Màiri Britton: Finding Our Feet – Step Dancing in Scotland

For me, step dancing is essentially about connections: between dancers and musicians, places and communities, generations of friends and family, and of course, the connection of the steps themselves, strung like beads along the rhythmic thread of music.

I love step dance because it allows me to express the joy I feel when I hear traditional music with my whole body, allowing me to listen to music in a completely different way, with a more internal perspective. When I dance, I try to “get inside” the tune and improvise patterns of steps which flow through the music without too much conscious thought. I love the improvisatory nature of step dancing, whether it’s choreographing new steps or putting familiar steps together in new patterns, allowing each dancer to express their unique style and creativity.

I also love the feeling of continuity which comes from being part of a tradition of dancers connecting Scotland with emigrant communities in Canada through the generations. The style has changed and adapted over time of course, but the importance of that connection and history remains strong. Step dancing has helped me connect with fantastic people in Scotland, Ireland and Cape Breton, and I often think of them as I dance the steps they shared with me.

One such example is Mary Janet MacDonald, a skilled step dance teacher from Cape Breton and one of the first dancers invited over to Scotland in the ’80s to aid the reintroduction of step dance. I think of Mary Janet when I dance the steps she taught me in her kitchen during a visit last summer, and in turn I know that Mary Janet thinks of her Mama, Maggie Ann Beaton, who taught her as a child. The steps connect people through time and space, and we celebrate that connection every time we dance.

Since the first emigrants left Scotland in the 18th century to settle in Cape Breton, both places have shared a special relationship, particularly through our musical traditions. But a noticeable way our cultures have developed differently is how the Cape Breton community has maintained a sense of inextricable interconnection between music and dance, whereas some in Scotland feel we have been slowly losing that link.

The reintroduction of step dance to Scotland came about partly due to a frustration that styles of playing and dancing were becoming divorced from one another and overly refined. Folk were delighted to find an alternative in the drive, ‘dirt’ and swing of the Cape Breton style, starting something of a repatriation process to bring step dance ‘home’ to Scotland. The desire to keep revisiting Cape Breton to learn from the dance community has seen many dancers make the journey repeatedly across the Atlantic. We return with a deep and heartfelt attachment to the people, not to mention the wonderful square dances, sessions, outdoor summer concerts and extraordinarily beautiful landscapes. 

My first memory of step dance, however, was aged 8 at the Edinburgh Fèis and I simply thought it was another form of “Scottish” tradition, like the clàrsach or Gaelic song. I think this unconscious childhood acceptance that step dance was part of my culture encouraged me to carry on learning the style and discover more about its connection to Cape Breton. 

Naming and labelling art forms can be a sensitive issue, and I have no wish to negate the Cape Breton identity of step dance, but that being said, if we are to successfully reintegrate step dance into the contemporary trad music scene in Scotland, it needs to be in a form we have played a part in creating. The style of step dance practiced today in Cape Breton is not identical to how it first left Scotland, perhaps granting us in the ‘Old Country’ the freedom to start gradually adapting the style today. After all, what are traditions but a continual process of respectfully reinterpreting the past for future contexts, or borrowing from one style to breathe new life into another? If people feel step dance is a valid part of their cultural heritage, and that they have a role in shaping it, it can have a strong future in Scotland.

Ste Dance ClassI teach dance to all ages, which I love, and I try to share the step dance tradition as it has evolved in Cape Breton, but also encourage students to experiment with style, by making up their own or adapting existing steps. I incorporate some Gaelic puirt-à-beul (mouth music for dancing) as well, as dancing to the songs helps us attune more intently to the rhythm, and singing the Gaelic words helps internalise that rhythm. The Gaelic language luckily did not decline in Scotland to the same degree step dance did following mass emigration, and by grafting the rhythm of the steps back into the rhythm of the language, I hope we might come to strengthen both in the process.

The potential for step dance in Scotland with what we are – and could – be doing excites me, as I see how it can not only strengthen the connection between our music, dance and Gaelic traditions, but also help us interweave with other cultures, like Ireland, which has also seen rejuvenation in its traditional percussive ‘sean-nós’ dancing in recent decades. Projects such as Joy Dunlop’s ‘Las’ are celebrating the Scottish-Irish connection to beautiful effect. I lived in Donegal for a year and when I was researching a step dance called the Maggie Pickie I found strong connections to strathspey tunes and steps in the Scottish and Cape Breton traditions. On a cross-genre level step dancer Sophie Stephenson has started a fabulous project called TradBeats exploring the rhythmic connections between Gaelic puirt-à-beul, step dance, body percussion and beat boxing. And these are only a few examples!

I am constantly inspired by the creativity of the dancers and musicians I see around me and feel blessed to be part of a community full of such skill, passion and enthusiasm. I feel optimistic for where we can take step dance in the future and hope many more dancers will join us in shaping its journey.

Màiri is performing with Huradal on Mon 2 May alongside Siobhan Miller at 7.30pm, after leading sessions at the TradBeats workshop from 2pm. 


Select bibliography

Flett, J. F and T. M. Flett. 1996. Traditional Step-dancing in Scotland (Edinburgh: Scottish Cultural Press).

McGillivray, Allister. 1988. A Cape Breton Ceilidh (Sydney: Sea-Cape Music Ltd).

Melin, Mats. 2005. ‘“Putting the dirt back in”: an investigation of step dancing in Scotland’ (master’s thesis, University of Limerick). Available here.

———. 2015. One with the Music: Cape Breton Step Dance Tradition and Transmission (Sydney, Nova Scotia: Cape Breton University Press).


Màiri Britton teaches regular step dance classes in Edinburgh, as well as workshops and courses in Scotland, Ireland and North America. She performs with four-piece trad group Huradal, which focuses on the connection between step dance and Gaelic puirt-à-beul. She is currently studying for a Masters in Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh where her thesis focuses on the developing step dance tradition in Scotland. She sits on the Board of theTraditional Dance Forum of Scotland.


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