Georges Arsenault

        One of the oldest references to dancing among the Acadians on the Island dates back to 1770. It is a comment made by the Reverend William Drummond, a Presbyterian minister who was visiting the Island. He wrote in his diary on June 4th that, when passing through Princetown (Malpeque), he met a number of Acadians “who were very kind.” He describes the evening he spent at the home of an Acadian family in the following words, “At 9 went to another house where the French were convened, had a dance and spent the evening in jollity.”[i]

        It is not until the beginning of the 1800s that we find another observation, this time by John MacGregor, also a Scotsman, who lived on the Island from 1797 to 1826. He appears to have gotten to know the Acadians quite well. MacGregor wrote several books in which he relates his travels. Included in his accounts are a number of observations about the customs of the Acadians of Prince Edward Island. In his book called British America, published in 1832, he refers to their amusements as “Dancing, fiddling, and feasting, at Christmas, at Mardi-Gras, before Lent, and feasting at or after Easter…”[ii]

        What sort of dances did these Acadians dance? No doubt they were the dances their ancestors had brought from France. In her guide to teaching traditional Acadian dances All Join Hands, ethnologist Barbara LeBlanc states that the oldest dances in the Acadian repertoire were the rondes and the branles of French origin. The dancers often sang songs that provided the musical accompaniment. LeBlanc also explains that circle dances, chain dances, and dances belonging to the family of the contra dance seemed to be the most prevalent in Acadie and New France until the middle of the twentieth century.[iii]

        Given the lack of documentation, it is difficult, if not impossible, to describe with certainty the dances Acadians were familiar with in the 1700s and 1800s. The dances probably evolved over the years, especially after the Acadians began to frequent their Scottish and Irish neighbours.

The rare accounts that appeared in newspapers around 1900 give the impression that young people were no longer dancing the old Acadian dances, or at least their way of dancing had changed. In his report on a party held in Tignish on February 2, 1898, celebrating the 87th birthday of Marie Arsenault (née Richard), the local correspondent for the newspaper L’Impartial provides an interesting description of the dance executed by “the elderly men and women.”

After having partaken of a sumptuous supper that would have done credit to a wedding, the gathering was called to order and two fiddles, under the skilful bows of Mr. Sylvain F. Buote and Mr. Benoit S. Arsenault, gave the signal that a dance was about to begin. Indeed, there was dancing; but not those antics or dives typical of modern dance, with such affectations that one risks falling into a faint. No, this was a real Acadian dance that makes one happy and gives pleasure with no remorse. Everybody wanted to take turns. The elderly men and women danced like young people. On several occasions, one could detect the sad physiognomy of the young ladies who became pale with jealousy as they watched the rhythmic movements of the ladies over sixty and the grace with which they honoured the music.[iv]


        Several years later, in another report on a party held on February 2, 1907, in Fortune Cove in Bloomfield Parish, the correspondent is pleased to be able to write that the old dance has been revived – another indication that this type of dance was no longer in fashion. “It seemed to them that without the renewal of old customs something was missing; so the oldest men and women, who were not suffering too much from rheumatism, executed a few rigodons in the Acadian style, reminiscing the good old days…”[v]

        An interesting article from Rustico that appeared in the newspaper L’Évangéline in 1893 reminds us of the importance of dances at weddings. The writer explains how these festivities were organized so that everyone, who wanted to, had the opportunity to dance.

After a sumptuous breakfast the dancing began, according to the Acadian custom, and continued throughout the day, except for the time devoted to the delicious meals. People danced to the sounds of the fiddle played by Mr. Paul Poirier, whose talent and high reputation remind Acadians of Michael in the poem Evangeline. Mr. Firmin Gallant, with stick in hand, chose the people who were to replace those who were dancing, so that under his skilful direction, no one who wanted to dance was omitted. Those who preferred to take part in the games that had been obtained enjoyed hearing the continuous shuffle and tapping of feet that kept time to the fiddle music.[vi]

           Another article in L’Impartial, published in 1904, suggests that at that time on the Island Acadian dances were still distinguishable from those of other ethnic groups. The article in question refers to the marriage of Marie-Rose Arsenault, an Acadian from Tignish, to James W. Gillis, a Scotsman from Greenmount. The wedding party in the evening took place at the Gillis’s in a multicultural atmosphere, “There was dancing to the sounds of the fiddle and to the national music of Scotland (Bag pipe) by Mr. John Archy Gillis. The soiree ended with the national dances of the Scots, the Irish and the French.”[vii]

        What were these Acadian dances? Unfortunately they are not described in the newspaper articles for the simple reason that most of the readers at the time would not have needed descriptions. It could well be that they were called Les Quatre and Les Huit.[viii] These were step-danced by four or eight dancers, either two or four couples depending on the dance. This is how Michel LeClair (1897-1990) from Urbainville described Les Quatre: “The four were the four people who danced the set. It was like a square dance except that the four people had to step-dance the whole time.”[ix]

        Les Huit was similar to Les Quatre. It was still popular when Lucille Arsenault (1892-1996) from Abram-Village was young. “To dance this dance,” she said, “you had to know how to step-dance because you are step-dancing for the whole dance.”[x] Unfortunately neither Michel LeClair nor Lucille Arsenault give any details regarding the formations in these dances.

