The shiny black shoes of 7-year-old Taylor Cobler were all over the oak floor of the Denton Civic Center on a January Saturday night. "It's the first time she's ever square danced," said her grandfather, Tom Cobler, a veteran dancer and caller. "I've had her in clogging lessons." The little blonde-haired girl breezed through the moves as easily as the much taller people surrounding her.
She was one of about 90 at the Denton Dance, held in a small town of about 1,300 in the middle of North Carolina's western Piedmont on the third Saturday night of each month.
The dance was started in September 1996 by Neal and Debbie Leonard, old-time musicians who live about 12 miles away in Thomasville. It features a bluegrass house band, The Oak Tree Boys, and a guest old-time band for each dance. The sound of metal shoe taps is conspicuously missing. They aren't allowed. Dancers, on the other hand, can be assured of getting nothing but dance music. There are no vocal mikes for the band. That's not intentional. There just aren't enough microphones. But it works out well, said Neal. "We're not out to have performance-type stuff. We want to make sure it's a dance."
Singing isn't frowned upon, Debbie added. "A few people who did sing just leaned into the mikes," she mused.
The taps rule is intentional, however. "We agreed with the civic center not to allow taps because of the floor. It's also a boost for the people who just want to listen," Debbie said.
You can't talk to the old-timers about the Denton Dance without hearing mention of the dance at nearby Farmer. "The older ones here used to dance at Farmer," said Marvin Gaster, a banjo picker and fiddler from Sanford who has played at both.
"It started after World War II. There were a lot of dances around then. Square dances were plentiful all over the place, Friday and Saturday night of each week."
Worth Winslow was a regular at Farmer. "It started in 1948 and lasted until about two years ago," recalled Worth, whose father, fiddler Claude Winslow, helped start the Farmer dance. Worth also remembers dances held at his home when he was growing up.
"I had six sisters and he'd tell 'em to bring [a partner] home apiece, and we'd invite the boys in the neighborhood and we'd dance in a big room with all the furniture moved out. My dad made square-dance music. I've been dancing since I could walk," he said.
The dance at Farmer was held in the Grange Hall, which had been built out of barracks moved in from Roxboro. "It was the best dance hall in the country," Worth said. "I missed one or two dances, I think." The Farmer Grange, for all its years of use, fell into disrepair and the dance had to end.
According to Debbie, it was Neal's idea to start another one and continue the tradition carried out so long at Farmer. He also wanted to make old-time music better known in these parts.
The Leonards modeled their new dance after the New River Mountain Music Jamboree in Laurel Springs, a community in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains where the Leonards and their three children have a weekend home. The Laurel Springs dance features two bands each Saturday night from spring to fall. Unlike its cooler climate cousin, the Denton Dance thrives in the wintertime.
The folding chairs were full and the dance floor was busy Jan. 17 for The Oak Tree Boys and old-time music by a pair of husbands and wives, Kirk and Lisa Sutphin and Paul Brown and Terri McMurray. The crowd got a full slate of traditional old-time and bluegrass tunes. The caller, John Blake, served up a good many Appalachian-style square dance calls. John is 75 and has been calling dances around central North Carolina for 50 years.
"Ladies bow and gents know how,
Swing your opposite,
Now your own
Odds move up, evens stay home!"
"Lady 'Round the Lady," "Take a Little Peek," "Birdie in the Cage," and other traditional dances are staples. Bands play for plenty of freestyle stomping and a few Paul Jones and broom dances. John also introduced the Texas Star to this crowd in January.
There are also a couple of cake walks. Those who feel lucky can step in for 50 cents. The floor has the numbers 1 through 4 marked on tape in four corners. When the music stops, Debbie draws a number and whoever is standing on the same number on the floor takes the cake. One prize was an ice box cake that Neal showed to the winner and toted off to the refrigerator for safekeeping until later. To knock off any chill that might have remained from the cake, fiddler Dean Maines of The Oak Tree Boys sawed off a rowdy version of "Florida Blues" for the next walk. One dancer in bibbed overalls lingered in front of the fiddler stomping and clapping in approval, while others tried to linger at the numbers on the floor.
