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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Appalachian Dancing

By Faith Schottenfeld Zavon, October 16, 2006

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Faith Schottenfeld Zavon

Faith Schottenfeld Zavon of Cincinnati, Ohio, was born on September 13, 1923 and passed on September 18, 2021 at the age of 98. She was a prolific writer. Faith was born in Brooklyn and graduated with a BA in science from Brooklyn College. She married and raised four children, working over the years as a food chemist, a bacteriologist, a court reporter, and a legal secretary. She also taught a course in logic at the University of Cincinnati. Faith was a friend of the Society of Folk Dance Historians founder, Ron Houston.

Here is one of her folk dance essays.

My name is Faith Zavon. I was having lunch with Carolyn McConville in the early summer when she told me she would be moderating a course on Appalachia. Just the word "Appalachia" brought forth a host of memories of the fun I had in my youth dancing Appalachian dances. It is hard to believe now that the tradition and knowledge I am about to relate to you was passed on to me in a rented dance studio in mid-town Manhattan, New York City, in the midst of the theater district, the night clubs, and the war time Stage Door Canteen. This was in the early 1940's just before the United States entered World War II and when I was a freshman in Brooklyn College.

I was born and brought up in New York City, the child of immigrant parents from eastern Europe. I have been a folk dancer for sixty-eight years. I am still dancing. I was introduced to square dancing when I was a high school senior. I loved it from the start. A few months after this first dance experience I was a freshman in Brooklyn College where I joined the college square dance club. We met once a week for two hours. The club was run by several seniors who also were members of the American Square Dance Group, the American Square Dance Group (ASDG), as we called it.

Margot Mayo ran this group. I joined it because I wanted to dance more and to learn more. I didn't know it at the time, but Margot was a recognized figure and an established authority in Appalachian dance. All I knew was what I had been told, i.e., that her uncle "was the banjo pickinist man in Kentucky." At present she is considered to be one of the important historical figures in American folk dance.

The ASDG was a large group. We were enthusiastic and eager to learn. Margot taught us the traditional squares and running sets of Appalachia. She supplied the music by playing the piano. By the way, Appalachia is made up of nine states – Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. I'm here to tell you about Appalachian dancing as I learned it from Margot Mayo. Margot also taught us New England square dancing, which is quite different from Appalachian dancing. She taught us European folk dancing in the break times. So instead of sitting quietly when we were supposed to be resting, we were dancing the entire evening.

When I started square dancing in the early 1940's I didn't know anything at all about square dancing. At that time I was still trying to learn the Lindy Hop and ballroom dancing. Falling so unexpectedly into square dancing and folk dancing changed my entire life. Both the music and the dancing were so exciting I gave up forever on the Lindy and ballroom dancing.

I came to know and become friends with people I would never have met otherwise – people who hadn't gone to college, who were much older than I, men who had come back from volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War. In a word, I came to know and love people whose only interest I shared was the love of dancing. Because we came to care for each other despite our differences, I began to read the history of the countries these people and the various dances we learned came from. And also there came to be an exchange of treasured recipes.

Finally, without ever being aware of it, I think all that dancing contributed to my very good health now at the age of eighty-three. I am still dancing. We go often to Dayton for polka dancing. It's four hours of pure pleasure. If we arrive in time for the first dance and stay till the last one, my pedometer tells me we have done about five miles on the dance floor.

Now to my topic, the dances of Appalachia. These dances are completely different from any square dancing you may have seen about town. First of all there is no hopping, skipping, or jumping. There is no bounding. When you swing your partner it is done with a steady slow walk. There is no rapid swinging. All is done less energetically compared to the popular idea of square dancing – with a slow, smooth gait when circling or when promenading, with no flailing of arms, and a smooth walking step when swinging partners.

The dance step is a swift, slightly springy step, executed with the greatest freedom of bodily movement. There are no fancy flings or extra movements of arms or body. Dancers seem to glide along the ground with a swift, tireless run. Arms hang loosely by the sides. Bodies are inclined slightly forward as though in a perfectly relaxed, joyous movement. Another way of saying it is, "Use a smooth walking shuffle – please, no hopping, skipping or jumping steps."

