Interviewer: Stan Louttit, assisted by Franziska von Rosen
Place: Moose Factory, Ontario
Stan Louttit: Please give us your name, and a bit about your background.
Barbara Baldhead: My name is Barbara Baldhead, now residing in One Arrow First Nation, Saskatchewan. I am originally from Moose Factory. My maiden name was Cheechoo. My father was Sinclair Cheechoo, who passed away six years ago and was a famous fiddler all the way up the east coast, down to Moose Factory and all the different areas. My father started fiddling at a very young age. I think he was eight or ten years old when he played for his first dance. Then he met my mother when she moved to Eastmain. Mother is from Neoskweskau (Inland community), born an Iserhoff. Her father Canon Samuel Isheroff was a fiddle player. There was music in the family on both sides. As a young girl, my mother was apparently a very famous dancer in the Fort George area. She was very fast on her feet. They said she seemed to be flying over the floor when she danced. When they moved to Eastmain my grandfather Samuel Iserhoff said they needed a minister over there. So they moved, my father was already living there with his parents. That is how my mother and dad met. My mother played guitar. Dad was already playing fiddle. They ended up accompanying each other when they would play in different areas. So the music was always with us when we were growing up. We heard it all the time from morning to night, as my dad played the fiddle every day. That was how we started to pick up the dancing. When we were young, we never knew that our mother was a dancer. She never talked about it. We started dancing and then people would come up to us and say: “You’re dancing like someone we knew years ago; her name was Janie Iserhoff.” I would say: “That’s my mother.” It was probably from both sides that the talent came with the dancing.
SL: Where do you first remember dancing? How old were you?
BB: I was not really into the dancing right away. It came out of a little fight that I had with my brother Vern. My dad was playing in the living room and I had to stand by him so Vern would not get after me. So I started dancing, stuck there for about two hours.
My dad was watching me and told my mother: “She is going to be a good dancer.” Then he started encouraging me to dance. After that, every time I heard the fiddle I would go and dance beside him. Then when you get into the teenage years you get into a different style of music. It was not until I was 25 years old, already living out west, where they have fiddle also but the styles are different. I watched them and I was interested in their style. So I mixed both and that is how I ended up dancing the two different styles. I started to watch the other dancers when I came to this area [Moose Factory], the Eastmain dancers, the Chisasibi dancers. If you look towards the north, you notice that the women’s feet are closer to the ground. And that is what they say about the Métis out west. In their Red River Jig their feet are closer to the ground. When you come farther south (from Chisasibi) towards Wemindji, Eastmain, they lift their feet up a little bit higher, the women and the men. This goes well with the crowd because they are trying to do different steps and styles. That is what people like. That is how I started implementing all these different styles.
SL: How do you feel when you are up there dancing? Do people recognize the style you are dancing in?
BB: Yes. It makes you want to dance even more. When you listen to the music the fiddler is playing you will notice there are different levels in the music. It will start like this, and then it will go higher, and then it will go down [referring to the sections change and melody changes in the sections, also the tessitura or range as usually one of the two main sections will be in a higher pitch range than the other]. That is when you know to change your steps. You listen to the tune that the fiddler is playing, you don't just go up there and dance right through. Some dancers do not listen to the tunes. I am always listening to fiddle music. You sing with it and then you know where those changes are. Usually they will play four sets. They play their tune and change, and then they start it again and do it four times over. So you know when it is going to end.
SL: When you were a child, did your father go through sets like that in your home?
BB: Oh, yes. He knew when, and my mother knew when she accompanied him. Both knew when to stop. They would do those four sets. The tunes that they play on the east coast are all fast, very fast music. You won’t see waltzes or foxtrots; all you will see is fast music. That is all they do.
SL: Do you know why that is the case?
BB: Maybe they never learned them. I don’t know. On the east coast many, many years ago it was the Scottish and the Irish. Then the inhabitants picked it up and became very good at it. They always played fast, fast tunes. But all of the tunes they play now are more recent tunes. There are only a few fiddlers that play the old style tunes from way, way back now. Have you watched that movie "The Fiddlers of James Bay"? The two fiddlers go to the Orkney Islands. That was the old style of fiddling that they were playing. They are losing that now as everyone likes the fast, fast tunes. That is what they want to come and see. It is exciting to watch. It is like a show. I enjoy doing that, and it's good exercise at the same time. When I hear the music, I feel it, and I think it goes back to growing up with it as a kid. When I hear fiddle music I think about my father. My father was a very good fiddler. Everywhere I go people acknowledge my dad; how well he picked up the tunes, and how fast he learned the tunes. They said he could learn a new tune within ten minutes.
