Recreational Dance | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Recreational Dance

Recreational dance refers to any form of dancing that is done primarily for its social, educational or health benefits; it includes social dance and amateur dance instruction and performance.

Recreational dance refers to any form of dancing that is done primarily for its social, educational or health benefits; it includes social dance and amateur dance instruction and performance. According to the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, dancing is among the 12 favourite recreational activities for Canadians of all ages. Many types of dance are popular in Canada, including traditional set and step dancing (such as Highland dancing and Cape Breton step dance), ballroom dancing (such as samba and tango) and urban dance (such as hip hop and raves).

Step Dancing

Step dancing has enjoyed uninterrupted popularity in rural areas across Canada. The 1990s resurgence of Celtic music and Celtic rock led to an increase in the number of children and adults taking instruction in a dance form that was once passed down from parent to child.

Highland Dancing

Highland dancing is popular throughout Canada among children of many backgrounds. Unlike other forms of step dancing that only include movement of the lower body, Highland dancing involves specific movements of the upper body, arms and hands. While it is possible to perform Highland dancing at the recreational level, it is generally a highly organized, technical and competitive activity. Standards for competition and advancement are set by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. ScotDance Canada coordinates sanctioned competitions in this country; the ScotDance Canada Championship Series features the Canadian Highland Dancing Championships and the ScotDance Canada Open Championships, with dancers from around the world. (See also Highland Games.)

Cape Breton Step Dance

The traditional Cape Breton step dance is close to the floor in shoes with hard leather soles. Dancers typically keep their backs straight, with their arms straight at their sides and an emphasis on quick, repetitive footwork. Unlike Highland dancing, there is no formal organization for Cape Breton step dance and no formal competition structure.

Ottawa Valley Step Dance

The Ottawa Valley style features high-flying legs and metal taps but involves a relaxed torso rather than the rigid upper body and arms associated with modern Irish hard shoe dancing. This distinctive Ottawa Valley style developed in the logging camps along the Ottawa River and includes French, Scottish, Irish, English and First Nations influences.

Step dancing is also popular in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Acadian regions of the Maritimes, Québec and among Métis populations on the Prairies (Red River jig).

Set Dancing

Traditional or old-time set dancing was popular throughout Canada in the early part of the 20th century and remains a feature of community dances in rural areas of the Western provinces and in parts of the Atlantic provinces, such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. Square sets have descended from quadrilles and are closely connected to step dancing. Many dancers do shuffling steps as they move through the figures, and some sets include breaks for step dancing between figures. It is not unusual, particularly in Cape Breton, for individuals to take the floor and perform a few steps between sets.

As the popularity of old-time dancing waned after the Second World War, different communities adopted and/or adapted a particular set and the role of the prompter diminished. In Cape Breton, for example, the set danced in Inverness is different from the set danced 22 km away in Mabou. When people moved from Cape Breton to points west and south, they took their dances with them. Regular dances are held in Cape Breton clubs in Boston, Windsor and Calgary. The best Cape Breton fiddlers and dancers are flown out for special dances so that even the grandchildren of former Islanders know the music and the dances.

Square and Round Dancing

Square dancing and round dancing are very sociable activities. Dancers visit other clubs and participate in a range of activities, from camping to community fundraisers. The dancing can easily incorporate novice dancers, as a main feature of the dances is to break down the steps, with one person calling to or cueing the dancers. The dancing couples form a single large square or circle around the room and dance the figures as they are cued. The activity has been adapted to include participation by those in wheelchairs and with other physical challenges.

The Canadian Square and Round Dance Society National Convention is a major event that is usually held every second year in a different part of Canada and hosts as many as 5,000 dancers, including visitors from all parts of the globe.

Country-Western Dancing

Country-western dancing includes the two-step, the waltz, line dancing and many westernized versions of ballroom and Latin dances, such as the cha-cha and samba. Although many of these dances are borrowed from ballroom and other social dance forms, they have been adapted to fit the rhythms of popular country and western music. Many of the steps have been codified for teaching and competition purposes.

