Old-time square dancing has long been a part of the cultural heritage of the Appalachian Mountains, yet nowadays in western North Carolina, as throughout the Appalachian region, community-based square dances are few and far between. Haywood County, in particular, has historically been a square-dancing mecca. Older dancers tell me that years ago, dances were held six nights a week at various locations around the county. Ive wondered what happened to this vibrant dance community and why these dances no longer exist. While community square dances can be found elsewhere in the southern mountains, I know of none in Haywood or the other counties in the Asheville area.
In the summer months, there are still street dances in Waynesville, Hendersonville, and at Shindig-on-the-Green in Asheville, but these are done on pavement, which is a poor substitute for a real dance floor. And though some local dancers may attend, these street dances mainly attract tourists and children, and at best only serve as a demonstration of the dancing that was once a big part of the local mountain culture.
Western North Carolina is also known as the birthplace of team clogging, a modern tradition which grew out of the older mountain square dancing. Its creation came from efforts to preserve the older dance form, and ironically helped lead to the decline of the community-based square dancing from which it derived. The regions tourist industry from its start in the late 1880s to the present day has acted as a catalyst and influenced both of these mountain dance traditions.
House Dances and "Shindigs"
During the 19th and first decades of the 20th centuries, square dancing was an integral part of social life in the southern mountains. Lack of paved roads meant that transportation was difficult and made for tight-knit communities. Dances, often called shindigs, hoedowns, or frolics, were often held whenever the community gathered together. Dances took place at house parties during Christmas and other holidays, at weddings, and after corn shuckings, barn raisings, molasses making, or other "workings" at which the locals came together to help a neighbor.
The typical story of these gatherings includes a meal after the work followed by music and dancing long into the night. Sometimes dances were held in a schoolhouse or in an empty barn before the tobacco was hung to dry, but most often, they took place in homes. With the furniture removed and the rug rolled back, the largest room would be cleared for dancing. Musicians would sometimes be situated in a doorway, accommodating dancers in two adjacent rooms. As many dancers as could fit the space (sometimes four or more couples) could dance. Sometimes only two couples would dance, what one Yancey County dancer remembers being called a four-hand reel.
The most common form for the square dances in this part of the country is called a big set or big ring, involving many couples in a large circular set. [See "Southern Appalachian Big Set Square Dancing," OTH vol. 3, no. 8, May 1993.] Many older dancers still recall these house parties and barn dances from their youth.
The Grand Hotels
In the early 1880s, the railroad came to the mountains of western North Carolina, reaching Asheville in 1880, and Haywood County a few years later. The railroad opened the region for logging, but also for tourism. In 1884, the first passenger trains arrived in Haywood County, and an era of "grand hotels" began. The railroad companies built large mountain inns in the 1890s and early 1900s catering to tourists seeking escape from the summer heat of the Deep South. These resort hotels included the Gordon Hotel (1890s), the Piedmont Inn (1893), the White Sulphur Springs Hotel (1897), Eagles Nest Inn (1902), and the Balsam Inn (1907). A number of these hotels had dance pavilions and others had large, wood floor ballrooms in which dances were held as part of the entertainment for the tourists. The hotels hired local musicians and dance callers, and invited local dancers to join with the tourists to help lead the square-dance figures.
Albert Burnette, a dance caller and fox hunter who was born in 1912 near the Haywood-Buncombe County line, remembers as a child watching dancers at the Wildwood Inn near his home in East Canton. He recalls that the summer people stayed in cabins and danced in the evenings in the main building, and that young people from the cove would come to dance with the tourists. As a child, he would go with his older brother and sister, and looking through the windows from the porch, he learned the dance figures. At home, he practiced calling the figures to the cows, pigs, sheep, and housedogs until he was ready to call for other young people at local barn dances. Albert recalls when he was 15 (around 1927), "A crowd of us young people got together and we started having dances, too, at whoevers barn was empty. A hayloft made a good place, the only big building we could find. . . . We got there one night and had the music there, but the caller didnt come. . . so I called that square dance and Ive been calling them ever since."
One of the dance callers employed at the Haywood County hotels was Sam Queen. Sam Love Queen was born in 1888 in Dellwood, just outside of Waynesville. According to his grandson, Joe Sam Queen, "He farmed a little, but his main occupation was having a good time and entertaining himself and others."
According to Joe Sam, his grandfather was the first to put together a team of dancers to demonstrate the dance figures for the hotel guests. At this time, the mountain square dances were done with a smooth sliding step rather than the percussive buckdance steps that dancers would use when solo dancing. Sam Queen had learned how to buckdance from his mother, who was reputed to be able to dance with a cup of water on her head and not spill a drop, and he had also learned footwork from an African-American dancer named John Love. During the summer tourist season, Sam Queen and his demonstration group were kept busy as many as six nights a week leading dances at the various hotels in and around Waynesville. Some of the hotels continued the public dances year-round for the local dancers.
