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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Folk Dancing in the South
By Jerry Duke, 1973

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Jerry Duke

BACKGROUND

Information: "The way they do it down in Georgia" (and elsewhere in Dixie) – folk dancing in the South.

Clogging, the noisy shuffle-chug-stamp dance often thought of upon the mention of Appalachian dance, is by no means the only – not even the most popular – type of dance found in that region. But most folk dancers around the country find it the most fun and exciting. Other traditional types include the Appalachian square, Kentucky running set, contra, barn dance, and play-party games. Even the clog is found in three categories: Big Circle, competition, and buck dance.

These many variations may be surprising in light of the fact that dance has traditionally been considered sinful in the South. In actual fact, the activity was accepted generally as long as it was not called "dance." Play-party games have been the most acceptable simply because the only music used was the singing of the participants. On the other hand, the most sinful has been the barn dance – partially because it is called dance, but more so because it is done by individual couples in close contact. Dance continues to be considered sinful in many parts of the region but now the righteous eye is cast on the rock-and-roll rather than the traditional. Somehow, the traditional dances have regained their classifications as dances without wholesale condemnation.

The Saturday night barn dance has moved to town in many communities. It is now held at town hall and dancing often includes modern squares and rounds. But occasionally even the town hall dancers break into the traditional barn dance style. The barn dance step, especially in Alabama and west Georgia foothills, is a couple step-dance that can roughly be described as a hopping-pivot-turn without the turn. During the dance it is not highly unusual for the fiddle player to jump from the stand and run back and forth across the dance floor stepping to the music and continuing with the tune. Even in the rural areas, dancers and musicians at these events are not purists. Versions of the lindy, boogie, hop, and rock-and-roll have sneaked in and are sometimes done with the step-dance.

In the Appalachian foothills of north Alabama, men often dance a solo step-dance similar to the style known as a "soft shoe." Every month or so, contests are held in which each man (women have been included in the last several years) does his own step-dance, often embellished with clogs, shuffles, and stamps, in what is called a "buck dance." These are usually performed on a two- or three-foot-square piece of plywood on the stage. (Some performers bring their own boards.) The winner is chosen by judges or, sometimes, by the applause of the audience. These events can be seen in Albertville, Boaz and Scottsboro, Alabama, among other places. The Huntsville Association of Folk Musicians, in Alabama, usually keeps a schedule. The contests are often combined with fiddle, banjo, and band contests – not high-school-band bands, but small groups of musicians who all thenselves bands.

In north Georgia there is a major difference in the dancing. Some of the shuffle, clog, and stamp steps are the same, but the contests are between teams of six to twelve or more couples. Each team presents a choreographed version of what they call "clogging." Everyone in the team does the exact same step, and, more often than not, never change from the step with which they began. "Clog" is the British word, originally meaning "Clock Dance," for the shuffle-stamp type of step that is also called "buck dance" or "hoedown." The latter two terms apparently originated with the southern Blacks. The figures choreographed into recent north Georgia clogging, range from circles and contras to grand marches. The men have even been seen down on one knee while their partners dance around them, holding the men's one hand as in some of the Polish dances. These clogging contests can be found in a number of small mountain communities in north Georgia and South Carolina, especially during the summer. The big traditional two-day affair is held in mid-summer at Hiawassee, Georgia. It is worth a trip to see.

Clogging is found throughout the Carolinas, Virginias, and some in eastern Kentucky, but not often west of the Blue Ridge mountains. In these more northern areas, clogging is done in the "Big Circle" style, a form apparently derived from the Appalachian square dance. The Appalachian square is still alive and is often done on the same occasions as the Big Circle clog. On these occasions it is referred to as "smooth dance." California folk dancers sometimes call ethe smooth dance a "running set." This is apparently a misunderstanding of terminology. the "running set" is described below.

