Glencoe Mills Square Dance,
Celtic Colours 2001
at Glencoe Mills, Cape Breton, NS
(7 October 2001)

Although the dance at Glencoe Mills is not an official part of the Celtic Colours festival, my Celtic Colours certainly wouldn't be complete without it. The dance, which runs weekly throughout the summer, only occurs on holiday weekends the rest of the year, and thus the Thanksgiving dance usually falls during the festival. This particular dance was played by Howie MacDonald, but since I have covered MacDonald's concerts in the past, I'll focus here on the experience of a Cape Breton square dance, rather than the music. Suffice to say that the tunes were fantastic and up to MacDonald's fine standards.

Traveling to Glencoe Mills, for the visitor, is a classic experience. The directions often given for getting there are to "drive down the dirt road until you think that you are completely lost, then drive for about ten more minutes, and you should see the lights of the hall shining through the woods." Since the journey to the hall almost always occurs at night (the dances generally run from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.), it is quite easy to believe that you've become hopelessly lost as you travel down the winding, often narrow dirt road. And though I am no longer a newcomer to the experience, having attended an ample number of dances, even I sometimes wonder if perhaps I have taken a wrong turn somehow.

If the dance-goer sticks to the task and keeps following the road, the hall inevitably appears, rather like a mirage in the distance and, more often than not, packed to overflowing with cars. Now, if the drive itself is a memorable experience, so too is the dance. Cape Breton's finest musicians -- Buddy MacMaster, Howie MacDonald, Ashley MacIsaac, Glen Graham, Maybelle Chisholm, Joey Beaton and Natalie MacMaster (to name just a few) -- have all been familiar sights over the years and the springy wooden floor is made for dancing.

Along with the fine music comes the dancing. With just enough of a break for a breath of fresh (and more importantly, cool) air between sets, the tunes continue one after another the whole night through. Usually the musicians are relieved by someone in the crowd for a set or two, and the music simply continues on. Cape Breton square dances are not for the faint of heart. Quite an athletic endeavour, traditional square dancing techniques are spiced up with stepdancing, as couples move energetically throughout the hall. A variation of the Inverness set is the one performed at Glencoe -- two jig figures and one reel figure make up the set.

In contrast to some square dances, the Inverness set can be rather flexible, at least at this venue. Although it is meant to be performed with four couples per set, the numbers tend to vary here, enabling as many people as possible to take part. Locals are often more than willing to show a newcomer the ropes, and experienced dancers will generally give the confused inductee a gentle shove in the proper direction. It doesn't take long to learn, once one jumps in! Generally, and especially during the summer tourist season, space is scarce in the hall, and the floor is full for each and every set. The music and the tapping feet can be heard outside of the hall, and laughter and smiling faces are common.

Perhaps the most unique part of the Cape Breton square dance is the stepdancing. Although it is by no means a requirement for enjoyment, there are many opportunities in each of the figures to practice or show off one's steps, depending on your experience. Towards the end of the night, the musicians will usually play a set for dancers, starting off with a strathspey or two, and moving into a long set of reels. Anyone wishing to take the floor to perform a few steps will do so, and the crowd is always encouraging and appreciative, no matter the skill of the dancer. This is not something that is designed as a concert or a performance -- the dancers jump in spontaneously and anyone is welcome, even if they aren't doing Cape Breton-style steps. I have seen a variety of stepdancing techniques performed at the hall, from Irish to contra dance to the Ottawa Valley style of stepdancing, all received with similar enthusiasm by the crowds.

Readers might wonder why I would include the average Cape Breton square dance with coverage of Celtic Colours. Well, in my view, the festival is a spotlight on Celtic and specifically Cape Breton culture, and to me at least, nothing says Cape Breton culture like a square dance does. Families and people of all ages come together to enjoy the music and the dance, and Cape Bretoners often display their hospitality by teaching visitors to dance. Elderly and young, stranger and neighbour all come together for these events, and share an exhilarating experience. They may come in looking different, but everyone seems to leave with the same smiles of pure enjoyment plastered on their faces, and that is what Celtic Colours is all about.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]
Rambles: 17 November 2001