We would like to explore the idea of cultural revitalization within the context of traditional Quebecois dance. This will be done through a fairly well-known example—Brandy Frotté from the town of La Baie. In this short article, we will explore when and how this tradition was first collected and promoted and what has become of its practice over the past forty years.
What is the Brandy?
The Brandy is a contra dance (a line of men facing a line of women) that is usually made up of four couples. This contra dance uses a melody in 3/2 time and step dancing takes place from beginning to end, and this makes the dance unique. This sense of uniqueness is further enhanced because the contra dance involves step dancing, which is on its own quite rare, and it is the only dance done in 3/2 time, a particularly captivating rhythm well suited for step dancing. The dance’s simple figures and complex steps make it an interesting and unusual case whereby equal importance is given both to the steps and the figures.
The Collection of ’73 and its Dissemination
The first known collection of this contra dance dates from 1973 and was done by Jean Trudel and Normand Legault. They filmed the dance at l’Anse Saint-Jean, in the Saguenay region, near the city of Chicoutimi. This dance soon made its way to folk dancing troupes around Quebec, who felt challenged by the technical step dancing skills required and drawn by its distinctive melody.
This was happening while Michel Brault and Andre Gladu were filming Louis Pitou Boudreault, Violoneux. In this movie, Boudreault concludes that this type of traditional music is still being played but that the dancing has disappeared. He was obviously unaware of the young people who had been reclaiming these traditions over the previous months.
It is interesting to note the close links between the collection of traditions and the revivalist milieu. The collected dancers were soon put in touch with young dancers seeking to learn their steps and their dance as well as musicians wishing to learn the melody.
From Folk Dance Gatherings to Staged Performances
Some folk dancers wanted to perform the dance exactly as it had been collected while others changed or adapted it to the stage according to different choreographic guidelines. Therefore, the dance did not disappear but gained a new lease on life through staged performances. In the 1980s and 1990s, a Brandy was occasionally danced in informal contexts of folk dance gatherings. However, since it is difficult to call out instructions for this dance, it was increasingly excluded from gatherings where callers play a central role. The Brandy is hard to call since there is a certain random element that is usually determined by the preferences of the lead couple. Since figures play a secondary or equivalent role to the steps, there is little in this dance for the caller. Finally, the Brandy requires superior technical skills in step dancing, which have become less common at folk dance gatherings since the year 2000.
A New Style of Music
The Brandy also attracted many musicians due to its original position within the Celtic repertoire since this 3/2 time tradition was retained only in French Canada and among the Métis. Moreover, the Brandy changed from a tune that accompanied step dancing during contra dances to become increasingly associated with a melody for solo step dancing. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the word Brandy became virtually synonymous with a musical tune played in 3/2 time. There have been an impressive number of melodies arranged in 3/2 time and given the name Brandy over the past twenty years. These include dozens of melodies composed for different instruments and by different traditional music bands.
Which dances should be revitalized and what means are at our disposal to control or guide their “transplantation”? It is quite difficult to foresee the results of a collection and its dissemination. It is even more difficult to predict how future generations will use this material.
The word transplantation is used because these dances or music are rarely revitalized in their original context but rather transplanted to a new environment (often an urban setting) among a population seeking to find a repertoire that had been lost and forgotten over the years or that was totally unknown to them.
The Brandy was transplanted because of collection efforts that took place in 1973, but soon found itself in very unusual conditions. The dance moved from informal gatherings to the stage, and the melody (along with many others inspired by it) became a completely distinct musical style with no relation to any particular dance form.