[This is an excerpt from the Nova Scotia chapter of my book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada.]
It’s already 10:00 pm and the dirt road that has now become our link to Glencoe is encased by forest on both sides, lit only by our high beams. As the streetlights from the main road get farther away from us, we drive slowly through the one and a half lane road in between a forest that looks like it could grow in and swallow us at any moment.
My first plan upon hearing of the dance was to drive there on my own. Who do I know in Cape Breton? I was given oral directions like “it should be the second left” and “there might be a sign on the road, but it doesn’t have a name,” and was then printed out a Google Map. Of course, none of the country roads are even on Google’s radar, so there were hand drawn lines with landmark hints written beside them and arrows pointing to general spots. Everyone just knows how to get there – and if you’re coming from anywhere else on the island, Glencoe is just off the main highway – but from Iona it gets challenging.
Inside the country roads, there are a couple of forks we have to choose from, instinct taking over on which way to go. My fellow car mates have been going to the Glencoe dance since they were children, so it’s a matter of navigating through their faded memories to find the hall from this direction in such darkness. I am so glad I’m not driving alone, as I would most surely have turned around by now and reluctantly gone back to my empty hotel room.
After what seems like an hour on the dirt road, we finally detect light up ahead and the sound of a fiddle escaping through cracks in the closed doors. Young people are hanging out on the grass around the building, drinking beer stashed in the trunks of their cars; dancers are coming in and out of the front door to join in on the fun and then cool down from the heat inside.
We eagerly unload ourselves from the confines of the car, happy to get back outside to the warm summer night. I’m introduced to almost everyone outside as we gradually make our way towards the hall. Every time the front door opens, a whiff of a fiddle tune and musical feet escape the building and fill the black night with life. I follow the other four into the entryway where a middle aged woman collects $6 from each of us and puts a stamp on all of our hands.
The hall is already in full swing, with half of the crowd resting on benches around the perimeter and the other half twirling their partners in the middle. I am immediately swept into another era when family dances were marked on social calendars with anticipation and whole towns came together to spend the night revelling.
As a city girl, I often forget how small towns retain that charming old world feeling of kinship that gets lost when skyscrapers and office towers block so much human interaction. Here, they’re not divided by buildings, although I guess small town gossip can be just as dividing, but Cape Breton Island is like one big small town. You might find yourself driving for an hour to get to a dance, but if it’s billed as a good one (usually by who the fiddlers are), then you’ll see the same people from all over the island there.
I take a quick scan around the room at the smiling dancers in the centre, the sweating folks sitting down for a rest on the periphery, and a few of the older generation tending to the home baked goods and water being sold from a simple concession to my left. In front of me a young girl of about nine links arms with her grandfather and they gallop around the floor to get back to their position in the set.
Stashing my purse underneath the bench just to the left of the entrance, the current square set comes to an end and those sitting on the sidelines get ready to jump into the action. As if on cue, I hear my name, in a place where I only know the four people I came to the dance with, and look up to a smiling man in his 60s drenched in sweat.
“I was told to get you up on the dance floor,” he says, offering me his arm. How can I refuse?
Burton MacIntyre is a force of nature. His thinned white hair and knee replacement surgeries don’t dampen his spirit to dance at all. In fact, I’m sure he can out dance anyone in this room, which we do together until after 1:00 the next morning.
I learn the sets here by trial and error, allowing Burton to guide me in the right direction, in and out of the many partners who are doing the same thing. He yells out often, Gaelic cries that release his enthusiasm and enjoyment, and I can’t stop the smile from swelling on my face: am I infecting the rest of the hall or are their smiles infecting me? It doesn’t leave my face the entire night, only taking a break every now and then as I catch my breath.
Some of the younger women are excellent step dancers and keep it up during the setting steps of the squares. This is the old Highland way of dancing, a way many want to keep up. At the end of the 19th century, quadrilles became the popular dance of choice, so many dancers stopped step dancing through the figures.
I stick with the basic reels I have learned over the last couple of days, none of them as complicated as the ones I see here. I watch their feet intently and attempt to pick up steps here and there, trying them out in between sets. This is the way that step dancing has always been passed down from generation to generation, before there were dance masters who travelled from village to village teaching classes, before workshops and videos, when children would scrutinize their parents’ and grandparents’ feet on the dance floor and practice the steps until they came naturally…
This is an excerpt from the book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada by Lori Henry.