Ottawa Valley Culture

Fiddling and Step Dancing

Irish immigration shaped the history of communities throughout the Ottawa Valley including Carp, Renfrew, Fitzroy Harbor, Shawville and Bristol. The Ottawa Valley Irish culture became extremely distinctive. As contact with Ireland decreased, it merged with French Canadian and other settler cultures. This cultural milieu created various distinct linguistic dialects that can only be found in the Ottawa Valley. It also led to a distinctive Ottawa Valley style of step-dancing, fiddling and song.

Ottawa Valley step dance has developed from its roots in Irish and Scottish dance into a percussive and dynamic style. Step dancing is considered a form of music much like playing the piano or fiddle. Dancing on most occasions replaces other forms of percussion and adds value because of its high energy and visual impact. In contrast to Cape Breton step dancers, who keep their feet close to the floor and their arms straight to their sides, Ottawa Valley dancers step high, and incorporate arm movements in their choreography. Valley step-dancing is fast, energetic and fluid, requiring great coordination of legs, feet and ankles.

Where there are step-dancers, there are also fiddlers, and the Ottawa Valley has produced some of the best Canadian fiddlers (see Brian Hebert's story below) with their own unique styles of jigs and reels. You can get a feel for the Ottawa Valley style at the Annual Old Time Fiddling and Step Dancing Championships on Labour Day Weekend in Pembroke. On Saturday evening of the championship 'Playdowns' competitors challenge each other and themselves to faster and faster tempos.

Brian Hebert, native to Pembroke, fell under the spell of the fiddle at the age of eight after hearing Canadian Fiddle legend Warden Allen. Soon after he was playing shows and dances up and down the Valley and appeared on Mac Beattie’s radio shows. He is a Master Fiddler, fiddle competition judge, instructor, composer and recording artist. Many of his tunes have become standards. He was a consultant and player for the National Museum of Man Mercury Series and Artistic Director for the prestigious Fiddles of the World Convention in 1999. More recently, he was awarded Canadian Grand Masters “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his contribution to the development of fiddle music.