In the Big Circle clog, dancers do their own individual style of clog steps, but never allow it to interfere with the figures of the dance. Contests, as they are known in north Georgia, are not held in Big Circle country, but there are numerous occasions for all the groups to get together for exhibitions. One big event to note is the annual Asheville, North Carolina, festival, usually held in August. Both the Big Circle and the competition clog teams are sometimes there. Glenn Bannerman, well known Big Circle dance teacher, is on the staff of the Asheville festival and holds a camp of his own during Thanksgiving and in the summer. Glenn's camp features international dance as well as the clog and games for children. Just over the Blue Ridge Mountains from Big Circle country in Kentucky and parts of northern Tennessee (the Cumberland Plateau), Appalachian square dance is done without the clog. (The clog is even looked on with disgust by some of the old guard.) This is also the area where contra dancing is poplular and play-party games were once the rage.

Northern Kentucky is the home of the honest-to-goodness Kentucky running set – the one written about by the English researcher, Cecil Sharp. It is a frenzied, fast dance done with a running step. It is executed usually by four couples, but five or more can participate. Some of the figures are the same as the Appalachian square, but there the similarity ends. The speed at which the similar figures are done makes them almost unrecognizable as Appalachian square figures. During the Kentucky running set, an extra man sometimes gets in the middle of the dance square performing a hoedown step and tries to steal one of the women. If he succeeds, he continues the dance in her partner's place. This type of stealing is also seen in the play-party games. Unfortunately, the Kentucky running set is not popular anymore. But it is still taught at Morehead, Kentucky, at the mid-summer Kentucky Dance Institute – sometimes. In nearby Berea, Kentucky, Appalachian squares and contras are taught at the annual summer affair sponsored by Berea College. A very fine museum of Appalachian folklore is also located in Berea.

In Kentucky and northern Tennessee a dancing doll is made by some of the folk that performs a hoedown or buck dance on a paddle. It is commonly known as a lumber-jack, bouncing jack, or limber-jack. However, two mountaineers that have made them for years were contacted recently and had no name for it at all. Its historic background is vague, but similar puppets have been seen in England and some of the Scandinavian countries. The dance it performs is amazingly similar to the clog, buck dance, and hoedown.

Western square dance is generally popular throughout the South and the East, as it is in other parts of the country, but it is rarely done on the same occasion as the traditional mountain dances. Very few people indulge in both styles. The basic difference in Western and Appalachian square dance is that Western is done in a quadrille formation with four couples interacting with each other. Appalachian square dance is done basically in a big circle of usually eight couples. The Big Circle is alternated with small circles, or squares, of two couples each. After each figure in the small circle, one of the couples progresses on to the next couple to form a new small circle for the next figure. Many of the same figures are used in Western, Appalachian, Big Circle, and competition clog, but each also has figures used only in its style. The Western square dance movement in the South is part of a highly organized national association, for the most part. The traditional styles of a dance are much more casual.

There are at least two more styles of "traditional" dance in the South, both of which are rapidly fading away. These are the dances of the Blacks. Along the Atlantic Coast and in south Georgia, remnants of African dances are found, and along the Gulf of Mexico Coast some dances described as "Cajun" exist. The Georgia Sea Island Singers perform some of the African styles. A book, "Step It down," was published by Bess Hawes and Bessie Jones describing these dances. The Cajun dances seem to be done only by children around the northern rim of the Gulf Coast.

There are ethnic groups scattered in parts of the South. The Ukrainians in Miami have a large performing (non-professional) group. Czechoslovakians in Masaryk, Florida; Greeks in Tarpon Springs, Mobile, and other coastal areas; Hungarians in Louisiana; Serbians in Brookside, Alabama; and Scots in the Carolinas – all have reputations for dance.

International folk dance activity is also found in the South. Vyts Beliajus' magazine, "Viltis," was founded in south Alabama in 1942. Florida has organized a state association recently, and Atlanta has a big club. At Brasstown, North Carolina, the John C. Campbell Folk School offers institutes in Danish dance and folklore, and Wheeling, West Virginia, claims one of the oldest international folk dance camps in the United States.

Fred Berk, well known Israeli dance teacher from New York, holds his Blue Star Camp near Hendersonville, North Carolina, each summer. East Tennessee State University sponsors an Octoberfest and a Spring Fling each year, and the Washington, D.C. clubs hold their Buffalo Gap Camp in West Virginia twice each year.

Dancing in the South is not only alive and well, but is steeped in tradition and varies widely in form.


DOCUMENTS


Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, November 1973.


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