Pre-Confederation Dancing

One of the earliest references to dancing among the French settlers is provided by Father Le Jeune in an account dated 14 Aug 1636

European Observers of Indigenous Dancing

A history of social dancing in Canada had not been written by 1990, although some research was work appeared in the 1980s. As much research into folksong as had been accomplished, as little seemed to have been undertaken in instrumental folk music which, in the early centuries of European colonization, usually was dance music. The following lines therefore are in the nature of a sketch.

Dancing was one of the Indigenous activities that fascinated the European explorers (see also Indigenous Peoples). Their observations begin with the very first visit of Jacques Cartier in 1534. On the arrival of Cartier's ship at the Baie des Chaleurs, groups of Indigenous women and men waded into the sea, jumping, singing, and dancing and making great signs of joy at the visitors' arrival. With the Indigenous people, dance was not an isolated activity, but was linked with song, ceremony, and ritual, and early descriptions deal rather with their dancing's function than with its musical aspects. Marc Lescarbot in his Histoire de la Nouvelle-France (The History of New France, ed and transl W.L. Grant, Toronto 1907-14) and Father Gabriel Sagard-Théodat in his Histoire du Canada (4 vols, Paris 1636, 1866) devote considerable attention to Indigenous music and dancing, although their attempts at musical transcription are inadequate. A discussion of 17th-century chronicles of Indigenous singing and dancing is given in Amtmann's Musique au Québec (p 209-56).

Among 18th-century descriptions are those in Peter Kalm's Travels in North America (2 vols, New York 1966). For instance, the Swedish botanist described an Indigenous person dancing on 12 Oct 1749 at Prairie à Magdal (area of Fort St Jean, Richelieu River, Que): "A drum was lent them [the musicians] which they struck regularly, one beat after the other, singing at the same time... Sometimes the beats of the drum were further apart, sometimes quite close, and the Indian danced accordingly. Now and then he talked to the others who sang and beat upon the drum and they answered him. Sometimes they sang continuously, for the most part these words: Here I am, Here I am, etc." (vol 2, p 556). In the Journal du Marquis de Montcalm, 1756-1759 (ed Casgrain, vol 7 of series Collection des manuscrits du Maréchal de Lévis, Quebec 1895) a visit 21 Jan 1758 to the Hurons of Lorette is described. Montcalm noted three kinds of dance, Chaouénons, calumet, and découverte, and observed that the Hurons were influenced by French manners.

Baron de Lahontan, in his New Voyages to North-America (ed Thwaites, 2 vols, Chicago 1905) distinguished several types of dances: "The principal is that of the Calumet; the rest are the Chiefs or Commanders Dance, the Warriors Dance, the Marriage Dance, and the Dance of the Sacrifice... [In a war dance certain Players]... beat Time upon a sort of a Kettle-Drum; Every one rises in his turn to sing his Song; And this is commonly practis'd when they go to War, Or are come from it" (vol 2, p 423, 424). In September 1688 he watched some Algonquin tribes in the Green Bay region: "The Singing and Dancing lasted for two hours, being season'd with Acclamations of Joy and Jests, which make up part of their ridiculous Musick" (vol 1, p 169). The duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt described the visit in the summer of 1795 of a party of some 80 Indigenous people to Governor Simcoe at Niagara: "The Indians danced and played among themselves. Some of their dances are very expressive, and even graceful. A mournful and monotonous ditty, sung by one, and accompanied with a small drum, six inches high, and three in diameter, forms all their music... They dance around the music, which they frequently interrupt by loud shrieks. The hunting and war dances are the most expressive, especially the latter. It represents the surprise of an enemy, who is killed and scalped... The moment when the enemy is supposed to have breathed his last, a strong expression of joy brightens every face; the dancer raises a horrid howl, resumes his pantomine, and is rewarded by universal shouts of applause. When he has thus finished his dance, another enters the stage" (Travels through the United States of America, the Country of the Iroquois, and Upper Canada, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797; with an Authentic Account of Lower Canada, transl H. Neuman, London 1799).

