Dobbin Atlantic Scholar Report: A study of Acadian dance – injury, profile and the role of dance in Acadian identity

June 21, 2018

Dobbin Atlantic Scholarship 

Scholar’s Report on visit to “La Baie en Joie” and “La Swing du Suête”, Nova Scotia in May/June 2018:

“A study of Acadian dance – injury, profile and the role of dance in Acadian identity”

by Dr Roisin Cahalan, School of Allied Health, University of Limerick

The Acadians in Nova Scotia are descendants of French colonists who settled in the early 1600s in what is now eastern Canada. Tensions between France and Great Britain led to the deportation of an estimated 11,000 Acadians by the British between 1755 and 1762. In the first deportation, Acadians were dispersed to the British colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia. In subsequent deportations they were transported to France. A number of Acadian families managed to escape and others were imprisoned. Acadian prisoners, refugees, and deportees were eventually allowed to resettle in distant corners of Nova Scotia, far away from the fertile lands they had farmed for over a century. Two Acadian areas in particular are famed for their dance culture, namely Chéticamp on the west coast of Cape Breton Island, and the Clare region in southwest Nova Scotia. I visited both of these communities to explore their dance culture and the role of same in their identity.

What is Acadian dance?:
Contemporary Acadian dance varies from region to region and borrows from a plethora of traditional dance genres, including Scottish Highland and Irish Sean-nós dancing. It may be performed individually or as part of a group. According to Acadian dance historian, Dr Barbara LeBlanc, the earliest dances were originally French round-dances, or song-dances, many of which have been lost over time. Two dance groups in particular are associated with Acadian dance in Nova Scotia, namely “La Baie en Joie” in Clare, western Nova Scotia and “La Swing du Suête“ in Chéticamp, Cape Breton island.

“La Baie en Joie” was formed in 1979 by Anne-Marie Comeau, who is a leading choreographer with the group to this day. The company is comprised of an elite group of high school dancers, who are selected from the best dancers in the locality. For nearly 40 years, the group has performed and competed at festivals and dance competitions in Canada and internationally. “La Swing du Suête“ celebrates 20 years since its foundation by Paul Gallant from Prince Edward Island. “La Swing” as it is known, is comprised of teen dancers, with a younger group “La Petite Brise”, and an adult group “Encore du Vent” ensuring continuity amongst the generations. Unlike the dancers from “La Baie en Joie”, this group is not competitive, and focus on performance only.

Founder of La Baie en Joie, Anne-Marie Comeau (centre) with choreographers, Christiane Theriault and Monette Boudreau.

As part of my research trip, I visited with both groups, and had the opportunity to carry out focus groups and conduct on-line interviews. This yielded a fascinating insight into the similarities and differences between these two Acadian communities. The style of dance was markedly dissimilar in both regions. The dancers from “La Baie en Joie” use shoes with metal taps, similar to tap dancing shoes, and there is a strong rhythmic component to their dancing. The dancers are highly drilled, with precision and uniformity evident in their group performances. They use props such as wooden spoons and ribbons to great effect, and there is much stagecraft evident in their lively performances. The dancers from the Chéticamp region exhibited a style that was a little looser and less regulated. The dancers use a similar “shuffle” step to their contemporaries from Clare, but the shoes are untipped. The dance is comparatively less energetic, but there is great freedom in the individuality that this affords the dancers. The dancers from Chéticamp ranged in age from nine or ten, up to dancers in their seventies. Dancers from both groups were predominantly female, with only one male dancer involved in either group.

La Baie En Joie in rehearsal, May 2018

Research findings:
The objectives of this research trip were two-fold, namely to develop biopsychosocial profiles of the dancers, with special reference to injury, and also to explore the extent to which dance was a cultural identifier for the Acadian communities. The former objective was addressed via a two-part online questionnaire, with part one focused on injury, and part two exploring the characteristics of the dancers. An additional aim to screen the dancers physically was logistically impossible and was not pursued. The objective related to cultural identity was conducted via semi-structured focus group interviews. Ethical approval for all facets of the research was granted by the ethics committee at the University of Limerick, and written informed consent was obtained from all participants.

Injury in Acadian Dance:
The dancers were asked to record any injury they had sustained due to dance in the previous twelve months. Of 35 dancers who completed this questionnaire, ten dancers reported having sustained one injury, and the remaining dancers were uninjured. Of these ten injured dancers, nine were able to continue to dance either fully or partially, with the tenth dancer missing only one week of dancing due to injury. This low level of injury comparative to other dance genres such as ballet, contemporary or Irish dance, was confirmed during focus group interviews with the dancers, and is indicative of the relatively low impact nature of Acadian dance.

Characteristics of Acadian dancers:
This questionnaire which investigated several biopsychosocial traits of the dancers has been used previously in other groups to compile a profile of a typical dancer from those genres. This section was completed by 27 of the dancers and explored a range of factors including dance background, general health, sleep, nutrition, pain beliefs, passion for dance, and motivation for dance.

Dance as a cultural identifier:
Focus groups with adult dancers from Chéticamp and adolescent groups from both regions provided valuable insights into the role of dance in their cultural identity. All dancers reported that they identified as Acadian first and foremost, ahead of either Nova Scotian or Canadian. All reported dance as an important representation of their identity. In Chéticamp, dance was closely intertwined with music and song, with many dancers also reporting that they played the fiddle. In Clare, the emphasis was more solely on dance. All groups reported their pride at representing Acadian culture via dance through performances nationally and internationally. Adolescent dancers also regularly reported impromptu dance performances at any given place and time. All dancers reported the social importance of dance, providing them with close friendships and relationships, described frequently as akin to family. The older dancers in particular identified the joy and sense of achievement at participating in dance and performance, especially if they came to dance at an older age.

Contacts and future projects:
This scholarship has provided the basis for several relationships with potential for further collaboration, including;

Dr. Barbara Le Blanc: Close collaboration prior to and during this visit provided most of the foundational information required for this project. Future projects related to the archiving of Irish and Acadian dance traditions are likely.

Mr. Paul Gallant: Paul facilitated two Irish dance workshops which I delivered for the dancers in the Chéticamp region. The dancers are extremely enthusiastic to come and perform in Ireland and I have committed to support this aspiration with introductions to appropriate parties in the Irish dance community. I also hope to return to Chéticamp to teach more workshops in the future.

Mr. Cliff Le Jeune: Cliff is the head of Dance Nova Scotia and sponsored my trip to the Maritimes. We share a passion for dancer welfare and have spoken about initiatives that are of mutual interest to us both, particularly with regard to protection of the young dancer.

Ms Elizabeth McDonald: Elizabeth is a renowned teacher of Irish and Scottish set dancing in Nova Scotia. In conjunction with Cliff Le Jeune, she also has a passion for the benefits of dance for health in older adults, and for persons with Parkinson’s disease. There are currently similar projects in train at the University of Limerick and I have connected the relevant parties with a view to mutual knowledge exchange.