The Running Set is definitely an English country dance, but nothing like the dances we know of today. English country dances have many courtesy movements, like balancing to your partner and the man turning his partner as a courtesy or an acknowledgment. None of this is in the Running set. It is believed that Running Sets are much older than The Country Dances. The ancestors of the people who brought these dances to America came from northern England and the Scottish Lowlands and were out of touch with the rest of England. It is thought that these dances came to this country intact, a living fossil. Please bear in mind that I am telling you what I learned in the early 1940's so things might be different now when I say that the songs of the area and even the speech of the people were quite Elizabethan. Maybe with television their speech has become more modern. These people came during the reign of James I and drifted into the back country, into isolated little settlements, so their songs, speech, and customs remained unchanged.

The Running Set is a typical dance of Appalachia. It is done in a large circle. As many couples as care to can join the circle. The caller controls what happens on the dance floor. No matter how repetitious he might be you DO NOT anticipate the calls. This means that even though you know what figure he is going to call next, you DO NOT dance that figure until he has actually calls it. The square dancing I have seen in Cincinnati is the Western style of square dancing. Some of the calls are given as if in a code. I remember one called Allemande ‘R'. Allemande R consists of a series of figures that one has to remember. One learns the sequence of figures that comprise ‘Allemande R' and dances them from memory. The caller only calls Allemande 'R'.

The music for Western style square dancing ignores the traditional music in favor of commercial tunes and melodies that come and go, new ones being made up every week. I am not implying there is anything wrong in preferring western style to the traditional. But I do think one should know what came before. Also I am not implying this is an either/or situation. You might enjoy both styles, thus augmenting your enjoyment of square dancing. Or you might prefer one to the other, thus making a more intelligent choice than merely accepting what is offered to you. There is room for both kinds of dancing.

Some of the calls come directly from the French language. The call "Allemande right" means that you give your right hand to your partner and walk, not bound, around each other until you get back to where you started. The word, ‘allemande' comes from the French ‘a la main' which means ‘to the hand'.

The call ‘do si do', means you are to face your partner and walk around each other so that you pass each other by the right shoulder and go back to back before returning to your place. The phrase ‘do si do' comes from the French ‘dos a dos', meaning 'back to back'.

In the American Square Group we called the big circle dances the Kentucky Running Set. Other names for the same dance are Appalachian Circle Dance, Big Circle Dance, Tennessee Mountain Circle Dance. The figures range from extremely easy to very complicated, but not necessarily all occurring in the same Running Set. The first important thing to know about these dances is that the lady ALWAYS stands on the right hand side of the man.

An example of the calls in a very easy Running Set would be: Circle left, circle right, swing your partner, promenade (join hands with your partner and walk counter clockwise as a couple), into the center with a hoot and a holler (everyone walks towards the center of the circle still holding hands and shouting). This figure is usually repeated with the call, "You like that one, let's do it again."

A good caller embellishes his calls. He might say at the beginning, "All join hands and circle left," instead of just "Circle left." After a few minutes he might embellish the call to circle by adding, "Make your feet go whickety whack." Then everyone would stamp on the floor very hard while circling, making lots of noise.

With the easy Running Sets even a child of six can enjoy dancing with a grandparent of over eighty and both have fun. There is no easier way, no more successful way to bridge the generation gap. I think square dancing together can improve race relations and relations between employers and workers, between unions and employers.

In square dancing even though one might come with a partner, many dances include momentary changes of partners, so one is not as isolated from others as one is in ballroom dancing. During the course of a dance one has a chance to touch the hand of another person and to swing with others. If that other person happens to be someone who has hurt you in some way, whom you hate for some reason, just this little bit of contact plus the pleasure of moving together to exciting music is able to lessen the intensity of hard feelings and hatred that may be present. You might even smile at each other. I've tried to get those in authority to set up a square and/or folk dance group consisting or people who general oppose each other, like with people of different races, or union members and employers, in order to see if such a project would work in lightening the tensions peoples of opposing ideas, but without success. This has never been done before. I think it's worth a try. It wouldn't cost very much and we have the infrastructure for this – the experienced dancers, the teachers and the music. Can you imagine what a reception a political candidate would get if he showed up at a Greek dance and knew their dances and then showed up at another ethnic group to engage in their dances? This country could benefit if we had a folk dancing president!

The caller has a choice in that he can either stand up front near the music or he can dance as he calls. When he dances and calls he would be the lead couple in doing any of the more complicated figures.

There are a large number of figures that start off with the call, "Odds off to Evens." At this call the circle breaks up into many small circles of two couples each. Not every Running Set has these figures. It depends on what the caller wants to do and how experienced the dancers are. In general, the figures in the smaller circles are more complicated than those figures done in the large circle.

