Step-dancing has become strongly associated with Gaelic tradition in Nova Scotia, but where did it come from? Is it really an old and conservative tradition that preserves how Gaels were dancing when they emigrated from Scotland (or even earlier), or was it borrowed from the Irish in North America? Where did the dance forms now performed by Scottish Gaels come from, given that there are no descriptions of anything resembling dance in medieval sources (a point strongly made by Dr Fergus Kelly in this recent video and summary paper).
People who have seen step-dance in the Canadian Maritimes and been unable to relate it to anything in Scotland with which they are familiar have come up with all sorts of wild theories about its origins. There are certainly numerous mentions of step-dancers, refined in their dancing skills, that appear in Gaelic song-poetry composed in Nova Scotia, such as this excerpt about a female dancer, probably composed in the 1890s (from Mac-Talla 7.46 (16 June 1899)):
Air an ùrlar réidh Tha a ceum ro ullamh, Freagart do'n cheòl Bhios na meòir a' cluich dhi. On the level wooden floor, Her step is adroit, Answering to the music That the fingers play for her.
In a newly published article in the International Review of Scottish Studies, I have demonstrated how Gaelic literature from the late 17th century through the mid-19th century clearly reflects consciousness that the dance traditions created in the fashionable French court(s) that penetrated contemporary European society thoroughly also transformed the dance of the Gaels of Scotland.
I think the article is one of many examples of how important it is to employ Gaelic primary sources when investigating the history – cultural or otherwise – of the Highlands. The Gaelic sources I have used reveal the French associations of dance, explicitly and implicitly, even though there has been little evidence of French origins in modern oral tradition in either Scotland or Nova Scotia.
There were once other forms of dance in the Highlands (which I have explored in Warriors of the Word) that preceded the French forms of dance that have since become dominant, but these all ceased being active traditions by the early 20th century. Between the lack of social functions for the old forms of dance and the dominance of the social dance music played on the fiddle and pipes, the French dance forms have prevailed.
Does it really matter that these dances originally came from France, given that they were Gaelicized within communities and musical traditions? In a sense, no, because Gaels were able to incorporate the dances and accompanying music according to their own cultural aesthetics, resources and needs and ultimately forgot about the origins because they were no longer relevant in their functions.
However, it does matter in two important ways. First of all, the true story of the dissemination of French dance, first in élite forms through courtly circles and then in more popular forms through dancing masters, explains the origins of and resemblences to other similar dance forms, such as clogging, buck dancing, Highland dancing, Irish sean-nós dance, Quebecois dance, etc. In other words, these are all derived in various ways (and to various degrees) from essentially French forms rather than anything “Celtic.”
Second of all, the adaptability of tradition and its constant ability to be transformed should be seen, I believe, as an ultimately optimistic message about the resilience and creativity of communities. If 18th-century Gaels were able to take French dance and transform it according to their own vernacular folkways into something Gàidhealach within a few short generations, shouldn’t the same processes of adoption and adaptation be possible for other art forms today (so long as they are truly acclimatized within Gaelic norms)?
In other words, why shouldn’t Gaels today exercise the same privilege to transform contemporary art forms according to their own needs that their ancestors exercised not very long ago, whether those art forms be hip-hop or guerilla theatre? If we allow Gaelic tradition to be “frozen” in the year 1920 or 1930 or any other arbitrary date, aren’t we conspiring to mummify it and keep it dead? Instead, I think the goal should be to enable young people to understand the roots and principles of the culture well enough that it will be resilient to allow new art forms to develop and encourage young people to express their own reality with all of the tools available to them – just as their ancestors did.
Michael Newton. Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.