Burton MacIntyre
& Sabra MacGillivray:
dancing Cape Breton-style

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 2004

In times passed, people gathered regularly for a bit of social interaction, a break from their daily toils and the simple pleasures of the dance. In many parts of the world, this once-thriving folk custom has faded away -- or has been preserved for the tourists in the guise of flashy stage shows that share little in common with their actual roots.

Not so in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where the dance not only endures, it blossoms. Community dances are commonplace, and intricate footwork is a common ability. Everyone's doing it, and doing it well!

One of the leading ambassadors of Cape Breton culture is Burton MacIntyre, a 63-year-old bundle of boundless energy and enthusiasm for the dance.

"Don't be intimidated," Burton urges. "If you don't know it, fake it. Just enjoy it."

A retired schoolteacher and administrator, Burton fills his days with music and travel. But his overriding passion is dancing, and he needs no second invitation to make use of an open spot on the floor whenever good music is happening. Want to learn how it's done? Ask him, and Burton will show you the steps.

Cape Breton step- and square-dancing styles are a breed apart from their Scottish and Irish cousins. American square-dancers will see much that's familiar in a Cape Breton square set -- but a great deal of the dance will bewilder them, too.

While dancing has faded in popularity in many parts of the world, it is a thriving custom here. Burton credits part of the reason for a move in the 1950s to shift community dances from adult (drinking) venues and into family-oriented social halls and community centers.

"Communities like Glencoe and West Mabou started the family dances," Burton said. "That opened it up to a whole new generation. Before, events with fiddle music and dancing had liquor and the young people couldn't go." Once that changed, it launched an unexpected cultural revolution, he said. "A lot of people started going to dances at an early age -- and they kept going."

Of course, there were a few culture clashes in the process. "Unfortunately, some older people have a hard time letting go of tradition," Burton explained. With established sets and patterns, they sometimes "wouldn't let the younger people in to learn the proper steps."

Burton is a big proponent of tradition, but he's not opposed to the evolution of a living culture, either. The important thing, he said, is that folks, young and old, wanted to dance. "People are having fun and enjoying it," he said. "Sure, we've watered down some of our figures, but as long as people are having fun, I have no problem with it."

The highly regulated figures of established dance patterns can be intimidating to a new crop of dancers, he said. "So we've lost some of the structure, but we've opened it up to younger people. ... If you keep it completely structured, you're closing out the young people and the tourists."

There are still places where dancers adhere to the old, formal styles, he said. In fact, that's still the best way to teach an eager crowd of wannabe dancers. "I teach square dances, and I will always teach them the correct way to do it," he said.

It's even more complicated, he noted, because there are variations in the dance between Mabou, Sydney, Whycocomagh, where Burton lives, and Washabuck. Burton often teaches students several regional variations in the figures. "The basic steps are the same."

The proliferation of Cape Breton's music has also helped in the spread of dancing, Burton said. "We have more young people playing fiddle. Suddenly, it's not uncool to do so," he explained. "That of course overlaps into dancing." Budding young fiddlers are always eager to perform at community dances, earning their chops the hard way and building a name among their peers.

But really, Burton said, the reasons for dancing's popularity in Cape Breton are simple ones.

"It's a celebration," he said. "Young people and old people are doing something together. It bridges the age gap, where you all have something in common."

A frequent visitor to Celtic Connections, the renowned annual festival in Glasgow, Scotland, Burton said he was surprised not to see any dancing. "Stepdancing came here from Scotland, but it's largely died out there," he said. "Now we have teachers going to Scotland. We're bringing it back."

Meanwhile, back in Cape Breton, the next generation of dancers is already helping to impart the tradition to the youngest set. Sabra MacGillivray, an award-winning dancer from Antigonish (just over the causeway in Nova Scotia) started learning Highland dance at age 5; now 28, she's teaching a new crop of 5-year-olds (and older) how to beat time with a fiddle.

"It's nice to see the young ones at the dances," she said, shortly before teaching a Celtic Colours workshop on dance to a few dozen novices. "You'll see 80-year-olds dancing, and 15-year-olds."

For many Cape Bretoners, dancing comes as naturally as breathing, eating, fiddling and complaining about the snow. "Everybody is just born into it," Sabra said. "It's very rare here to grow up without any music around you. So it's really hard to escape it, and it's infectious, really. It's in your blood."

She agreed with Burton that the family aspect of community dances is a big part of their popularity in Cape Breton. "All ages respond to it," she said. "And people use it as a social gathering, for gathering. Some people go every week."

The older generation in particular is reluctant to let the weekly custom lapse, Sabra noted. "They love the music, they love seeing the same people every week. And they love the exercise, too -- they're getting a real workout, but it doesn't feel like it. They're just loving it."

At Sabra's workshop, the steps began to come naturally (sort of) far more quickly than expected. On the other hand, my wife -- who is ordinarily a far better and more energetic dancer than I am -- regularly lost the rhythm and pattern of steps, much to her frustration.

It was a complex lesson to learn. There are strathspey steps (step-ball-step, step-heel-step, forward, scissors back, ball-heel ball-heel ball-heel kick-hop), reels (step-shuffle-hop tap tap), jigs (oh, my aching muscles!) and square sets (corners, promenades, swings and so on).

Mere minutes into the lesson, most of us were soaked in sweat and feeling the burn in our legs. Sabra, much like Burton at festival dances all week long, barely broke a sweat and didn't seem winded even a little.

Sabra loves teaching people to dance, particularly children. "You can see it in the kids," she said. "When they go to the dance for the first time, they so badly want to learn the steps. Once you get a taste of it, you just want more."

So how does folk-dancing escape the dreaded uncool factor? "It's got to be the music, the wonderful music," Sabra suggested. Besides, she added, "it's hugely cultural. You're learning about your ancestors. And you're keeping traditions alive."

And there's glamor, too. "When you see the younger generation getting famous doing it -- Natalie and Ashley, Kendra and Troy -- young kids are looking up and seeing that it's not uncool."

Young people are changing the tradition in new ways, Sabra added. "People always try new things with it and add new techniques -- but you always come back to the roots."

There's a dance tonight in Mabou. Tempting, but the complaints from sorely used muscles tell me no, maybe the Festival Club, with its incredible music -- and, more importantly, chairs -- would be a better idea.

But then I think about Sabra, poised and athletic, and Burton, full of energy and life, and I wish the prospect of weekly dances, gradually strengthening muscles and enhanced stamina, was a part of my life in my own hometown. And that's not even considering the sense of community that dances create and television at home does not.

I know my limits, the Festival Club it is. But who knows -- Burton will be there, no doubt, so dancing will happen. And I need to make the most of every Cape Breton opportunity while I can; Celtic Colours ends for another year far too soon.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 6 November 2004

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