What can we make of Acadian dance and step dancing on Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.)? What can we say about the subject, and in what way? Does or did the traditional dancing practiced on P.E.I. differ by linguistic and cultural group? In other words, do Anglophones dance differently from Francophones on the Island, in the Maritimes, or elsewhere in northeastern North America? Was there a large repertoire of dances—today called “traditional”—that was widely shared in northeastern North America in the early 20th century?
To answer these questions, we would need a wide range of collections of the traditional dances of Acadians and their Anglophone neighbours. Yet, the corpus we have is not extensive. For the Acadian community, we have about five or six Acadian dances collected on the Island, thanks mainly to Georges Arsenault, about the same number for New Brunswick (the majority described by Simone Voyer), and a few more for Nova Scotia (Simone Voyer and Barbara LeBlanc).
As for the dances of Anglophones in the Maritimes, we can refer mainly to the collections of Laura Sadowsky and Barbara LeBlanc (under the direction of Carmel Bégin) and those of Simone Voyer. The first date from the 1980s and the second, from the late 1950s. And let’s not forget some of the Newfoundland dances described by Colin Quigley.
What is the repertoire of dances collected on P.E.I.? Georges Arsenault collected the following dances (omissions excepted) in the 1970s:
- Danse de la Borbis (Cap-Egmont)
- Autre danse de Cap-Egmont
- Advance and Leave Your Lady
- Four Hands Around
- Quadrille de Prince-Ouest
The first, second, and fourth are typical “danses carrées” [square dances] or “danses câllées” [called dances] (or “sets carrés” or “câlés,” depending on the region). These dances are known to have come from the United States and to have spread into eastern Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Danse de la Borbis (brebis) is the same as the dance called Queue du loup in Quebec and Wind up the Grapevine in Missouri. It is interesting to see 78 records from the 1920s and 1930s, often with titles like “American set, Part 1, Part 2…” (see The Virtual Gramophone). These “American” titles would disappear slowly over the following decades, once our populations had fully adopted these new repertoires.
The third dance, Advance and Leave Your Lady, also comes from square dancing even though it has a quadrille figure: L’homme à deux femmes. This is quite common, as in Mains blanches in Quebec and Two Little Hobos in the southern United States.
The Quadrille de Prince-Ouest is definitely a quadrille, with its five parts. It should be recalled that quadrilles developed in the late 18th century in France and then spread quickly across Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. They generally arrived in North America in the 1820s. However, this old five-part quadrille should not be confused with the generic term “quadrille,” which is often used to refer to any dance in a square shape, whether it is a square dance, a cotillion, or a true quadrille.
We can therefore see that most of the repertoire collected probably dates from the early 20th century and is related to the large family of square dances. This similarity between the repertoire of the Island and that of the United States is not an exception, either for Acadian populations or for eastern Canada in general. Note, for example, the famous “Quadrille de Chéticamp” (S. Voyer and B. LeBlanc), which comes mainly from Dick’s Quadrille Book and Ballroom Prompter published in 1878 in the United States and long available through the Eaton’s catalogue.
A few step dance-type figure dances have been identified in P.E.I. in the 20th century, even though none of them could be collected before people stopped dancing them (for example, four-hands reels are cited in certain texts). Step dancing is basically a solo dance form that may also be danced by two or three people, without necessarily being a traditional figure dance. Island step dancing is very lovely and of top quality. Eddy Arsenault, the renowned fiddler from the Island, would even perform a few steps, not to mention his daughter Hélène Bergeron (née Arsenault), one of the best step dancers of her generation.
After collecting steps from various people on the Island in 2008, including Edna Hashie (née Arsenault), Avola Gallant, and Father Éloi Arsenault (Edna’s brother), I was able to see that many of the “old steps” on the Island differed very little, if at all, from those I was able to observe in Quebec in the 1970s among a number of dancers from different regions.
Actually, it seems increasingly clear to me that all of eastern Canada had a shared repertoire of steps that may not have started to become differentiated until the second half of the 20th century, because the older dancers (those born in the first part of the 20th century) often had a majority of steps in common, regardless of the region or province.
Consequently, the same basic step (reel step, rant step, or other name) seems to prevail in the different popular cultures of Canada. However, it should be noted that, unlike the square dances of American origin, this basic step is not, to my knowledge, used in the United States and seems rather to have come from Great Britain.
Most of the other steps of the older dancers on the Island are found in many regions of Canada, with one exception. This is a step observed to have been used by the Arsenaults of Mont-Carmel, Avola Gallant of Abram-Village, and even Mr. Després of Rivière-au-Renard (Gaspésie). For the moment, let’s call it the Maritime chug. I have never seen this step outside the Atlantic region, and thanks to the collection of Carmel Bégin and Barbara LeBlanc in Cape Breton, we know that it is also found among the Mi’kmaq (in the early 1980s).
This step is quite different in style from the steps of British origin. It is more similar to the chug of the American Appalachians. Its presence among the Mi’kmaq and in Gaspé, and its absence from Quebec (except in Gaspésie) and Ontario lead us to believe that this step might have an Amerindian influence or origin, particularly since Gaspésie, P.E.I., and Cape Breton are in the ancestral area of the Mi’kmaq. Much research remains to be done to support this theory of a possible Amerindian origin or influence. This theory might also confirm whether or not the United States had a transborder influence or impact on stepdance.
P.E.I. in Northeastern North America
Whether we are talking about figure dancing or step dancing on P.E.I., we can see that these two forms are fairly consistent with what goes on generally in eastern Canada. The figure dances would be mainly of American origin and step dance more influenced by the British Isles. There is still the fascinating case of the Maritime chug, which, I hope, can be studied more comprehensively in the near future.
Communities across northeastern North America clearly share a great deal of popular culture, as well as history and, of course, natural environment. The dance culture of the Acadian regions of P.E.I., so lovely and so lively, is in this sense quite representative of this large cultural ensemble.