The Red River Jig
by David Bolton
Manitoba Pageant, September 1961, Volume 7, Number 1
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:
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 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.
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