Discovering the Cape Breton Inverness County Dance Project – Heather Sparling

You’ve probably never heard of the Cape Breton Inverness County Dance Project. That’s because it’s been all but inaccessible since it was created in 1986. Carmelle Bégin, an ethnomusicologist who was working for the Museum of History in Ottawa (known as the Museum of Man at the time), commissioned Barbara Leblanc, a bilingual Cape Bretoner, to research vernacular dance traditions of Inverness County in Cape Breton. The collected materials were housed at the Museum of History so that anyone interested had to make the trek to Ottawa to access them. Until now. Thanks to a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC – go to website) for NAFCo 2015, we were able to have all of the materials digitized and made freely available online through the Beaton Institute’s online archive (beatoninstitute.com/inverness-county-dance-traditions).

Google map of Inverness Co.

Back in 1986, Barbara Leblanc, together with her friend Laura Sadowsky, proceeded to interview anyone and everyone she could find who was connected in any way with traditional dance, including step dancers, square dancers, square dance callers, fiddlers, and pianists. Since Inverness County includes communities with both strong Scottish and French Acadian heritage, they interviewed people in both English and French. They did not limit themselves to interviews with elderly tradition bearers but instead interviewed people of all ages. They recorded interviews, transcribed them, and video recorded solo step dancing and square dances. This collection is very special because it documents the shift from dancing “Scotch Fours” at house parties to dancing square dances at village halls. It documents the kinds of square dances that were danced (and how they evolved), the rise and decline of the square dance caller, the revival of Scotch Fours, dances at box socials and parish picnics, the similarities and differences in music and dance between the Acadian and Scottish communities, and the role of dance musicians in various contexts.

Leblanc and Sadowsky managed to interview some quite prominent people, including Margaret Ann Beaton (grandmother of Natalie MacMaster), Archie Neil Chisholm, John Morris Rankin, Buddy MacMaster, Anselme (Sam) Joseph Cormier, Willie Fraser, Jerry Holland, and Lee Cremo (who was not from Inveness County, but Leblanc and Sadowsky wanted Mi’kmaw representation in their project). All of these materials have now been digitized.

Video of step dancers at Doryman Tavern in Cheticamp, Donnie Leblanc (fiddler):

The best way to introduce you to the colour and variety of the Inverness County Dance Project is to provide you with just a small selection of interview excerpts:

“The fiddler was looked up to in the community. I’m really sincere about that because they were so scarce at that time and it was nothing for me in my day to go down to Petit Etang to play for a wedding because there was only one in Cheticamp – his name was Placide Odo and he was in great demand. But we’d travel 40 or 50 miles – they’d come for us with cars to take us and you were treated extremely well. My first drink I took at a house party when I was 13 and it was moonshine, home-brew, and I thought it was the greatest thing I ever had. I felt a little bit embarrassed to be crippled. I felt that I was just not the same as the other boys who could go out and pick up girls and dance and so on. Now once I got playing the fiddle, Angus and I, we got very popular. Not because of our personalities or anything, but because of the fiddle. We would be dragged every place…. If there was a supper or if there was a big dinner, you were always asked because you could supply some music to them. Even today, there’s a special place in people’s hearts for a fiddler. If someone possesses a musical ability, that’s something people will mention, even today. Another rarity in the early days was to see a woman playing a violin. I can remember that picnic that I mentioned already of a girl by the name of Mary Beaton from Mabou who came down and suddenly everybody was rushing towards the stage to see this beautiful girl playing Scotch music and laying it right on for the square sets. I think she could have had any man in Cape Breton that day. The fact that she could play that fiddle. Now today there are almost as many women as men playing.” Archie Neil Chisholm

“The first dance I know of is the Scotch Four. It was danced by four people: two ladies and two gents. They danced the strathspey for the start, the slow part. Then they finished off with a reel. There wasn’t too much to the dance, the partners, the two couples, [the] first woman faced the opposite gent. The next time she faced her own. After coming around, they just danced around, one after the other. He let the lady go ahead. And when they came to their place, this gent faced the opposite lady and step-danced. And then they went around again. They did that about four times and then they danced (stepped) all together, they faced the audience. It was all step-dancing when they went around. There were no figures, just the slow part and then with the reel they danced fast but they just went around. They finished off facing the audience. I danced this myself.” Alex Graham

“[Box socials] were usually held in the local school houses and the ladies would bring a box which would have to be decorated really nice with the lunch, all the goodies in it. And I can remember different times, our own family – there were many girls and even my mother would go with us. And girlfriends would come in and we’d all make up the boxes at the house. We would go to the dance and if you had a box there was no admission. You danced and then there was an auction. And you’d be praying that somebody liked you. The boys had to pay to get in: 25 cents. If there was a girl there that had a steady boyfriend she would describe the box so that he’d bid on the right box. But the other boys would be watching when the girls would be coming in and if they could detect his girlfriend’s box, they would keep bidding pretty high to “get him” [as a joke]…. Your name was on the box and the boy [who won the box] would have lunch with her and if they fared out, okay, he would take her home.” Mrs. Donald Roddy Rankin

“House parties. There were lots of them. They danced all quadrilles. The rooms were small, they might dance in a large dining room or kitchen, two sets. And the musicians, if there was a piano in the house, they accompanied with the piano but if not it was just the violin. The musicians would set between the two rooms so they could hear the music in both places. They danced a quadrille (that’s the right name for a set [or square dance]) in each room. The Lancers is the name of a quadrille. There was the Saratoga Lancers and the Plain Lancers. Then they have the Cobalt Set. This set from Ontario was brought back in the 1920s when people went down to work there. They came home on vacation. [If] they danced 8 quadrilles, that’d be a lot. But one time, they danced more than that. Sometimes they danced until the roosters would crow. They’d start when it would be getting dark. Now the dances are from 9:00 to 1:00. It’s earlier now to get the younger folks home earlier and off the road. They’d have a lunch. They didn’t have a bar at the older dances at all because it was the prohibition days. They might sneak the odd little bottle on the side. They continued then the dances longer. They’d have about 20 people to make a nice house party. More than that it’d be too crowded. If you visited a place and there was a violinist, they’d clear the room and they danced. They sang Gaelic songs. They mostly go to halls now to dance. Our hall down here [in Judique] was built in about 1927.”  Alex Graham

Video of Mabou Hall square dance (with caller) and Broad Cove Concert:

This collection will appeal to anyone interested in traditional music or dance in Cape Breton, or even in Scotland (as many of the dance traditions documented in this collection had their roots in Scotland). But more than that, it will appeal to anyone – scholar or not – who enjoys learning about folk culture because of the colourful, charming, humorous, and heartfelt descriptions of personal experiences and cultural practices that have ebbed and flowed over time.

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Dr. Heather Sparling is the Canada Research Chair in Musical Traditions and Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at Cape Breton University. Heather teaches a range of music courses. Her current research projects include traditional Cape Breton dance and disaster songs of Atlantic Canada (http://disastersongs.ca). She also has expertise in Cape Breton Gaelic song and is the author of Reeling Roosters and Dancing Ducks: Celtic Mouth Music (CBU Press, 2014). She is the editor of MUSICultures, the premier Canadian ethnomusicology and popular music journal. Her research interests include the role of music in language and cultural revitalization; exhibiting music; change in traditional culture; competition; and genre theory. A Gaelic speaker, she is actively involved with both local and international Gaelic organizations. She is also principal flutist with the Cape Breton Orchestra.

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