Mary Janet MacDonald

Mary Janet MacDonald

Mary Janet MacDonald is a warm and welcoming human being. She’s genuine and wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s a champion of her many family members and friends, and their dreams. She has friends all around the world but she has that quality that makes the person she’s talking to in the moment feel important.

Though you don’t hear about it from her­—at least not in casual conversation—she must also be extremely hard-working and disciplined. She’s a wife, a mother of seven and a grandmother of 10. She’s also spent most of her life since graduating from high school in 1969 working outside the home, including more than 30 years with the school board in Port Hood “between maternity leaves” and about eight years travelling back and forth between her western Cape Breton home and the Alberta oilsands. She’s “retired” more than once and, at the age of 66, now travels to Halifax to work in homecare.

Mary Janet is also the consummate volunteer and organizer. For instance, during a stint managing the Strathspey Place performing arts centre in Mabou, she also volunteered to manage the high school musical ensemble Celtic Crew, made up of students attending Dalbrae Academy, which shares a space with Strathspey Place. Today, she co-chairs the charitable group 100 Women Who Care Rural Cape Breton.

She has a lovely singing voice. And she and her husband Cecil have passed on their musical abilities, with their children being involved in bands from Kilt to Company Road. Their youngest child Mitch created a bit of a stir in Inverness County and beyond in 2008 when he competed in the reality series Canadian Idol, eventually becoming the runner-up.

However, Mary Janet herself is best known in Nova Scotia and around the world as one of the top practitioners and teachers of the highly engaging style of step dancing that the Scottish Gaels brought to northeastern Nova Scotia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and fostered in the New World. Some researchers question whether the dance style that Mary Janet performs is of Scottish Gaelic origin, although others—such as Scottish musician, bagpipe maker and researcher Hamish Moore—vigorously defend the connection.

Mary Janet has appeared countless times on stage over more than 60 years and many times on television. She also produced two step dancing instructional videos.

There’s a direct line from the dancing of Mary Janet’s great-grandfather Big Dan Cameron—born almost 170 years ago—to her own dancing. The link in that chain was her grandaunt Margaret Ann (Cameron) Beaton, the woman who raised Mary Janet after her mother Margie died and the woman she called Mama. Margaret Ann’s daughter Minnie—who is Natalie MacMaster’s mother—was also instrumental in Mary Janet becoming a dancer. The two consider themselves sisters.

Mary Janet knew a lot of loss at a young age. She also received a lot of love. You’ll notice in her story that she doesn’t use euphemisms for death such as “passed away.” One gets the impression that she lives each day to the fullest because she knows tomorrow is never guaranteed. And, reassuringly, living life to the fullest means she’s still dancing …

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