Canadian Folk Award Nominee ‘Foggy New Year’ Released 2013

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Fundamentals of Stepdancing

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Stepdancing is not like other forms of dances of tap, clogging or Irish dancing. Stepdancing is purely a unique art. A simple definition of stepdancing is:

“A fast paced, rugged and energetic style of dance usually performed to traditional fiddle music and requiring limited surface movement. The dance is concentrated on foot work involving limited hand and arm motion. Stepdancing requires a board with a hard, smooth surface, character shoes with special clickers attached to the toe and heel, and music.”

Stepdancing follows the popular pattern of an eight-bar step. Four bars are danced on the right foot followed by the same pattern on the left foot, making an eight-bar step. The ten “step” is understood to include both right and left foot. Often steps are longer, and consume sixteen bars of music.

Although the traditional method of right then left foot is most common among dancers, many times dancers creatively dance only one foot before moving on to the next step. This is usually done when creating steps defined for a specific piece of music.

Methods of developing steps vary from one dancer to the next. Many dancers create a series of steps then dance them to any selection of music which is of the same quality. Other dancers develop more effective routines when they listen and understand the music and develop steps to “fit” that music or play with the music. This is a special art and requires the ability to “feel” the music. Throughout history, dancing has always been noted as a form of music much like playing the piano or the fiddle. Dancing on most occasions replaces other forms of percussion and adds value because of its high energy and visual aspect.

There are many different types of stepdances to be danced which all have different tempos, timing and accents. The different dances throughout Canadian stepdancing include: reels, jigs, clogs, strathspeys, hornpipes, waltz-clogs, polkas, and two-steps. In all cases, stepdancing requires much flexibility and a relaxed nature of the feet and ankles.

Reel

This dance is the most popular and preferred dance for all dancers. It is played at a fast pace or tempo, is highly energetic, and lasts the length of 96 bars of music. The reel originated around 1750 in Scotland and the Irish dance masters brought it to full development (Haurin & Richens). The music is 4/4 time with a count of (ONE-two-three-four). The reel is most commonly used in routines as the last dance in the set because of its fast speed.

Jig

The jig is a very popular dance amongst the Irish and the Cape Bretoners. This music is played in 6/8 time which means the hard beats are on the first and fourth count (ONE-two-three FOUR-five-six). In a contest routine, Jigs are danced as the middle dance of the routine and last the length of 48 bars.

Clog

The clog is a slower dance and is much more graceful than the reel or the jig. A clog is played in either 414 time or 2/4 time and the accent is on the first and third beat (ONE-two THREE-four) or the first and second beat (ONE-and TWO-and). The clog is usually danced as the opening of a routine and is short, only lasting the length of 32 bars.

Hornpipe

Hornpipes are also played or danced in 4/4 time and are reminiscent of a slow reel with accents on the first and third beat: (ONE-and-a two-and-a -and-a four-and-a) (Haurin & Richens). This dance is most popular among Irish dancers both male and female and is danced in hard shoes as opposed to soft shoes. Ottawa Valley stepdancers also dance this dance, but it is danced much the same as a reel is danced.

Strathspey

This is traditionally a Scottish dance, danced by females in soft shoe and is very graceful. This dance resembles a very slow reel with more melodic embellishment and the dancer uses more floor space than in the other dances. The music is played in 4/4 time and is characterized by a dotted eighth note or a sixteenth note that is a rest instead of a note, known as a Scottish “snap’ (Fiddlers Fake Book p. 1).

Polka

A polka is a very sprightly dance, similar to a reel but sounding slower than a reel because it is in 2/4 time. It is characterized by a paradigmatic rhythm and one measure includes two sets of an eighth note attached to two sixteenth notes. The Polka was brought to Canada with the Germans and the Slavs and became popular west of Ottawa and in western Canada (Brody, 1983, p. 12).

Two-step

The two-step is also in 2/4 time and is like a slow polka or more characteristically like a fox trot.

The Ottawa Valley 

Ottawa Valley Style stepdancing originated in the Ottawa Valley which includes a large area North of Ottawa and a small area across the river on the Quebec side. This dance is very different than the other two styles of stepdancing, but still has influences from the Scottish and Irish. The Ottawa Valley style is characterized by the constant aggressiveness of the dance and the steps are danced high off of the floor. The better dancers include a wide variety of steps and different moves in their routines so that no step looks similar to another. The dancers’ legs look very “rubber like” and much coordination is required of the legs, feet and ankles. A distinguishing factor in this style is that there, is use of the dancers arms. Arms are controlled to an extent but because this dance is done high off of the floor, arms are placed out from the dancers body and are used to naturally flow with the dancers movements. This emphasizes the aggressiveness and energy of the dance and is as much a part of the dance as the feet are. Both men and women dance the same dances and also compete against one another in contests.

Ottawa Valley Stepdancing

This style of stepdancing is a very powerful dance that needs energy to execute and hard work, stemming from the Scottish and Irish roots of the late 18th century. Interestingly, American tap dance is an ingredient to this unique style of stepdancing.

There were also settlers who came from the British Isles who settled in the Ottawa Valley. Here, they set up villages and lumber camps. Hard work and toil on the long days needed a balance of relaxation and recreational avenues. The settlers had no material possession to offer so they used what they already knew: their traditional and valuable dance. They shared what they held most dear to their hearts: their music and their culture. Combining fiddle and the traditional stepdancing, the Scottish settlers created a unique blend of Scottish tradition that brought in a new style heard in the ringing rhythm of the fiddle in the night air long ago. Today, old time fiddle music is incredibly popular in the Ottawa Valley. There are many step and fiddle competitions in this area which supports the statement that there are “more fiddlers and step-dancers per capita in the Ottawa Valley than anywhere in Canada, except possibly in Cape Breton” (Wadden, 1996).

Written by: Chanda Gibson, Mary Ingram, Celeste Warren, Nicole Magson.