On a cold, dark evening, banjos and fiddles play out an old tune inside the homey Laurel Theater in Fort Sanders. Couples lock elbows and spin around. They go uptown and bring that other couple on down. They promenade and allemande in sandals, boots, tennis shoes, and bare feet. It’s a small crowd, and there’s a powerful sense of belonging that we don’t find every day, which makes this feel something like church (which the Laurel once was).
The dance is an act of bonding, a shared ritual in which people connect with those they otherwise might not. (Many folks come as couples, but perhaps just as many come alone and find a partner there.) Temporary confusion is a part of every dance, and in sorting themselves out, figuring out where to step and when, the dancers speak the language of the body. Because this kind of square dancing—traditional Appalachian—is open to the whole community, regardless of skill or experience, a bit of stumbling is part of the fun. Humor and patience go a long way here.
In Knoxville, for the first time in a long time, there’s a quiet revival of this traditional folk dance and old-time music. One might not think these things need any reviving, but for several decades now the traditional Southern squares have come to be marginalized both by the more commercially popular Western square dances and the more metropolitan contra dances.
Let’s get one thing straight: This is not modern Western square dancing, where couples have to pay dues and move up to higher levels based on skill. It doesn’t matter what you wear or what you’re drinking (beer is preferred). No daffy costumes or pre-recorded music. And it isn’t a formal contra dance, the New England folk dance that originated from the French. This is good old Southern square dancing—unpretentious and a little rough around the edges.
An old-time band called the Hellgrammites plays tunes like “June Apple” and “Polecat Blues.” The dancers are of all generations. Here, the middle-aged, young adult, teenage, and elderly—though strangers—can join hands and link arms. “It’s a community dance, not a dance community,” emphasizes caller Phil Jamison, who coordinates Warren Wilson College’s Appalachian Music Program outside of Asheville, N.C., and is an old-time musician and flatfoot dancer.
Callers teach the figures as they go along. (A “figure” is just a complex dance move. Each dance is comprised of several figures.) During a typical three-hour dance, the caller might teach up to 20 figures with names like “build a bridge,” “make a basket,” “birdie in the cage,” “roll the barrel,” “dive for the oyster, dig for the clam,” “wind the clock,” and “four-leaf clover.” Though stretches of the dance can be rigorous, the overall pace of the evening is slow, relaxed, and low-pressure.
Jamison and fellow caller Michael Ismerio distinguish these dances from more competitive dance communities in which the dancing itself is taken very seriously.
“The traditional square dance that I call attracts people who just want to have fun and feel like they’re part of a community,” says Ismerio, who plays the fiddle and has been calling since 2004, when he got his start in the Pacific Northwest. “My primary goal is to get people dancing, not to make sure that they correctly execute the moves.”
For Jamison, it’s also about cultural preservation. “These are great dances, it’s good stuff, and it’s part of the culture,” he says.
Jamison has published two articles in The Old-Time Herald, a magazine dedicated to old-time music, that lament the pushing aside of traditional Southern square dancing in favor of contra dancing. He says “contra mania” began to sweep the country when he was calling square dances in the 1980s. He makes sure to say that there’s nothing “wrong” with contra, a wonderful dance tradition in its own right. But it reached a point where contra dancers would boo him for calling a square.
“I like to use the analogy of biodiversity—do we want just one kind of dance or is there room for other kinds too?” he asks.
In this analogy, Southern square dances are an endangered species.
In The Appalachian Square Dance, published in 1955, Frank H. Smith wrote, “It is not claimed that the Appalachian Square is superior to other regional dances. It is, however, distinctive and fine, and expresses the spirit of a great people.”
When the wandering English folklorist Cecil J. Sharp came into the Southern Appalachians in 1916, he heard versions of ballads older than the ones sung in English villages at the time, and he knew he had struck cultural gold. At the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Kentucky, he saw the kind of square dance that he named “The Kentucky Running Set”—the same dance (with some variations) found throughout the mountain regions of Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas.
In this dance, four couples are arranged in a square, but the dance often begins and ends with all couples in a large circle. “In recent years the Appalachian Square, due primarily to the influence of city folks, or city callers, has been termed the Big Set or the Appalachian Circle. These terms are not used by mountain people,” Smith wrote.
Nevertheless, the dances are part of a long tradition of circle dances that probably originated in the British Isles. (Some historians give evidence of Irish origin and some of Scottish, though Sharp’s theory was that they came from the villages of Northern England.)
Smith, who was chairman of the Mountain Folk Festival at Berea College in Kentucky, took an interesting perspective on the dance style—the way the dancers moved their bodies, distinct from the square dance figures. “The way men walk and dance is profoundly influenced by their living conditions,” he wrote. “The mountain dance style has grown up in rugged country where rough trails, and the presence of birds and wild animals have made men quiet-moving, alert, and sure-footed.” He saw this style as constant in all mountain square dances.
