On a sunny afternoon, a sleepy street in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood transforms into a sidewalk hoedown as Donna McDougall leads a crew of dancers through a country-western routine of shuffles, swivels and scuffs.
“Sometimes, I get fancy,” McDougall demonstrates for the class, her sneakers spinning across the pavement. “I do the odd twirls, but you don’t need to do that.”
Veteran boot-scooters and beginners alike are welcome to join McDougall’s daily one-hour line dancing sessions, so long as you can find a spot where you can weave back and forth while maintaining a two-metre distance from your neighbour.
Since COVID-19 has restricted gatherings and activities, some Canadians are taking up line dancing as a form of group fitness, which by tradition limits physical contact between participants.
“There’s a lot of people struggling with various things (like) isolation or loneliness,” McDougall, 65, said in an interview.
“And for that one hour a day, I know this is making them happy.”
McDougall, who has lived in the west-end neighbourhood for more than three decades, typically teaches line dancing class once a week at her local YMCA, but classes were cancelled in mid-March because of COVID-19 measures.
Over a virtual coffee chat, she and her neighbours discussed ways they could help older and isolated members of the community. Someone suggested McDougall take her line dancing classes outdoors, but the idea of synchronized sidewalk performances struck her as potentially “hokey.”
Eventually, she decided to give it a shot. She started sending out virtual invites in late March to a select group of friends and neighbours, enlisting her husband to act as “traffic cop” as she broke down basic moves from grapevines to K-steps.
Dancing with her back to the students so they could follow her footwork, McDougall said she was only faintly aware of the hullabaloo brewing behind her wide-brimmed cowboy hat.
“It’s like a little bit of a movement,” she said. “More people came out. Then cars would come by, they would honk. People would take my picture, presumably just to show people, ‘Look, there’s this crazy lady.’”
Demand grew to the point that she had to bump up her schedule from a couple of classes a week to hour-long sessions every afternoon, catering her choreography to suit people of all ages and abilities.
She ordered a high-powered speaker to ensure people down the block could follow along to the beat, mixing up her playlist with tunes ranging from the R&B-inflected “Cupid Shuffle” to a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody of country classic “Achy Breaky Heart.”
Neighbour Christine Jermyn said the classes have made a “huge difference” not only as a form of physical recreation, but social interaction as well.
“This is something to look forward to,” said Jermyn, a line dancing novice who hopes to keep up her routine after lockdown lifts.
“It helps to keep you in a better mindset.”
McDougall said she gets just as much out of the classes as her dancers, choking back emotion as she kvells about the progress they’ve made in a matter of weeks.
Even for the people who prefer to watch from their porch, she said the music, movement and merriment has helped restore a sense of vitality to the community.
“It almost makes me forget that we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
The two-stepping fervour has also taken hold in Calgary, where even police have been swept up in the proud Western pastime.
The Calgary Police Service posted a video to their Facebook page last month that showed officers kicking up their heels with community members in a parking lot.
Sean Buckley looked forward to teaching line dancing lessons every Friday night at Ranchman’s Cookhouse and Dancehall, a must-visit on any cowgirl or cowboy’s tour of Calgary.
But since moving his classes online, Buckley said he’s been able to share the exuberance of line dancing with a whole new audience, and is even learning sign language to make his instructions accessible for people who are hard of hearing.
Buckley sees line dancing as a potent antidote to the languor and loneliness of lockdown.
You don’t need a partner to participate, or even an invitation to the dance floor, said Buckley. It’s a solo dance that’s performed in groups, so it naturally breaks down social barriers, even though dancers aren’t supposed to make physical contact.
“My dancing really fits that model of keeping together but apart,” said Buckley. “It keeps that sense of community.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2020.
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press