SL: Your uncle James Cheechoo was also a fine musician.
BB: Yes, he also played old tunes. I think it started from their father Noah Cheechoo, who was also a fiddle player. The sons picked it up. My father had a brother named Simeon Cheechoo. He played fiddle. George, another brother, also played, and then Lawrence Cheechoo played too. I guess some of them were more serious about their fiddling and kept it going. My father and my Uncle James were the last two brothers that carried it on. James still plays.
SL: With the step-dancing, you were doing the Chisasibi style and the Eastmain style. You were also creating your own steps.
BB: Yes, I do both of those types but I incorporate and mix them too. A lot of people like that, when they can recognize either Chisasibi or Eastmain styles. Both areas have good dancers, so I try to incorporate all of them in my dancing because I enjoy dancing so much. I do not get tired very often.
SL: What do they think about the mixing of styles?
BB: When you go up the coast there are not many dancers who are mixing the steps because it can get somewhat confusing. I find that people like to see the main styles and then what else can be done with them. That is when people really come up to me and say "you have to be related to Janie Iserhoff". All the communities on the coast compliment her on her dancing. When they had square dancing, the older men always wanted to grab her as a partner.
From what my mother said about the Chisasibi style farther up north, the women kept their feet closer together. The only part of the foot that was touching the floor was the ball. Their heels were bouncing. They would just slide back. I do not know if it was supposed to indicate a kind of animal, but that was how the women were dancing.
SL: It was a very light form of dancing.
BB: Yes, but in moving farther south, as in Eastmain style, they move around more, forward and backward, lifting a bit more to put that extra little step in there. I do not know if it was done that way many years ago, but that is the style they use in Eastmain. When you see them dance that way, it really gets the crowd going. It is almost as if they are waiting for them to do something extra. They are all waiting for it when these dancers are coming on with their steps. They can already distinguish which community you are from by the way you dance. I must be from a lot of communities!
SL: You've done a good job of highlighting their individual styles.
BB: It is always good to ask them, because certain people have different versions of certain kinds of dances. And it is not just the step-dancing that is done during the dances; square dances can last anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes. They can go up to ten couples. Anywhere from six to ten couples can be used for square dancing. They have to have usually a couple of fiddlers up there because they can get tired out. If the dances are too long, you can notice that when one fiddler is exhausted, another will step in. That is how they take their breaks.
The fiddling from the east differs from the west. The Métis have the Red River Jig and in that they dance to outdo the fiddler. They have a little competition. Who is going to play out first? Things change over time but they try to incorporate the old ways too.
SL: Your uncle James Small was known to be a very good dancer in his younger days. He said that he listened very carefully to the music of the fiddler and even Clarence Louttit told him that sometimes James would go ahead of him on the changes so that [Clarence] would have to follow the dancer. Do you find that ever happens in your dancing?
BB: Yes. Sometimes if you change a step ahead of the fiddler, because the fiddler is always watching you too and he sees you change, then he will change too to keep up with you. Then it doesn’t throw anybody off. I guess it goes both ways, and I guess you try to keep up with the fiddler too. When you listen to the tunes, you know when he is going to change in his tune and that is when you change your steps also. You have to listen to the tunes over and over to know their structure. It is like memorizing words for a song, you memorize the tunes.
SL: Did you ever get comments from fiddlers when they acknowledged the way you danced?
BB: Yes. I have had a lot of comments from fiddlers. Sometimes fiddlers will actually come up to me and ask if I am going to dance. Sometimes it helps them if they know there is a good dancer on the floor, as it inspires them to play well too. They will be in tune with each other and they do not have to worry because they know we are working together. Fiddlers will sometimes say: “You must know a lot about fiddling because you know exactly when to change.” I just say: “Well, my dad was a fiddler.” That is how you get to know the tunes and the names of the tunes also. That is how you request your favourite tunes.
SL: When you moved to Saskatchewan, was that the first time you saw the western style?