Dean is from the same neck of the woods as the Laurel Springs dance, having grown up in the Twin Oaks community of Alleghany County. He and his fellow band members chatted a while in the civic center's kitchen while the old-time band played.
"A feller who used to help us on the farm, he could fiddle some tunes and got me started," Dean said. "I had a three-quarter fiddle. When a storm came up, we couldn't work and he'd say, 'go get that fiddle, boy.'" Dean was 14 years old when he began to play fiddle. He played regularly for dances as a teenager, then moved off the mountain to Lexington in 1957 at age 27 to work.
"We farmed and it got so bad you couldn't make nothing of it," he said. "I was going to work through the winter and go back home in the summer, but I never did get back."
For years, Dean didn't find anybody to play music with around Lexington. He quit for about 15 years, but then started again, playing with bluegrass musicians from the area and fiddling at the Farmer Grange. "Neal approached us about starting the dance again and finally found this place here," Dean said. "We like it because the floor is wood. I enjoy it. I've always loved music." The Oak Tree Boys are so named because they play in Dean's yard. "We played at his house and he had a whole bunch of oak trees. The squirrels would run up and down the trees and listen to the music," said Johnny Arnold, who supplies the sound equipment and occasionally plays guitar.
Johnny's son, Scott Arnold, plays banjo. Dean's son Tim plays guitar. Mike Plummer plays mandolin and Robin Eanes provides bass for this group. Dean guessed they have been together about 15 years, and then turned to Johnny for his opinion.
"I can't remember. Twelve years?" Johnny said. "We played for Jim Hunt, we sure did, over at Lexington," he added. Hunt is North Carolina's long-time governor. "We're waiting for the president to call any day," Tim said with a grin. "We're waiting for the queen to call."
Tim's girlfriend of 11 years, Terri Mainor, has coffee, soft drinks, and snacks for sale to help keep the dancers refreshed. "I was introduced to this music through Tim," she said. "I was brought up on Southern Gospel and it's a whole lot different."
The civic center is what many small-town folks would call a community building. Signs posted here and there indicate it is the home of meals for the elderly and civic group meetings. The knotty pine paneling and broad rock fireplace help provide an inviting atmosphere for the dance. So do the rules. Smoking is outside and drinking is out of the question. Pat Arnold, who is Johnny's wife and Scott's mother, said she enjoys being a regular at the Denton Dance. "I enjoy being with the people, and I like the dancing and music," she said.
Her husband added, "Most of these people are the friendliest people you'd ever meet."
To help spice up each dance, Neal and Debbie get free dinners donated from local restaurants for door prizes. Occasionally, other surprises are tossed in. Kirk Sutphin and Paul Brown each brought a copy of their compact disc, The Breaking Up Christmas Story, to add to the kitty at January's dance. The Leonards' daughter, Sarah, gives each person who comes through the door a ticket with a number on it. She and her cousin, Ashley Thomas, tend the door each week. Both are 14.
The dance usually draws around 70 people, but crowds have topped 100 with big-name pickers such as Wayne Henderson. The dance struggles financially most of the time.
"Fortunately, the civic center doesn't charge us much for the building," Debbie said. Each musician gets paid, and the cake walk proceeds go to the caller.
The dance has had good support from the Davidson County Arts Council and some local businesses, she added. "That's kept us going." It has been a big effort for the Leonards, but they say it has been worth it. Debbie sends out 30 or 40 announcements to area media each month. They come to the civic hall on the morning of each summer dance to turn on the air conditioning, along with all the other logistics.
"The audience and musicians consider this to be a really fun thing. We've had no shortage of quality musicians to come and play. They say they enjoy this dance," Neal added.
The Denton Dance is on West Salisbury Street off of N.C. 109. It is held from 7 to 10:30 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month. Admission is $4 for adults and free for children 12 and under. Dates for dances through the summer are May 16, June 20, July 18 and Aug. 15. For information, call Neal or Debbie Leonard at 336-475-9397.
Lynn Worth is a freelance writer and old-time musician from Sparta, N.C.