances and the importance of their preservation.

© 1998, G. Elton

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