But in the figures, he saw great variation from one mountain community to the next. “I have seen a certain type of swing around the area of North Wilkesboro and Banner Elk, North Carolina, that I have never come across anywhere else,” he wrote. “A man would have to do ‘right smart’ of traveling to get a glimpse of all the figures.”
This isn’t the case now, as all the figures have been collected and documented by folklorists, printed in books and shared widely, so that now callers can learn all the figures that they would’ve once had to do “right smart” of traveling to see.
The few callers of traditional square dances today are often traveling—not to learn new figures, but to teach them. They’re something like the old circuit riders who would hold church in communities that were too small or not yet settled enough to have an established one. These Southern square-dance evangelists come to Knoxville from throughout the region to call our dances, since we lack enough regular callers to sustain them.
Ty Crawford, who rode the Megabus from Louisville to call November’s dance at the Laurel, says he’s tired but he wants to keep traveling and calling. His goal for the region is to get cities like Knoxville to the “point of critical mass” where they can easily support their own regular square dance. This would mean a lot more attendees, so that the dancers wouldn’t be stretched thin and pressured to dance every dance, and at least one dedicated caller. “The region has a bottleneck as far as callers go,” says Crawford, who goes by the name “T-Claw.”
Growing up in Nashville as a self-proclaimed “gutter punk,” Crawford wasn’t exposed to old-time music or square dancing. Ironically, he says, not until he moved to Olympia, Wash., to attend college did he come into contact with a lot of old-time musicians. In Nashville he had played punk music, but in Olympia he began to like the idea of what he calls “a common language.”
“Anyone who plays traditional music can play with anyone else who plays traditional music,” he says. “So I can go anywhere else in the country and a lot of places in the world and pick up a banjo or fiddle with someone else and we can immediately communicate in that language. It’s an oral tradition.”
The music came first for Crawford. From there he got into square dancing, the natural result of old-time music. (“Old-time music is dance music by nature,” Jamison says.) He organized a regular dance in Olympia. Eventually, he moved to Louisville, Ky., and started a regular dance there, and he now contributes to Knoxville’s dances.
Ismerio grew up in California, also in the punk scene, and joined a Southern old-time band in Portland, Ore., in the 1990s. “After a while it became obvious there were all these young players in Portland and they were looking for venues—playing for square dancing was the most natural thing to do. The dances came out of the old-time community,” he says.
In 2004 he called his first square dance when the caller failed to show up. He began to learn the art of calling from a man named Bill Martin, who had never been to Appalachia but had gone to the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Wash., where he had fallen in love with traditional Southern Appalachian dance figures. Ismerio and Martin worked to solidify square dances in Portland and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Last year, Ismerio moved to Asheville, where he calls at the newly established regular dances there and travels over the mountains to call in Knoxville.
The fact that Crawford and Ismerio identify as punk rockers isn’t surprising. Though punk and old-time music may seem a jolting juxtaposition, they actually fit quite nicely together. Both of them embody do-it-yourself and anti-consumerist ethics. The additional fact that Crawford and Ismerio both found their passion for Appalachian square dancing in the Pacific Northwest, though, is a little curious.
“Southern culture on the West Coast is exotic,” Ismerio says. “I was making a living there playing old-time music. Here you can’t throw a stick without hitting 10 fiddle players.”
In other words, sometimes local culture is like the now-extinct passenger pigeon, so common and mundane that no one noticed it was disappearing until it was too late.
The Hellgrammites’ Larry Holt, Ken Bronson, and John Mahaffy were playing old-time music in their early 20s in Knoxville, during the 1970s. They say that the community of old-time musicians was a lot more vibrant back then. They talk about the “Mumbilly era”—a time when perhaps 15 or 20 musicians played loosely together as the Mumbillies.
Holt says that the band would split up into two or three separate groups at fiddle festivals when they entered contests; once, they won first and second place. Locally, the Mumbillies played for square dances at the old Epworth Church in Fort Sanders, with 100 people dancing.
“It was not only a band, it was the old-time life in Knoxville,” Bronson says.
But those dances eventually petered out as the men began to raise families, the Epworth Church was sold, contra dancing became more popular, and the old Laurel Theater, where dances were also held, burned in 1982.
Bronson says he hasn’t heard tell of a regular Appalachian square dance in Knoxville since then. The recent dances held at the Laurel on the second Thursday of each month are, to him, an exciting sign of a resurgence.
Old-time clawhammer banjo player Allison Williams started Knoxville’s regular square dances in the fall of 2011, and they have been slowly picking up steam since then. Williams says that since she loves to call dances, and there wasn’t one in Knoxville, she had to start one. (She has also started square dances at the annual Mount Airy fiddlers festival and in Asheville.)
Williams moved after only a few months of calling, but she left behind a strong network of folks who love the dances and have kept them going. Like picking up a loose thread from the past, the Hellgrammites have picked up their instruments again to weave the tightly wound melodies that get square dancers moving.
