Close to the Floor: Cape Breton Stepdancing by Harvey Beaton
Whether it is a solo performance on a concert stage or an intricate part of a set dance at a local hall, stepdancing is an artistic expression older than our highland ancestors themselves who introduced the tradition to the new world in the eighteenth century. Although stepdancing has evolved somewhat, it has withstood the test of time and is a popular form on Cape Breton Island and indeed many parts of the mainland of Nova Scotia.
Stepdancing is usually passed on in the home and some families are renowned for having generations of outstanding dancers. One such family is the late Maggie Ann Beaton's of Southwest Mabou. Maggie Ann learned from her father, Donald Cameron, and she passed the dancing on to her daughter, Minnie, who in turn taught her daughter, Natalie MacMaster. There are, however, records of ‘dance masters’ who emigrated from Scotland and passed on their art form to their descendants and others who taught stepdancing in various communities in Cape Breton as early as 1790.
In fact, Maggie Ann Beaton, in Allister MacGillivray's A Cape Breton Ceilidh, talks about her father having attended a dancing school in Mabou. More recently, stepdancing classes began to sprout in many communities in Cape Breton and North Eastern Nova Scotia. In the early 1970's, for example, there were classes being taught by such notable dancers as Margaret Dunn, Minnie MacMaster, and Fr. Eugene Morris. As people become more interested in their Scottish roots and others are identifying with the international focus on all that is Celtic, the demand for stepdancing classes is on the rise.
In metro Halifax, for example, there are at least half a dozen dance classes being offered throughout the year. While there are steps which are common to all dancers, and steps which are unique to particular dancers, dancing styles are as individual as the dancer. In concert situations few dancers have a set routine, and those who do are often in a synchronized performance with one or more people. Most dancing is individual and the performers are more likely to dance ‘off the cuff,’ often allowing the music of the fiddler to determine the steps. It is generally accepted, however, that Cape Breton style stepdancers dance with their arms held loosely by their sides and use a small space on the floor.
With summer fast approaching, the outdoor festivals in Cape Breton will soon be in full swing, and the square dances will become more plentiful. As the lively strathspeys, jigs and reels echo throughout the village halls and concert stages, one can be sure to relish in the delightful steps of the stepdancers whose feet speak loudly of the appreciation of their heritage.
Harvey Beaton, raised in Port Hastings, began stepdancing at age 14. He is in great demand as an instructor throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe.