When I was 17 or so, I worked evenings at a dentist’s office. At first, it carried the thrill of a secret world: The office building was locked — just me and the janitors and the whir of the autoclave. Then it was stultifying. I worked for only two hours at a time, but those two hours stretched out endlessly, a canvas for my teenage dread and insecurity. The families I was calling with appointment reminders often mistook me for a machine. I was there to develop some kind of work ethic, but all I could think about was the awful, oobleck-like quality of time. I tried singing between calls. I looked for constellations in the ceiling tiles. What I remember working best — what still works, when I feel the trapped-bug flutter of a panic attack starting up — is foot percussion.
It’s a ubiquitous sound in Québécois traditional music, a galloping pattern that musicians beat out with their shoes while playing, giving them a Dick-Van-Dyke-like dynamism. If you wanted to be fancy and ethno-musicological, you’d call it podo-rythmie, from the Greek for “feet” and “rhythm.” If you wanted to be down home and colloquial, it would just be tapage de pieds, or foot tapping. In English, it’s sometimes referred to as “doing feet.” It’s the secret weapon that allows a lone fiddler to make a whole room get up and dance.
At my high school in downtown Montreal, my classmates were baffled by my obsession with Québécois folk. They tended to associate this genre of music with the drivel piped into a touristy sugar shack, or cabane à sucre: ceaseless marionette music cluttered with the infernal racket of spoons. Even my close friends were confused. I was one of a handful of Anglophone Jews at a big French Catholic school. Why on Earth was I learning their great-grandparents’ music? To them, this was the stuff your dad subjected you to at New Year’s, to scratch some once-a-year ancestral itch.
During those years, there was a bar I used to go to on St.-Laurent where the servers never carded, where on Tuesday nights it was hard to find a seat because the place was so full of fiddlers. I became one of them. I hardly ever talked to anyone, except an older nurse with dyed-red hair, who embodied pure joy more than any other adult I’d ever met. She didn’t play; she just sat close and listened, swayed, chatted, had a pint.
You could tell she loved those tunes. There were dorky common ones and old jagged weird ones. The closer you listened, the easier and more complicated they became. Each one held infinite inflections and moods and variations. “Trad” music could be bombastic and cheesy — but it could be anything else too. People often talked about it as patrimoine, or “heritage,” a solemn word, conveying history but none of the wild immediacy of those Tuesday nights. Hearing an accordionist’s micro-shifts in rhythm was like watching the surface of the ocean, the unexpected glint momentarily at odds with the tide before merging again. With little more than six notes, a fiddler could vault herself into a state akin to flight.
Foot percussion underpinned all that, the constant that every syncopation pulled against. It can seem deceptively simple. The way I learned, you start with the right foot, marking the beat with a flam, a heel-toe series that merges into a single homemade kick-drum blast. Then you add another tap on the offbeat, with the same foot but just the toe this time, swinging your shoe so it becomes a metronome. Once that feels like second nature, you sneak in the left foot a second before the pattern begins again. It took me a year or two to get the groove — practicing under my desk at school or in our front hall wearing my dad’s dress shoes. Tock-tick-uh, tock-tick-uh, tock-tick-uh.
You can hear gravity in it, being defied and succumbed to, again and again. Much of the non-fiddle music I love seems unconstrained by the laws of physics — Hilary Hahn’s ethereal Bach, Burna Boy’s inimitable voice, each of them possessed by an otherworldly ease. Québécois tunes float, too, but differently, their ascent inseparable from the creaking of the floor. It’s the sound of a particular body in a specific place and time, inviting you into someone else’s gait, to feel its idiosyncrasies.
All music is about belonging: grasping at the familiar or pushing it away, attending to what unsettles until it sounds like home. My obsession with these particular tunes probably has something to do with that: an attachment to a city where I’m always an outsider but also utterly myself, where my molecules feel more comfortably arranged. It’s an eerily pleasant state, and wherever I am, I can summon a version of it by moving my feet — a useful trick for someone who always feels a little out of place.
Now, as a journalist, sitting at my cubicle under ceiling-tile constellations, I often feel that same strange suck and gurgle of time, crushingly fast one second, interminable the next. I wish I could lose track of time, submerge myself in a draft and forget. Instead, I turn my body into a clock — tock-tick-uh, tock-tick-uh — marking each passing instant, subdividing it, inhabiting it, feeling how it can collapse and expand, how I can make the strangest, tightest place suddenly capacious.
Eric Boodman is a reporter for STAT and has written for The Atlantic, Undark and other publications.