Rural and urban Scottish dance traditions have, generally speaking, developed from house ceilidhs and village and crossroads dancing traditions, comprising a limited number of dances and predominantly represented by various forms of Scotch Reels (Flett 1985; Emmerson 1972). Eighteenth- and 19th-century dance (and music) traditions were shaped by dancing masters, each of whom travelled through a particular region to offer dancing lessons. The dancing masters’ repertoire was highly influenced by European and English dancing trends and aesthetic preferences. Recent research also suggests mid-17th- and late 18th-century European influence on dancing—in particular, on that of the Highland clan elite (Newton, forthcoming) Later, the 20th-century Scottish dancing landscape became largely governed and structured by organizations with global membership and multiple local and national chapters. Today, the two main forms of organization-based dancing are Highland dancing (athletic solo and group dances predominantly performed at competitions) and Scottish country dancing (social figure dances of English origin), which can be danced informally or formally as part of the worldwide Royal Scottish Country Dance Society’s organized and technically and aesthetically regulated activities. Highland dancing is generally associated with the great Highland bagpipe, while accordion-, fiddle- and piano-based music commonly accompanies Scottish country dancing. The current Scottish vernacular dance scene also includes “old time” or “ceilidh” dancing, the name depending on the context, area and age range of the dancers taking part. Stylistic and music preferences differ from one part of the country to another for these mainly couple and group dances derived from earlier dancing master repertoire and European social dance genres. In the main, dance traditions are kept alive in community contexts such as village halls and other larger, public venues, such as hotels, town halls and community centres. A few historical sources indicate that percussive step dancing once existed in Scotland, but there are no detailed descriptions of its form. By the beginning of the 20th century it had virtually disappeared from the scene altogether (Emmerson 1972; Flett 1985; Melin 2012). Some recent observations and interesting discussions on these dance genres can be found in, for example, Morrison (2003, 2004) and Newton (2009, 2012). A selection of refined solo dances, maintained by dancing masters and latterly by the Highland and Scottish country dance associations, suggests that the percussive dance tradition has now morphed into a predominantly soft shoe dance genre (Flett 1996; Cramb 1953; UKAPTD 1995).

In Cape Breton, by contrast, a vernacular form of percussive step dancing has continued to exist since the arrival of the earliest Scottish immigrants due to the unique community configurations on the island. As mentioned, the character of Cape Breton step dancing as a whole is a product of the ethnic mix and influences on the community since the first step dancers arrived from overseas (Melin 2012; Voyer 2003; Le Blanc and Sadowsky 1986; MacInnes 1996). This brief article does not, however, allow for exploration of this particular area of research, but the range of possible influences on the dance genre must be kept in mind when the Scottish connection is discussed. Cape Breton step dancing has managed to thrive alongside the introduction of new dance forms, such as quadrilles (commonly known in Cape Breton today as square dances or square sets and initially introduced from mainland Canada and the U.S. in the early 20th century), and the decline of some early dance forms, such as Scotch Reels (Rhodes 1985; Melin 2012). Currently, the vernacular dance tradition lives predominantly in the many parish halls, where square sets are the main form of social dancing and regularly incorporate percussive footwork. These square set dances are often interspersed with performances of solo step dancing at various points during the evening. Solo step dancing, Scotch Fours (Reels) and square sets all feature at local indoor and outdoor festivals and variety concerts where they often co-exist with displays of Highland and Scottish country dancing. The latter two dance forms now exist around the island but are not the predominant forms of dancing, having been introduced in the mid- and late 20th century respectively, and their aesthetic appearance is the same as in Scotland.

By contrast, vernacular square sets and step dancing are aesthetically more grounded (i.e., danced with little elevation); good percussive dancers are said to be “close to the floor,” “neat,” “light” and “musical.” Step dancing is still passed on informally in some homes, as well as taught in public classes in the community. Step dancing, however, has never been regulated by associations or by standardized instruction manuals, as most Scottish dance forms currently are, particularly Highland and Scottish country dancing. Step dancing in Cape Breton has evolved from set solo step dances taught by dancing masters, such as the Flowers of Edinburgh, and early forms of extemporized step dancing, to the form currently in practice (Rhodes 1996; Melin 2012). The Cape Breton tradition is predominantly oral whereas Scottish dance traditions rely heavily on written instructions for their continued survival. Cape Breton square sets are commonly learned in village halls while they are danced. Some dance forms, such as the many different Scotch Reels and Gaelic dance games described by Frank Rhodes (1985, 1996), in articles based on his 1957 interviews with descendants of Scottish settlers, are no longer practised. The Cape Breton dance tradition today is predominantly danced to fiddle music with piano accompaniment, which has succeeded an earlier, more dominant dance piping tradition.9 This comparison between vernacular dance in Scotland and Cape Breton illustrates well aspects of continuity and change in tradition, in relation to different contexts, as discussed by many scholars, including Glassie (1995), Feintuch (1993), Rosenberg (1993), and Spalding and Woodside (1995).

[Extract from Melin, M (2013). Step Dancing in Cape Breton and Scotland: Contrasting Contexts and Creative Processes. MusiCULTURES 40-1: 39-41]