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
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.
|Step dancing, Conche, ca. 1980.
Pictured are Bernard and Dennis Byrne.
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,
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 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."
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,
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
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 include weddings, house times
(domestic parties), and hall times (community events). 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
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).
© 2001, Lara Maynard