As soon as I knew I was moving to Cape Breton, I did the obvious and joined a week-long step-dancing program. OK, maybe it wasn’t the most obvious thing to do, but it felt like the most important. So much so, I didn’t even take time to consult my brain or hip, who both had stakes in this game. Self-delusion sneaks in where excitement lives 😉 It also insisted I buy new dancing shoes. Into which I would place my little hobbit-feet. Then I would magically dance.
My intense need to learn how to step dance made sense to me. After all, it was the music and dance of Cape Breton that captured my heart so many years ago. I’ve travelled here over the years to enjoy the Celtic Colours Music Festival, making the autumn trek from Ontario. During the two-week celebration, I’d tour the island enjoying concerts in community halls and churches, hike the highlands and love these people with the lilting accent and easy smiles.
Clearly, knowing how to step-dance would be an important part of finding my way in my new home. Family and history are really important here and I had neither. I’d have to have something else. Like a skill.
Cape Breton stepdance and fiddling is a way of life here; brought to the island by the Scottish Gaels who arrived some 200 years ago. The coastal communities are small, and until recently, quite remote from one another. A small number of families raised children in each area, and their children raised their children; tight-knit communities of fishermen and farmers, for generations. Each village had it’s own music and dance steps unique to their home-grown tradition. Kids learned to step-dance at the same time they learned to walk.
Gaelic is still spoken here (the language of angels) and there is a Gaelic College where students learn music, language and traditional fabric arts. In addition to the Gaelic presence in the community, there are is a strong showing of French Acadians and of course the aboriginal Mi’kMaw First Nations who knew this beautiful land as home long before the rest of us.
That’s just a bit of back story. Now back to my delusion.
I understood something important today, about my love of step dance.
Our teacher was teaching twenty or so hopeful dancers, all of us beginners. We were working on a reel step or maybe a Strathspey, but regardless, we were giving it our all. Sloppily, but joyfully.
Our instructor’s face was etched with focus as she scanned feet and assessed tempo. It was nothing but a bunch of stomping, a stampede with music in the background, anyone would have said that, but she waited it out, clapping to keep time and repeating the step patiently with her own feet.
A Cacophony of clatter was all we offered in return. The kind that tries my nervous system and makes me anxious if it goes on too long.
But then it happened. Our teacher heard it first; I saw her eyebrows bounce and a tiny smile in her eye. Then I heard it too.
Two or three repetitions… da da DA… da da DA… emerging from behind the clatter. Then again… da da DA…. the DA of the heel on the floor becoming bolder and confident. I felt my back straighten and again, for almost a minute, we found it! All together! Da da DA!!
Da Da DA!! We were in step.…
Was I the only one who needed to sneak out the side door to dab my eyes?
This happens to me at parades too, when marching bands pass. The first time our platoon marched in unison in basic training I experienced the same soul-stretch. My whole life I’ve been deeply touched by this experience of falling in step, but I didn’t really get it.
Today, in class, I got it.
This beautiful dance exists only in a social context. It’s about a collective experience; belonging.
It is born in families, and grows in small communities. It is only interactive (You can’t step dance alone!) The musician is as important as the dancer, and they communicate to one another through rhythm. Cape Bretoners don’t dance to recorded music – there must be musicians; fiddlers, piano players, pipers or singers. The dance is passed through sharing and showing.
The joy of the dance comes from a sense of common purpose, and is rooted in humility – each person offering their unique dance style to the room and then stepping back to allow the next person to shine. The dance is controlled, or “neat” as they say here. Neat and close to the floor. It’s also joyful, energetic, fun and humble. There are no special shoes or clothing. No costumes or competitions. It is rooted in the ordinary beauty of family and community; binding people together through tradition, story-telling and culturally rooted music. It has heart.
Having not taken on any kind of week-long activity since my injury, it was a stretch to leap (literally) into a full week of physical and cognitive activity, and meeting new people (my brain often scrambles people and it takes a number of meetings to settle) I needed to take occasional breaks from class to give my brain a rest from following patterns. In fact, I took the last morning off to sleep and cuddle with Pippa.
In truth, I never got much further in my learning than a simple jig, despite a full week of patient teaching and my best efforts. I had so much fun, and my heart was so full, but I felt a bit anxious at my inabilities. How would I find my place in my new community, if my feet couldn’t find their way?
These worries evaporated at the final event of the week; a Cape Breton “kitchen” party held at my neighbour’s house. A house party, complete with fiddlers, a guitar player and a caller, who led us through a variety of square dance sets I had fumbled through all week.
I haven’t a clue what my feet did on the dance floor all evening, but I know there were no fancy dancing shoes required (I went barefoot) and here among my new friends in my new home, I felt my heart fall into step.