The Old-Time Herald Volume 6, Number 8

Dance Beat

The Mountain Two-Step

by Bill Richardson

Mountain square dances in Virginia are not your average contra dance. For one thing, the predominant dance isn’t even a called figure. Rather, there are a lot of flat footing and two-steps, with square dances thrown in every third tune or so. It’s quite a change from caller-led dances, and quite enjoyable in it’s own right. The first thing you notice at these dances is what they call the "two-step," which is the same whether the band is playing a waltz or an old-time country number like "Faded Love" or "Sweet Marie." Two steps to the left and one to the right if you’re the man and the opposite for the woman. A simple little dance step with the interesting quality of fitting to any kind of tune and beat. You could call it the "Universal Two-Step." After a few times, you don’t even notice when the band announces a "Two Step" and plays a waltz. Distinctions like 3/4 and 4/4 time don’t matter so much at the mountain square dance.

Then there’s the flat footing. While they all appear to be clogging, you’ve never seen so much variety in a dance step. You can argue yourself blue over the definition of flat footing, but in my observation, the step has less of a shuffle and is more irregular than the basic clog step, with none of the hopping or springing cloggers are fond of. They do a lot of flat footing usually every third tune or so. It’s really interesting just to sit and watch the flat footers, and observe the variations in each individual’s step. Then eventually a voice will call "Let’s have a square dance." The dancers form a big circle, the band plays a fiddle tune, and you’re off. The calls come rarely, and are hard to understand if you’re not local. But there’s nothing you haven’t done before. Circle, promenade, and swing. Until the caller says "Now let’s do the Georgia Alaman" and you’re lost. What did he say? But before you know it another couple has found you and pulls you through the figure and you are swinging your opposite. Then you swing your own partner, and next time you’re a little more ready—here comes another couple with right hands extended. You take your opposite’s right hand, go all the way around, then take your partners left hand and around, and repeat it again, and swing your opposite. You notice that they aren’t rushing through the move as fast as they can. They’re moving kind of slowly, and they’re flatfooting! So it goes—the fiddle plays on while you roam the dance floor with your partner, swinging and moving directly into the "Georgia Alaman" as soon as another couple appears. Then you’re called back into the promenade, and after more swinging the dance is over.

I have been to square dances all over Southwest Virginia, from Stuart and Vinton, Ararat and Fancy Gap, to Fries and Fairview, and they all follow this pattern of two-steps, flat footing, and big circle squares. The only exception is the monthly Traditional Mountain Square Dance in Blacksburg, which is a larger event in a college town with visiting callers and mostly four-couple squares, with the characteristic energy and focus of called dances. The music is always energetic old-time fiddling, with one exception: the two-steps. When a band plays for contra dances or the Blacksburg Square Dance, they will play a long set of dances concluding with a waltz. So it’s no surprise that most modern day old-time musicians are not likely to have the two-step in their repertoire. But give a listen to Benton Flippen, North Carolina’s master old-time fiddler, or the many other fine old-time bands that are never heard outside of the Galax region, and you’ll hear the two-step and waltz with that interchangeable beat. Among the fiddlers I have heard from the younger generation, there are only a few who play two-steps. Shay Garriock, 1998 winner of the Clifftop fiddle contest, is notable in this regard.

The mountain square dance is a different "old-time" experience. It’s not fast-paced contras and squares, but it has a momentum and flow of its own. It is more social, with much interaction between people and couples, and a gentle tempo that rises through the cycle of the two-step, flatfoot, and square dances. Old people come just to sit and watch, children run around gleefully in their taps, and off to the side they’re selling candy bars and chilidogs. Instead of hustling to find your next dance partner and swarming into lines and squares, you have time to talk, and relax between dances. It’s another living window on the past, like old-time music, and another suggestion for what our future can hold.

[Rewritten from an original posting to the rec.music.country.old-time newsgroup.]

 

Bill Richardson plays, dances, calls, clogs and promotes old-time music and dance events in Blacksburg, Virginia. His email address is billrich@vt.edu.

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