As early as 1806 the Indigenous people gave "performances" of their dances. For example, the Lorette Indigenous people presented "War and Fancy Dances" in Quebec City 1 Jul 1806 before a European audience.

Composers were attracted by the exotic element, but Rameau's Les Indes galantes (1735) has no genuine Indigenous music. A Savage Dance in Rachel Frobisher's music notebook (Montreal 1793) has little of a savage sound. Stadaconé, Danse sauvage by Ernest Gagnon (Lovell 1858) is an interesting imitation of Indigenous music couched in 19th-century harmonies.

Dancing In New France

One of the earliest references to dancing among the French settlers is provided by Father Le Jeune in an account dated 14 Aug 1636: the Indigenous people were "begging that... some of our young people should dance to the sound of a hurdy-gurdy [vielle in French], that a little Frenchman held. This was granted them, to their great satisfaction" (Jesuit Relations, vol 9, p 269). The Jesuits had little interest, however, in reporting on dancing; and when they did comment it was with apprehension rather than approval. "God willing, the effects won't be lasting" (E.M. Faillon, Histoire de la colonie francaise en Canada, Montreal 1866, vol 3, p 397), exclaimed the chronicler when the first ball was held, 4 Feb 1667, on the occasion of Louis-Théandre Chartier de Lotbinière's promotion to a senior administrative position. But nothing was to stop the circle of colonial administrators and their coterie from indulging in dances and festivities. As revealed in "La Correspondance de Madame Bégon, 1748-1753" (Rapport de l'Archiviste de la Province de Québec pour 1934-35), the priests kept condemning and the upper crust kept on dancing. On 26 Jan 1749 Mme Bégon reports that the curé preached against parties and balls. He felt they were "wholly reprehensible" and that "mothers who escorted their daughters there were adulterers." He called the dance music "lascivious tunes which lead only to shameful pleasures."

François Bigot, the last intendant of New France, gave or participated in the balls, which took place several times each week during the winter season. This went on at Quebec right through the critical years of 1758 and 1759, much to the chagrin of the Marquis de Montcalm. "Grand ball this evening at the Intendant's. Crude sport, needless to say," he wrote, typically, 22 Jan 1758 (Lettres du Marquis de Montcalm au Chevalier de Lévis, ed Casgrain, vol 6 in series Collection des Manuscrits du Maréchal de Lévis). The only dance named is the minuet; thus Mme Bégon says "one sings wildly there, and prepares oneself to go to the ball and run through one's minuet" (20 Jan 1749), or M Bigot dances only two or three minuets, "c'est tout" (14 Feb 1749). One may say that the leaders of society were dancing minuets while Quebec burned!

The names of several dance masters are known, including François Moine dit Bourguignon in Quebec City, and Louis Renaud dit Duval in Montreal.

Dancing After 1759

In addition to the reports of travellers, newspaper advertisements for printed music became an important source of information about dancing in the period after 1759. Frances Brooke's novel The History of Emily Montague (London 1769, repr Toronto 1961) is set in Quebec City in the 1760s, and contains references to dancing as part of the social context of life there. The minuet remained the most frequently mentioned dance. Joseph Hadfield, in An Englishman in America (1785; ed Robertson, Toronto 1933), mentions an occasion at which 40 minuets were danced in an evening; but country dances also became popular. They were published in annual collections ('Country dances for the year 1790'). Pierre de Sales Laterrière in A Political and Historical Account of Lower Canada (London 1830) says "Never have I known a nation which so loves to dance as do the Canadians; they still dance the minuet, spelling it off with English dances" (p 61). The mixing of dances of different national origins, referred to here, was a typical and important development of the time. Unlike songs, which were bound to specific words, dance tunes and dance steps crossed boundaries easily, and it was the Irish country dances, jigs, reels, and so on, that were to become absorbed into the repertoire of the Quebec violoneux, with some adaptations (see Fiddling).