Jubilee Community Arts, an organization dedicated to preserving and presenting the traditional arts of the Southern Appalachians, hosts and helps organize the Knoxville square dances. Toby Koosman, Jubilee’s concert manager, says, “It’s really the musicians who’ve kept the dances going.”
But the dances also keep the musicians going. “Playing old-time music is such a great feeling,” Mahaffy says.
Tonight there are some 50 dancers filling out the airy, high-ceilinged Laurel Theater (restored since that fire). Bobby Fulcher, longtime host of WDVX’s Cumberland Trail radio show on Sunday evenings, is calling the dance. Deeply steeped in regional history, he introduces many of the dances with a story.
“If we can pull this off, this’ll be the first time I’ve seen this dance in, oh, many years,” he says wistfully before a large circle dance.
For a short time, he also gives the crowd a lesson in buck dancing, the traditional Appalachian solo dance style in which the feet are kept low to the ground and the arms hang loosely at the sides. Before each footing sequence, he remembers when he saw it and who did it.
Something is brewing here; these monthly gatherings speak to a desire to remember and carry on a heritage that, like so many local histories nationwide, is slipping away.
In a television- and advertising-saturated society such as ours—in which we’re primarily defined as consumerists—common stories, songs, or dances are often generated by the media and “bought,” either literally or figuratively by us.
In contrast, true folk culture is homespun, generated from the ground up. Rather than being just another commodity, it is often free and handed down. Its value is not economic but rather psychological and sociological. Folk culture places us within a web of mutually generated creativity, strengthening our sense of belonging and meaning.
Perhaps that’s why Knoxville’s monthly square dances draw a preponderance of young people who are eager to be part of a traditional folkway. Meagan Langford, in her early 20s, says that she comes to the dances for the human interaction and sense of community. She feels that technology has taken over our everyday lives and that we’re forgetting how to connect with one another in person.
Her dance partner, Adam Humphreys, says he thinks it’s important to preserve these traditions. “It’s an old way of life,” he says, “not muddled with technology.”
Dancer and musician Frank Bronson, 20, chimes in: “You don’t see too many people checking their iPhones during a square dance.”
Many of the dancers echo this feeling of wanting to escape from technologies that make them feel alienated and isolated. Caller Ismerio, now 40, who began square dancing in his 20s, talks about that longing when he was growing up in the punk-rock community. Instead of buying culture in the form of CDs and other media, he and his friends “wanted something that was more special to us, that had more depth and meaning,” he says.
People come to square dances, Ismerio says, to have a less mediated experience in culture, and to connect with others.
“Human beings are so disconnected,” Ismerio says. “The Internet has become this great alienating device. People are rebelling against that and want something more human.”
In the 1940s, a woman from New York by the name of Alice Chauncey visited the Smoky Mountains and was invited to a square dance. When she returned home, she published an enchanting, almost magical, account of the experience in a New York newspaper. The music had affected her deeply.
“Grouped upon a tree stump, the musicians were playing one of the age-old traditional tunes that the Great Smoky Mountain people have known for hundreds of years,” she wrote. “It was music for dancing, music with a lilt and a rhythm that was irresistible. The woman by the fire kept time with a spoon, and our feet were tapping the ground. Strange music in a wailing minor key, but music that would not let you rest.”
Old-time music is a strange fever. It flows from some deep, intoxicating wellspring. It is a wild animal whose spirit cannot be truly captured by recordings.
“It’s not intellectual, it’s a primitive drive,” says Holt, who plays fiddle for the Hellgrammites.
Holt, Bronson, and Mahaffy are gathered around a wood stove in Bronson’s home on House Mountain. They talk like old friends, finishing each other’s sentences and thoughts and cracking jokes about each other. “I’ve been playing music with these guys for 37 years, and the music is still just as ancient as it was 30 years ago,” Bronson laughs. “It takes a certain person to like it as much as we like it.”
When Bronson’s young son Frank, who plays fiddle, and his friend Chris, who plays banjo, show up, the men pull up chairs and start to play. Like water finding the easiest way over rocks, it seems that they feel most at ease together plucking and bowing strings.
Holt leads the song on fiddle, which he says is “a rhythm instrument.” They warm up and settle in quickly, finding their speed and places. The scruffy dog curls up in the corner to sleep. The fiddles lilt and swing like hammocks of slender strings.
After a song called “Big-Eyed Rabbit,” which ends with the lonely line “walkin’ in a weary land,” the older Bronson yells over to say that the song is turn-of-the-century. “But it’s also right here and now!” Mahaffy shouts back.
Perhaps that’s the excitement of folk traditions. They not only connect us with others in the past, with old stories, they also connect us in the here and now and help us form strong community ties. Faced with an often homogeneous culture, many have reached for the traditions that make us unique, that remind us that there are specific histories to every place and people. This is what the monthly square dances at the Laurel are really all about.
“There’s an energy right now,” Mahaffy asserts. “There’s a revival.”