        In Chéticamp, on Cape Breton Island, Acadians also danced Les Quatre that some people called the French Four. Anselme Boudreau (1890-1991) says this dance consisted of “going around in a circle and step-dancing”[xi] with no physical contact between any of the dancers.[xii] In Chéticamp the so-called Reels à Huit were danced by four men and four women. Boudreau states that this dance “was a little like the last formation of the present-day set or quadrille.”[xiii] However, it was not step-danced.[xiv]

        Anselme Boudreau notes that the sets or quadrilles were only introduced into the Acadian community of Chéticamp around the turn of the twentieth century. That would also have been the case for Urbainville, in the Evangeline Region, as Michel LeClair says, “Quadrilles did not appear before the beginning of the twentieth century. The first quadrille I saw was in Urbanville at Octave Gallant’s place. It was quite an event because every body could participate.[xv] This meant that people who did not know how to step-dance could now take part in group dances.

        Square dances, with or without a caller, soon became popular among young people. Once a dance became well known, people no longer needed a caller. In the Evangeline Region, people used the terms square dance, danse carrée, and quadrille interchangeably.

        It is interesting to note that Acadians on the Island, even in the Evangeline Region, only called the dances in English and only knew the English expressions for the different formations.[xvi]

        In the West Prince region (Tignish, Palmer Road), the quadrille was not called. It was comprised of two parts, each with several formations. It was the only traditional dance that was danced in both houses and halls. At least, it is the only one people there remember today. The square sets were not known. People over sixty-five today still know how to dance the quadrille.

        The fiddle was the preferred instrument for traditional dances, but when there was no fiddler available sometimes people danced a reel to the harmonica or to mouth music.

        For traditional festivities (especially during Shrovetide) and for weddings, dances were usually held in private homes. In some parishes like Palmer Road, where the priest did not object to evenings of dancing, they were held in the parish hall. These group dances remained popular until the 1950s. It was at that time that dances in halls became more frequent and more varied. Popular dances like the jive quickly replaced square dances and quadrilles. For a number of years, however, a few traditional dances were included in these soirees. Over time, they were reduced to a type of circular dance comprised of several simple formations like “all hands around,” “right hand your partner,” “swing your partner,” “promenade,” and the “basket.”

        It is regrettable that the lack of documentation and eye-witness accounts prevents us from following the evolution of dancing among the Acadians on the Island, especially before the beginning of the twentieth century. Based on the little documentation available, we can assume that the traditional dance among the Acadians was constantly evolving. In fact, at the end of the nineteenth century, it was noted that young Acadians were no longer dancing like the previous generations. Older people probably said the same thing in the middle of the nineteenth century! We can state with confidence, however, that by the early twentieth century new dances like quadrilles and square sets had arrived in the Acadian villages.

        How these new dances arrived is not known, but Acadians were certainly not living in isolation. For a long time, Acadian villages had been surrounded by, and sometimes intermingled with, people of Irish and Scottish origin. In addition, as a result of urbanization an increasing number of Acadians were travelling or moving to centres like Summerside and Charlottetown. There were also comings and goings between the places where Island Acadians had settled after 1860, such as Kent County in New Brunswick and the Matapedia Valley in Quebec. The first wave of immigration to the industrial cities of New England in the 1870s would have facilitated exchanges and the learning of new dances. Like the youth of today, the youth of yesteryear were undoubtedly attracted to innovations.


[i]. “Diary of William Drummond,” The Island Magazine, Number 2, 1977, p. 30.

[ii]. John MacGregor, British America, Volume II, Edinburgh et London, 1832, pp. 202-203.

[iii]. Barbara Le Blanc, All Join Hands/ Tous Ensemble: A Guide to Teaching Traditional Acadian Dances, Halifax, Dance Nova Scotia, 2004. French and English versions available online.

[iv]. L’Impartial, 10 February 1898, p. 4

. L’Impartial, 14 February 1907, p. 4.

[vi]. L’Évangéline, 23 February 1893, p. 2

[vii]. L’Impartial, 26 February 1904, p. 5

[viii]. Centre d’études acadiennes Anselme-Chiasson (CÉAAC), Georges Arsenault Collection, Recording 1206, interview with Hélène Arsenault (1890 -1984), St. Gilbert, P.E.I.

[ix]. Marie Anne Arsenault et Alice Richard, Échos du passé : Recueil d’histoires orales, Abram-Village, Coopérative d’artisanat d’Abram-Village, 1998, p. 256.

[x]. CÉAAC, Georges Arsenault Collection, ms. 8.

[xi]. Anselme Boudreau, Chéticamp : Mémoires, Moncton, Éditions des Aboiteaux, 1996, p. 182.

[xii]. In 1957, the ethnologist Simonne Voyer described a Reel à quatre as it was danced in Chéticamp, Cape Breton. See also the description by Barbara LeBlanc in her work All Join Hands/ Tous Ensemble: A Guide to Teaching Traditional Acadian Dances.

[xiii]. Anselme Boudreau, op. cit., p. 182.

[xiv]. The ethnologist Simonne Voyer collected a Reel à huit in Chéticamp in 1957 which she published in her work called La danse traditionnelle dans l’est du Canada. Quadrilles et cotillons, Quebec, Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 1986, pp. 382-387.

[xv]. Marie Anne Arsenault and Alice Richard, op. cit.

[xvi]. Simon Voyer collected a “quadrille” in St. Chrysostome in 1958 which she published in the work cited above, pp. 165-171.