By the end of the 18th century there were settlements all around Lake Ontario, and at the capital of Upper Canada, Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), "as in all parts of Canada, they are much attached to dancing. During winters, there are balls once a fortnight", ('Canadian Letters... 1792 and '93,' Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatic Journal, series 3, vol 9, 1912, p 45). Isaac Weld, in his Travels through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada... 1795, 1796 and 1797 (London 1799), confirms that during the winter Canadians would visit each other for parties and "pass the day with music, dancing, card-playing, and every social entertainment that can beguile the time" (p 225).

Other dances popular about 1800 were the new quadrilles and mazurkas and the older hornpipes, reels, jigs, clogs, and strathspeys, and the cotillon (the latter a type of dance rather than a specific musical dance form). Little is known about the instrumental accompaniment for the dances. The term "les violons" appears to have been synonomous with dance band, just as "les hautboys" meant the wind band. Still, violins, whether played by a cultured amateur or a village fiddler, must have been the most common instruments; dancing masters used a miniature type, the kit or pochette, small enough to be tucked away in the pocket. But pipers and flutists also were pressed into service, and singing, whistling, hand clapping, or the thwack and jingle of the tambourine led the dancers when no melody instruments were to be found.

The "apple-bees" (described by W.L. Smith in The Pioneers of Old Ontario, Toronto 1923), held as the settlers harvested and prepared apples for winter storage, were occasions for music. "Then followed a supper and after that a dance... A wandering fiddler, usually an old soldier, would be called in. If there was no fiddler, the boys whistled, or the girls sang dance music through combs covered with paper" (p 68).

Fortunately, extant late-18th- and 19th-century manuscript books provide specific examples of dance music literature. (See Manuscript books.) The one of Rachel Frobisher of Montreal, begun in 1793, even includes directions for the dance steps. The book compiled by Allen Ash in the area north of Lake Ontario, for example, contains 13 waltzes, 7 hornpipes, 4 reels, 18 jigs, and 1 galop. The one of Havilah Jane Thorne (Bridgetown, NS, 1839) has many waltzes, as well as dances in 6/8 time. Publication of these collections would be of both practical and theoretical value. The Don Messer collection at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia includes in notation many traditional dances that have an early-19th-century origin.

As the 19th century wore on, a distinction between the folk dances of the rural and remote regions and the ballroom dancing of urban middle-class society became apparent, but both kinds flourished. From the 1830s onwards, Canadian dance compositions began to appear. Soon they constituted one of the music publishers' most important products, second only to songs, and slightly ahead of march music. The minuet had gone out of fashion, and the waltz reigned supreme until the early 20th century, but polkas, galops, mazurkas, and quadrilles were popular with Canadian composers and publishers. There also were polka-mazurkas, lancers, redowas, and such novelty dances as the money musk (the dance may be a variant of the 18th-century Scottish strathspey "Monymusk," or the name may be a corruption of 'monkey musk,' the common name of the flower mimulus luteus which could be construed as resembling a dancer) and the brandy (yet another variant of the branle, bransle, brantle, or brawl, the dance which takes its name from the French verb "branler," to sway?).

To the extent that composition provided any income to the Canadian musician, dance music was the bread and butter of that income, and even the most learned musical practitioners - for example, George William Strathy, Antoine Dessane, or Calixa Lavallée - wrote dance music for the larger public. Among the better-known composers of dance music in the 19th century may be listed A.J. Boucher, Henry Prince, Charles W. Sabatier, and Joseph Vézina.


Further Reading

  • Massicotte, E.-Z. 'La valse au Canada,' BRH, vol 39, Apr 1933

    Guillet, Edwin C. Early Life in Upper Canada (Toronto 1963)

    Fisher, W. Allen. 'Fiddling in retrospect,' CME, vol 16, Winter 1975

    Courville, Louise. 'Danses et contredanses dans le Québec du XVIIIe siècle,' Tic-Toc-Choc, vol 4, Feb 1983

    Quigley, Colin. Close to the Floor: Folk Dance in Newfoundland (St John's 1985)

    Voyer, Simonne. 'Quadrilles et cotillons,' La Danse traditionnelle dans l'est du Canada (Quebec City 1986)

    Gallat-Morin, Elisabeth, and Pinson, Jean-Pierre. La Vie musicale en Nouvelle-France (Quebec, 2003)