Traces of Old World Culture in New Scotland – Jigs and Reels

One of the best things about visiting Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia is experiencing cultural traditions that were transferred from Scotland to the new world with the emigrant wave of the 18th and 19th centuries. This is especially true since some of these same things have all but died out in Scotland itself.   Although I’ve been coming to the island every summer for the last 15 years, I have enjoyed experiencing these now familiar activities through the lens of the GreatScot! blog.

Among my favorite traditions are the almost daily Celtic Square Dances that are held in Parish Halls and Recreation Centers around the island. Almost any night of the week you can find a dance somewhere—Mondays are Brook Village, Thursdays are Glencoe Mills and West Mabou on Saturday nights. There are groups of people ‘from away’—as Cape Bretoners call tourists— and locals as well, who spend the week going from dance to dance to enjoy the fiddle music and take to the floor for a set or two. This year, a new community has joined the weekly line-up as Creignish has added a dance on Tuesday nights.  No one on the island seems to know quite how these dances migrated from Scotland, but they are common all around Cape Breton and even on mainland Nova Scotia.

Cape Breton Square Dances usually start fairly late by modern standards—generally after 9:30 pm. This is because in the days of farm laborers and fishermen, no one had time for a dance until after a full days work was finished. The dances also follow a fairly regular pattern, although the origins are somewhat shrouded by time. First the fiddler and the piano accompanist take the stage for a bit of a warm-up, then they launch into the first jig and couples take to the floor. Often fiddlers will trade-off playing as one tires and another takes over. Towards the end of the evening, when the dancers are tired as well, often the floor will clear and individuals will take the floor one at a time for a spot of step dancing. This is the chance for the good dancers in the crowd to kick up their heels and show off for a bit.

In the area of Cape Breton where I spend the most time (the western or Sunset side of the island), the dances consist of 3 figures danced to the tunes of two jigs and a reel and are known as Inverness County Square Sets. Couples form squares (which are often really more round) to perform the figures. Jigs are tunes that are faster paced and in addition to being used for the 1st and 2nd figures of the square dancing, are also often used for solo or small group step dancing.

I took some pictures and some short videos from the Creignish dance to give you a taste of what a traditional Cape Breton Square Dance is like. The musicians for this evening are Wendy MacIsaac on the fiddle and Mac Morin on piano. Notice that all ages and skill levels take part and that native Cape Bretoners are really good about helping people from away join in and learn what to do.

First Figure – Jig

1. All join hands forward and back doing the Mabou Shuffle
2. Turn to your corner and dance
3. All join hands forward and back doing the Mabou Shuffle
4. Turn to your corner and dance
5. All join hands forward and back doing the Mabou Shuffle
6. Turn to your corner and dance
7. All join hands forward and back doing the Mabou Shuffle
8. Turn to your corner and dance
9. All join hands forward and back doing the Mabou Shuffle
That’ll be it–That’ll be all!

Second Figure – Jig

1. All join hands forward and back doing the Mabou Shuffle
2. Dance with your partner
3. Promenade around to the right
4. All join hands forward and back doing the Mabou Shuffle
5. Dance with your partner
6. Promenade around to the left
7. All join hands forward and back doing the Mabou Shuffle
8. Dance with your partner
9. Promenade around to the right
10. All join hands forward and back doing the Mabou Shuffle
11. Dance with your partner
12. Promenade around to the left
13. All join hands forward and back doing the Mabou Shuffle
That’ll be it–That’ll be all!

Third Figure – Reel

1. Right hand to your partner, half grand chain
2. Swing your partner
3. Left hand to your corner partner, half grand chain back to home
4. Promenade to the right
5. One couple takes the lead and promenades to face the music
6. This couple turns toward each other (lady on the left, gent on the
right, with gent’s left hand on the small of the lady’s back and his
right hand holding his lady’s right hand) then they turn to face the
lineup and split the couples down the middle.
7. When the head couple has split the couples, they cast off and
return to the music with the men following the men and the women
following the women.
8. Gents on one side and ladies on the other side, forward and back
a few times and show your steps.
9. Join with your partner and do a simple two step or show your
footwork. Everyone dances back to their home place & makes a
circle.
10. Right hand to your partner, half grand chain, swing your partner
11. Left hand to your corner partner, half grand chain back to home
12. Promenade to the right
13. Another couple OR the same couple as before promenades to
face the back of the hall.
14. Repeat number 6.
15. Repeat number 7 returning to the back of the hall.
16. Repeat numbers 8 & 9
17. Repeat steps 1 through 16
18. Right hand to your partner and do a grand chain (passing your
partner by and going all the way to home.
19. All join hands and show your steps!
That’ll be it and that’ll be all

Stay tuned…

Coming soon is a post about my visit to the Cape Breton Highland Village Museum—where I met a blacksmith named Jamie—as well as one on my upcoming visit to The Gaelic College for a Great Kilt demonstration and the opportunity to partake in a milling frolic.

 

 

7 thoughts on “Traces of Old World Culture in New Scotland – Jigs and Reels

    • Wait until you see the ones I took of Natalie MacMaster, Donnell and their kids last night! It was a special show just because she was glad to be home.

      • omg! i can hardly wait. You know how crazy I am about Natalie and Connell. Of their six kids, how many are performing now? Or do they have seven by now? 🙂

      • Nope. Still at 6. We saw 4 perform. Mary Frances, Michael and Claire all fiddled (Claire for the first time in public). All three plus Julia also danced. Alec wasn’t having such a good night. He was a bit cranky but baby Sadie slept through the entire thing. She is such a sweet angel.

      • I guess it’s to be expected that at least one of the children would have an off night once in a while. Still cute though. Sadie must be VERY used to the music if she was able to sleep through it. 🙂 Looking forward to your videos.

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