You might wonder how ‘Odds off to Evens' could be set into motion while the big circle continues dancing. It's really easy. The caller would start off by calling "Circle Left." The large circle would circle left. The next call would be "Odds off to Evens." If the caller were dancing he would be in couple number one, so he would call out, "One." If he were not dancing he could call out the name of the man in the couple he wants to be to be the lead couple. Then the man in that couple would call out "One." The man in the couple to the immediate right of this first couple would call out "Two." The odds and evens having been established by the first two couples, each man in each couple proceeding to the right round the circle would call out in turn "One, Two, One, Two," etc. until all couples know if they are an odd or an even couple. All the while that this numbering goes one the circle continues circling left and continues to do so until the caller calls, "Odds off to Evens." At this call the ‘ones' go to the ‘twos' and circle with them. Suddenly the big circle changes into many small, two couple circles. The visual effect of many small circles suddenly appearing present a nice contrast to the big circle.

Many figures can be done by a small circle that can't be done by a large one. For instance, if the caller calls, "You swing mine and I'll swing yours" the men in the small circles swing the opposite lady which is the lady that's not their partner. The next call would be, "Yours is fine, but I like mine." Then all go back to swing their own partners. The caller can call any number of different things to do and the small circles will execute those figures. When he wants the Ones to move on to the next even numbered couple he calls again, "Odds off to Evens." All number one couples move counterclockwise to the next number 2 couple and begin by circling left until the caller tells them what to do next. As I said, the caller controls the dance floor. He can keep the small circles dancing as long as he wants to. He can call repeat figures. Even though he controls the dance floor he is not a dictator. His purpose is to make it as much fun for the dancers as he possibly can.

A word about costumes. Long ago (150 or more years ago) people didn't usually dress up for these dances. Some pictures exist showing dancers dressed as they might have dressed for church, ties for men and regular street length dresses for women.

In the American Square Dance group, when we performed the men wore dark pants and white shirts. They did not wear ties. The women wore simple square necked "dirndl style" dress made of cotton fabric in a calico print. It had a long belt made of the same fabric which tied with a bow in the back. The neck line and the bottom of the skirt were trimmed with several rows of rick-rack. We made our own dresses according to the strict instructions that Margot insisted upon.

Compare that with what you see on performing square dancers today. I'm referring to the very flared skirts with numerous starched petticoats underneath to make the skirt stand out even more. If one is even slightly over weight, the look in such a flared skirt is very ugly.

A word about the music. The names of some of the traditional tunes are Arkansaw Traveler, Sally Goodin, Sourwood Mountain, and Cripple Creek. I'm sure the public library has recordings of all these and other traditional tunes. The Western style square dance music of today ignores traditional in favor of commercial tunes that come and go, new ones being made up every week. The traditional melodies are very lovely.

Play Party games are also dances of Appalachia. They are danced in a large circle with no set number of couples, like the Running Sets, but much simpler. And they are not called dances. They are called games, because at one time the church frowned upon dancing. It's hard to stop young people from dancing and they found a way to do so. Play Party Games as done to the singing of the dancers. No musical instrument accompanied them when they were first invented. So when the young people were admonished for dancing when their elders saw them doing Play Party Games, they said, "Oh, we're not dancing. We're playing games."

Many Play Party Games have an extra person in the center of the circle. As the dance progresses the person in the center has an opportunity to take someone else's partner and then the person newly deprived of his partner takes his place in the center of the circle. A good example of such a dance is "Pig in the Parlor." The words are:

We have a pig in the parlor.
We have a pig in the parlor.
We have a pig in the parlor,   (All circle left while singing this) And he is Irish too.

A right hand to your partner.   (Allemande right with your partner)
A left hand to your corner.   (Allemande left with person on the other side of you)
A right hand to your partner,   (Allemande right with your partner)
And all promenade.   (Walk forward side by side with crossed hands)

And you swing the lady behind you.   (The men turn and swing the woman in the couple immediately behind) You swing the lady behind you.
You swing the lady behind you,
And all promenade.   (Walk forward side by side with crossed hands)

When the dancer turns to swing the lady behind him, this is the opportunity for the person in the middle to a lady whose partner is turned to swing the lady behind, and before the man in front of her can get to her, if he's fast enough he can swing her. Then she is his partner and the man who didn't get her has to be in the middle of the circle.

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