Ballroom Dancing

Ballroom dancing generally refers to a series of stylized partner dances, including waltz, tango, quickstep and foxtrot (International Standard) and samba, rumba, cha-cha, paso doble and jive (International Latin). At the competitive level, it is referred to as DanceSport and not considered to be a recreational activity. American-style ballroom dance, mainly taught through franchised schools such as Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire, is more prevalent in the Prairie provinces than in eastern Canada or British Columbia.


In the 1990s, Montréal was considered the North American capital of Argentine tango. Tango is popular in larger cities across Canada among a wide demographic, with milongas (gatherings for dancing) taking place in bars, cafés and tango dance schools.


Salsa is a partner dance that was developed by Cuban and Puerto Rican New Yorkers in the mid-1970s. In the late 1990s, Canada experienced a salsa boom, marked by the first Canada Salsa Congress in Toronto. Before this, salsa in Canada was either street salsa (danced and sometimes taught by mainly Central American immigrants) or the competitive ballroom variety. Salsa has become increasingly popular in recent years, with schools flourishing, a handful of bars in major cities devoted to salsa dancing and weekly theme nights at other venues, including dance studios.

Samba and Capoeira

Samba is a dance from Brazil associated with the Carnival. Although it appeared in Canada around the same time as salsa, it has a smaller following, in part because it is a solo dance form and less conducive to amorous interaction. Capoeira, a dance/martial art hybrid danced in twos within a circle of onlookers, is another increasingly popular Brazilian form.


The largest swing dance scene in Canada is found in Montréal, with several schools devoted to the dance, weekly dance nights at various venues and a major championship event north of the city where aficionados isolate themselves in the country for a weekend of swing dancing. Smaller communities exist in Toronto, Ottawa and Waterloo, with pockets of activity in Halifax, Québec City, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver. The lindy hop, as danced in the 1930s in Harlem in New York, is considered the authentic swing dance. In British Columbia, a different variation known as West Coast swing, with ties to the Los Angeles scene, is more prevalent.

Hip hop

Hip hop emerged out of the South Bronx in New York in the early 1970s to become a global phenomenon. Its core dance, popularly called break dance but more accurately referred to as b-boying/b-girling, is a rhythmic and acrobatic solo street dance. Other dances associated with hip hop culture include locking and popping (two West Coast funk dances), new-school hip hop such as new jack swing and the hip hop dance of music videos, waacking and the more recent Los Angeles-originated krumping.

Hip hop is often associated with inner-city minority youth but is becoming more popular in the general population. Street dancers often organize themselves into crews to share their skills and compete, either on the nightclub floor or at organized competitions called battles. Battles can be local and community oriented or involve cash prizes and move crews or individuals on to larger, international battles.


Raves are another form of dance culture associated with youths. Raves are large-scale parties, sometimes in undisclosed locations, where participants dance all night long to electronic music. Rave scenes were huge in major Canadian cities throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, with Montréal maintaining a major following and Edmonton emerging with a small resurgence. While dancing is clearly the central activity at raves, the music and use of drugs (often ecstasy) have overshadowed most academic treatments of the rave phenomenon. (See also Raves and Drugs.)

Dance Instruction

Many children in Canada are introduced to dance through enrollment in formal classes. Ballet, jazz, tap and hip hop classes are offered in private dance studios and through community recreation and continuing education programs. Students attend weekly sessions for about an hour, receiving technical training and preparation for performances. Their teachers, who are usually trained in a particular system of dance, provide graded syllabi, examinations and medal testing for their students (see also Dance Education). Dance classes are also popular among adults, particularly women, who take instruction in forms like jazz, classical ballet, African dancing, belly dancing and flamenco.

Recreational dancers may also learn to dance informally, through family or community traditions, peer interaction or dedicated self-instruction. Social dances often include simple moves that dancers learn from one another and more complicated patterns that may require formal instruction. Through clubs, classes and performance troupes, members of specific multicultural communities practise folk dances.

Many street dances associated with hip hop culture were developed and initially shared in urban spaces like schoolyards, sidewalks and nightclubs. With the increasing availability of instructional videos and performance footage, self-instruction remains an important parallel to studio-taught classes for these forms. Many individuals learn through a combination of formal and informal situations.