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An Edwardsville man is hoping people will promenade over to the Cedars Club and help preserve a great Cape Breton tradition.
Elmer Fraser, 83, is planning a huge square dance Saturday at the Cedars Club in Sydney and he hopes he won’t have to hang up his own dancing shoes afterward.
After organizing square dances for 31 years, Fraser says a lot of regulars are getting older and the younger people aren’t coming, so crowds have dwindled.
“If I don’t get the crowd it will be my last one.”
There won’t be the haystacks, wagons or big barn doors. However, Fraser says three great musicians — fiddlers Michael Hall, Brent Aucoin and Donna Marie DeWolfe and pianist Joel Chiasson — will set the atmosphere for square dancing, often described as "friendship set to music.”
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Everything started 64 years ago, with Fraser’s love for square dances. At age 19 he began to attend the dances in Baddeck.
“It was all young people and there were so many girls around you had your pick to dance with.”
Fraser liked watching Clay Carmichael and his dancers doing the Cape North set. He got to know Carmichael and one night he asked if he’d come down to Cape Breton County and show them how to do these square-dancing sets.
“The Cape North sets are kind of nice sets, so I thought it’d be fun,” he said.
Carmichael came with his wife Cathy and John Montgomery and his wife Gail, to a home in Frenchvale. About 12 people took part and after four or five lessons they urged Fraser to put on a dance. Fraser organized his first dance at the little hall in Edwardsville.
ASHLEY BRINGS HIS FIDDLE
The following year Fraser brought in Ashley MacIsaac, an award-winning Cape Breton fiddler who was only 13-years old at the time in at the Holy Rosary church hall in Westmount.
“He came with the white shirt and tie on,” Fraser said.
Dances were also held in Fraser’s barn during some summers before the hay went in.
“There were bales of hay for people to sit on and the hay wagon was the stage,” he said.
One night Fraser had fiddler Lee Cremo playing in the barn and Ashley MacIsaac arrived with the late Canadian folk singer John Allan Cameron. MacIsaac had been performing at the Savoy Theatre that night and came over afterwards. The atmosphere was electric, Fraser said.
“I thought it was something, having three names like that playing in your barn.”
Over the years Fraser would organize square dances every two or three weeks.
The largest crowd was a night MacIsaac had confirmed to play about 10 days before. The only venue available was the Westmount fire hall. MacIsaac had performed in Antigonish that afternoon.
“Ashley sat in the chair at 10 p.m. and never got back up until 1 a.m.,” Fraser said. “That night I had the biggest crowd I ever had, 270 people.”
The last time MacIsaac played at a square dance was about five years ago at the Westmount legion.
“He’d always draw a big crowd,” Fraser said. “Every time I see him he says he still owes me a dance but I didn’t get it yet.”
50 DIFFERENT FIDDLERS
Over the years more than 50 different fiddlers and many piano players have played at Fraser’s square dances, including Richard Wood, Wendy MacIsaac, Stephanie Wills, Howie MacDonald, Kinnon and Betty Lou Beaton, Rodney MacDonald, Cremo, Glenn Graham and Joel Chiasson.
Fraser always gave young fiddlers a chance to play when they were first starting out, including Gillian Head from New Waterford and Donna Marie DeWolfe of St. Peter's.
At Fraser’s events, the dancers do what was known as the Sydney set, a style unique to the area. The fiddler starts with a jig and then goes into two reels. A caller is not needed because everyone knows and does their stuff. If people come who don’t know how to square dance, someone will guide them through a square set, so anyone can attend.
A few waltzes are played during the evening and at about 10:45 p.m. Fraser brings the step dancers out.
“Different people all go out and do their thing one at a time.”
Fraser hopes young people will come out for the dance Saturday, as well as the old regulars.
“The square dancers of Cape North are expected up for this dance, too.”
FRASER GIVES BACK
Fraser said when the dances first started they were held at the Holy Rosary hall in Westmount and anything he made was given to them. He has also given more than $5,000 to the Cape Breton Regional Hospital as well as other charities.
There have also been nights he has taken good losses
“Over the years anything I made I gave to charity.”
REMEMBERING THE DANCES
Lilly-Anne MacNeil of Sydney use to go to the square dances as a young girl, but it’s been at least 25 years. MacNeil is planning to be at this one.
The atmosphere is what draws her.
“There’s something about the square-dancing music that connects people of different generations,” she said.
“Sometimes the fiddler will suddenly break into a polka. It’s a lot of fun.”
THE HAY STACKS
Ashley MacIsaac remembers Fraser holding square dances in his barn.
“It was an actual barn,” he said. “There would be haystacks set up people would be sitting on.”
After MacIsaac had performed a few there he told his friend Richard Wood about them and Wood played at some, as well as Stephanie Wills and MacIsaac’s cousin Wendy MacIsaac.
MacIsaac said Fraser’s crowds were good so when winter came the dances were switched to halls in Westmount and Point Edward.
After MacIsacc he got his driver's licence at 16, he began playing in a hall for Fraser and loved it.
“We did those for a number of years and they’d be rockin’,” he said.
“It was great because being an Inverness County musician any opportunity I got to play a little further from home, we were playing for a new audience.”
When fiddling for a square dance in West Mabou, Glencoe or Port Hood, MacIsaac said the standard square set was two figures of jigs and one figure of reels. At Fraser’s square dances in Sydney, the set was one figure of jigs and two figures of reels.
“It was harder, you needed to know more tunes, you had to play faster during the night — that in itself was an uplifting thing as a musician to get that practise,” he said. “The audience loved it and were all great dancers. For any musician that’s not only the best place to practise but when people like what you’re doing you try your best.”
As well, at the dances MacIsaac said Fraser always made them feel comfortable and always was be more than generous.
“He’d never scrimp on us, he’d pay us as much as we were getting anywhere else and sometimes more.”
NEVER FORGOT ELMER
MacIsaac said by the time he was 19 he went on tour with his band for a number of years. MacIsaac’s office in Halifax would get calls from around the world asking him perform. Even at the time — in the height of $10,000-a-night events — MacIsaac would go down to do a square dance for Fraser.
“It wouldn’t matter,” he said. “I’d be happy to show up and do something for Elmer.”
MacIsaac said when the big dance happens if available he’d be there. However, he was then disappointed to hear it was Sept. 28, a time he’s touring in Ontario.
“Since I can’t get down for this square dance, I’m hoping to do one next summer.”
When interviewed by the Cape Breton Post, MacIsaac was in New York.
He plans to be in Cape Breton for Celtic Colours.
“I’ll be bringing a great musician from Scotland — Phamie Gow — with me,” he said.
“It’s a real thrill to have her come with me.”
And MacIsaac said if someone doesn’t get a chance to see him at a Celtic Colours event, he always comes home at Christmas and plays a gig.
MacIsaac said he performs at the Old Triangle Irish Alehouse because friend Phil Dubinsky is the owner. However, he keeps telling Dubinsky, “One of these days I’ll have to say no when you ask me because I owe Elmer a dance. “
MacIssac said he believes Fraser will hold more square dance won’t be put on.
“I don’t think he’ll ever call it his last one until he has step dances.”
IF YOU GO…
- Square dance to be held at the Cedars Club in Sydney on Saturday, by ticket only.
- Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the Curiosity shop in Sydney, the Cedars Club, or by phoning 902-562-4036.