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The Red River Jig

by David Bolton

Manitoba Pageant, September 1961, Volume 7, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The Red River Jig was the most popular dance of all the early settlers at Red River including the Selkirk Settlers. It originated from the pow-wow of the North American Indian, though it also contained some of the essentials of European reels and jigs.

Jellico Lafreniere, current Manitoba champion of the Red River Jig, tells this story of the origin of the dance. In 1930, a Mr. Genthon wrote to the Winnipeg Free Press claiming that he had composed the Red River Jig. Challenged by Mr. Genthon, Patrick Pronteau stated in the newspaper that he had been present at a wedding in 1860 where Mr. Macdallas, the fiddler for the occasion, as part of the festivities, played a new jig which he had composed. Father Brocher christened it the “Red River Jig”. This is the story which is accepted by dancers of the jig in Manitoba.

The dance is performed as follows: two dancers face each other six feet apart and stand erect on their toes. The jig starts with a single shuffle with the right foot and then a single shuffle with the left foot. Every third shuffle the foot is raised backward to miss a beat of music. The object of the dance is to attain perfect shuffling in a variety of steps with as little body movement as possible. Dancers change sides by crossing over with a shuffle step and a hand clasp, and continue to dance six feet apart. Here are some of the steps that are used in the jig:

  1. Back step four times.
  2. Front step four times. Double.
  3. Front step four times. Single.
  4. Triple tap four times.
  5. Triple tap four times, accented right.
  6. Triple tap four times, accented left.
  7. Triple tap four times, accented right and left.
  8. Triple tap four times, accented double.
  9. Time tap.
  10. Cross over hand clasp with triple tap.
  11. Right tap turn.
  12. Triple tap four times.
  13. Double tap four times.
  14. Heel toe step four times, right foot.
  15. Heel toe step four times, left foot.
  16. Heel toe step four times, double.
  17. Triple tap, four times, half circle facing each other, cross over, hand clasp to places.

The jig is a fascinating dance to watch. It makes a person want to jump up and try it himself, although once on the floor he finds how fast and intricate the dance really is. A good dancer has a variety of steps, each distinctively different from the others.

(This description of the Red River Jig is taken from Women of Red River by W. J. Healy).

“The Red River Jig became widely celebrated. The man and woman dancing it faced each other and kept advancing and retreating a few jig steps towards and from each other with flourishes and fancy steps which varied with the skill and agility of the performers. When one or the other partner dropped out, his or her place was taken immediately by another dancer. Lady Dufferin saw it danced when she was in Winnipeg in 1877; she wrote in her journal: ‘The Red River Jig was danced for us. It is exactly the same as an Irish Jig.’”

The following accounts of dances at Pembina are taken from an article in Harper’s magazine, October 1860, which was from a narrative of a scientific expedition.

“Opening the door, and entering the log house, we were greeted by a chorus of ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’. All around the room, sitting upon the floor as Indians and tailors sit, were men and women, boys and girls - twenty or thirty in all.

Jigs, reels and quadrilles were danced in rapid succession, fresh dancers taking the place of those on the floor every two or three moments. The men wore trousers, belts and moccasins and the women wore gowns which had no hoops. A black eyed beauty in blue calico and a strapping Bois Brule would jump up from the floor and outdo their predecessors in figure and velocity, the lights and shadows chasing each other faster and faster over the rafters; the flame, too, swaying wildly hither and thither; and above the thumps of the dancers heels and the frequent ‘Ho! Ho!’ and the loud laughter, rose the monomaniac fiddle-shrieks of the trembling strings, as if the devil was at the bow.

This was the commalty. The next night when Joe Rolette gave a dance in his house we saw the aristocracy of Pembina. There was a better fiddle, and a better fiddler, and better dancing. Joe’s little boy of eleven, home from school at the Red River settlement, and his father-in-law of near seventy, were the best dancers. The latter was as tireless as if his aged limbs had lost no strength, and little Joe had extra double-shuffles and intricate steps, and miraculously lively movements.”

The Red River Jig, this distinctly western art of pre-Manitoba days, is fast becoming a forgotten dance. It is mentioned in only a few reference books and historical novels. Two of these are Red River Shadows by Olive Knox, and Black Rock by Ralph Connor. The jig is danced now only in contests, and few people really know the steps. It is still performed at reunions of the Selkirk Settlers, at old-timers’ picnics and by a few experts at private dances and weddings.

Few dancers of the Red River Jig would know how to write down the music of the dance and could only teach the jig and its music by example. Mr. Lafreniere learned to play the jig from a man so old that he could not play the fiddle but could only hum the tune.

Much of today’s generation has forgotten or lost interest in this dance. Mr. Lafreniere was forced to learn to play the fiddle as he danced the jig because of the lack of fiddlers.

Although the Red River Jig may diminish in popularity, this unique Manitoba dance will remain an important part of our province’s heritage.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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