[This is an excerpt from the Métis chapter of my book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada.]
Back then, the Red River Jig was more of an elimination dance, where challengers would try to outdo each other by the number of steps they could pull off in their repertoire. They would be surrounded by cheering traders in a community hall, if they had one, candlelight flickering as their footwork eluded the shadows; they could be in a house where the furniture had been removed so they had room to do something more important than sitting around on chairs: dancing and playing music.
Often the groups would gather by 8:00 p.m. and not disperse until 5:00 a.m. the next morning. Some accounts say they danced for days, or until their liquor, food and energy had been jigged out of them.
Other accounts say the Red River Jig was done by two people, either two men or a man and a woman, who danced together or challenged other couples to compete against them. This was their time to be recognized as individual dancers, unlike the group dances so popular back then, and they were rewarded with community respect and probably some whiskey.
John Arcand [of the John Arcand Fiddle Fest] keeps that spirit alive at his fiddle festival by formalizing it a little bit. Most people don’t spend their nights out on the land looking for entertainment and a way to keep warm anymore – they’re inside a house in a community or a city with their computers and TVs fired up, not with candlelight, but from the power from their local electricity company.
On John and Vicki’s property, contestants are split up into age groups and between male and female. After qualifying by showing they know the steps in the first round, the finalists then go up on stage to dance as many steps as they can remember. Judges tally up how many they completed (not counting steps that are off rhythm or not precise enough, or, for the traditional category, steps that are considered contemporary – ie. not low to the ground, with the legs reaching up above the ankles or shaking out to the side). Often, there are clear first, second, third and fourth place winners, each receiving a cheque from the festival, but other times the second place dancer feels he or she can do better than the person who came in first place and challenges him or her to a dance off.
This happened in the adult men’s category the year I was there. Two men had competed hard in the finals and the second place man decided that he could outdo the first place dancer. They both took to the stage together in a dancing dual. In previous years, there used to be duet competitions, in honour of the accounts that said that the Red River Jig was done in pairs, but this was taken out to make room for the elder’s category, an important change that now allows elders who are still dancing to compete with those their own age.
With the two dancers on stage, the first place dancer acts as the leader, doing a fancy step that the challenger has to pick up while the tune keeps playing. Step by step the first place dancer tries some of his most complex steps to throw his competitor off; the challenger tries to keep up by repeating every step he sees. If the first place dancer runs out of steps but his competitor can come up with one more, not already used, then the challenger becomes the first place winner, knocking the original winner into second place.
While steadfastly concentrating on the other’s feet – one was wearing beige moccasins and the other black dress shoes, both wearing t-shirts and jeans – the dancers faced each other and jigged step after step in a circular shape. In keeping with tradition, the basic steps were jigged in a travelling circle, while the fancy steps were danced facing each other on the spot. Both had a fluid quality that seemed to keep their knees bouncing as if effortless, and although they were dancing for first place, they never showed signs of tension in their upper bodies as they thought of the next step. Even as the minutes ticked by, they still looked like they were dancing on air, even laughing a bit at new steps and as the crowd cheered.
The challenger ended up fumbling a step, so the first place jigger did end up in first place after all. It was a good, old fashioned duel and left the audience buzzing. Too bad there was no whisky.
This is an excerpt from the book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada by Lori Henry.