SL: What did those people think of you bringing in another style and mixing them?
BB: I moved out to Saskatchewan in, I believe, 1976. They have a lot of fiddle dances there, they call them Dry Dances. So I went with a friend and checked it out. They do different pattern dances, like old tyme dancing, and so I watched. Perhaps I watched them for four dances and learned their steps. Towards the end of the evening they bring up the Red River Jig. It was the first time I ever saw that. A couple goes and they do what they call a polka step. Then they have a change, similar to what we have here with the different changes. When they do their change, that is when they throw in their fancy steps, then they go back to the polka step. I was watching that and I was really amazed. I have never seen this kind of dance before. I watched them for probably four dances. Then I was brave enough to go up and try it. I said to myself, I am not going to use the polka step, I am going to use the step that I learned from back home in the James Bay area. I danced for the first time and the people were watching and asking: “Where did she learn that?” I just told them that was the way we danced back home. I just mixed them up by using that and the jig steps that you use. After getting the compliments, I just said I was going to use it all the time now. The more places that I went to, people would see it and like it. I have used that approach all the time since then.
SL: Do you think you will be incorporating other type of steps as you travel to new places?
BB: Oh, yes. Everywhere I go I am always watching people for the different steps that they do. I try them out and then some of the steps I work out for myself dancing around in my living room. Then, if I like one, I start practising and that is how I get the different steps.
SL: In the third dance that you did, was there a specific order starting with the Chisasibi, followed by Eastmain, and then the mixture?
BB: Yes. I practise that routine. Once I get that one down, I try to add other little steps. I practise all the time. That keeps the momentum going. Then I am able to try other different ones.
SL: You were doing back kicks. Are those from the Saskatchewan style?
BB: No. That one I think I saw on TV someplace. I tried it and it worked. Some of the styles that I am using are from clogging as used in the Maritime area, although I did not know it at the time; but it is related to step-dancing.
SL: The front kick that you did almost seemed like it was from line dancing.
BB: That is one of the steps that they use in the Red River Jig. That step is very famous with a number of the Red River jiggers out there. Not many people can move their feet that fast. When I have the opportunity to meet with good dancers, I like to talk to them and find out what styles they like or where they learned a particular step. It is good to get that cross-cultural feedback and to implement different things. I don't really believe in doing only your own style from wherever you come. When you go into an area and are able to do some of their style, they like that too. It is part of sharing. Sometimes people will give you a history of where their dances came from.
SL: When you go to east coast communities, Chisasibi, Waskaganish, Eastmain, and so on, do you find that young people there are doing the same thing you are doing – keeping up the old style?
BB: Yes. You see much more of it when they have what they call the Open Dance. They usually do the square dance and that is where the little kids are coming out more to show their style. That is very important as the only way young kids are going to learn is when they have the opportunity to watch. That is the only way the old styles are going to continue. In some communities they say the children should be at home in bed, but in other communities they keep their kids up and let them dance. That is nice to see.
Franziska von Rosen: Is there a way of speaking about the different steps you use either in Cree or some other way?
BB: The different styles that they use, I never have really heard labelled with any names. I label my own steps. When I am practising I will say these are sliders. The way I move my feet, I know which is a slider. I know what the kicks are. I organize them in these different sections. I know what a trot is. That is how I name my little steps. I do not know if they give names to them over there, but it is more like a sliding motion that many dancers use.
SL: Perhaps people associated particular steps more with a community rather than actually naming the individual steps.
BB: Yes. Some people would say, that is Fort George [now called Chisasibi] style, or Eastmain or Wemindji, or they would know you were from the inland [inland communities as opposed to being known as a “coaster”; in the old days, if you lived in the above communities that are all along the James Bay coast, you were known as a “coaster”]. They will know from the style you dance.
SL: There must be many variations from community to community, or even within a community.
BB: Yes. When you go up the east coast, if people saw someone dancing really fast they would say he is from Eastmain. They say Eastmain are very fast dancers, very fast on their feet.
SL: There is a fiddler player here in Moose Factory who comes from there – Roger Weapenicappo.
BB: Yes. And he plays very fast too. And that is what they like too. The faster the fiddler goes, the faster you dance; it just keeps going and going. That really gets the crowd going.
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