In June 1928, Bascom Lamar Lunsford organized his first Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville with the intention of preserving and presenting the traditional music and dance of the area. He invited Sam Queen and his dancers to perform square dances on the festival stage, and the event was made into a contest. Queens group, which he named the Soco Gap Square Dancers, competed against teams of dancers from Buncombe, Henderson, and Swain Counties, and Lunsford awarded a prize to the best "square-dance team." (The Candler team from Buncombe County won the title that first year.)
The Depression Era
During the Great Depression, many of the grand hotels in Haywood County closed their doors as the summer tourist trade dropped off. Some were taken over by the military for use as hospitals for World War I veterans, and others burned down. By the 1940s, they were out-dated and old-fashioned and many never reopened for summer business. Meanwhile, other public dance venues had opened in Haywood County to take their place. In 1932, under the WPA, an armory was built in Waynesville, and soon it hosted public dances called by Sam Queen. The Saturday night dance at the Waynesville Armory, which started out as a summer dance for tourists, grew in size and kept going year round. Another dance started up at the Canton YMCA. It was there that Albert Burnette called dances on Friday nights. And in 1935, dances began to be held at the Moody Barn on the Moody familys farm in Maggie Valley, making it another popular place to square dance during the summer months.
Post World War II
Mountain square dancing continued in Haywood County during World War II, and after the war, other dance venues opened up, including the Maggie Valley Playhouse, a dance hall built in 1949. Arnold Ferguson, a Haywood County dancer, born in 1935 near Waynesville, recalls a time during the 1950s when there were still regional dances six nights a week. On Mondays there was a dance at the Maggie Valley Playhouse, Tuesday nights at the American Legion in Sylva, Wednesday nights back at the Maggie Valley Playhouse, Thursday nights at Birdtown, which is between Cherokee and Bryson City in Swain County, Friday nights at the Piedmont Inn in Waynesville or the Cherokee High School, and Saturday nights either at the Waynesville Armory or once again at the Maggie Valley Playhouse. Other dances took place at Waynesvilles Gordon Hotel and the Masonic Lodge in Cherokee. In the summer months, the dance floors would overflow with tourists, many from Florida, joining with the local dancers.
Sam Queen was the caller at many of these dances and he would bring along his Soco Gap Square Dance Team to put on dance exhibitions. Bill Phillips band from Canton often provided the music. The instrumentation at this time included fiddle, pedal steel, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, upright bass, and sometimes banjo or mandolin. Popular dance tunes of this era included "Down Yonder," "Under the Double Eagle," "Alabama Jubilee," "Steel Guitar Rag," "Black Mountain Rag," and old-time fiddle tunes such as "Lost Indian," "John Henry," "Paddy on the Turnpike," and "Grey Eagle."
Arnold remembers attending other dances in the region as well. These include Saturday night dances at the Saddle Club in Hendersonville, and dances at the Pavilion at Lake Lure and at the Farmers Ball in Swannanoa.
The dances at the Waynesville Armory ended in the mid-1950s, when a fire destroyed the wooden dance floor and it was replaced with concrete. Although Sam Queen remained active as a caller into the 1960s, the number of dances in the area began to decline, and by the end of the1970s they had for the most part completely disappeared.
Re-defining "Square Dancing"
What happened to this rich tradition of mountain square dancing and why did it die out after decades of vitality? I have interviewed many dancers who were active during those heydays of square dancing, and Ive heard a number of answers. According to Jackie Hyatt, whose husband danced with Soco Gap and who herself was a "square dancer" with the Sylva team, the rise in popularity of the Texas two-step at local dance halls is what put an end to square dancing. Joe Sam Queen suggested that with the coming of rock-and-roll, community socialization became more stratified by age group, thus inhibiting the passing on of traditions to the next generation. Better transportation may have also contributed to the break-up of formerly tight-knit local dance communities, and certainly the lure and addiction to television was not conducive to community interaction or participation.
While these same factors led to the decline of community-based old-time square dancing throughout the country, in the Asheville area, there was another contributing factor. Its decline was a consequence of Bascom Lamar Lunsfords efforts to preserve the mountain music and dance through his Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Although Sam Queen had presented square-dance exhibitions for years throughout the mountains, it was at Lunsfords festival in 1928 that square dancing was first done for competition. The contests at his festival spawned other square dance competitions on Saturday nights throughout the region hosted by the various dance groups in their home counties. At these competitions and in subsequent years at Lunsfords festival, the dance form began to evolve as the groups tried to outdo each other.
Over the years, as teams competed, dancers began to add footwork throughout the dance figures.
Albert Burnette recalls his own Champion YMCA square-dance team. "Theyve changed things a whole lot. Back then we didnt clog, no clogging. Every once in a while youd find a man who would clog just a little, but not much. What we had, sort of, was a flatfoot dance . . .when you were holding up waiting on the next figure."
In the 1940s, as the music became amplified, "square dancers" started wearing taps on their shoes, and by the 1950s the teams were competing in matching outfits, more often reflecting western, rather than Appalachian styles.
What had started out as community-based dancing held in association with workings or harvest time, had now gone beyond demonstration and exhibition at tourist hotels, to become a competitive form of dance. This was the beginning of competition team "clogging," though it wasnt known by that name yet.
Arnold Ferguson believes that the messages of competition and exhibition that are conveyed by clogging teams have had a negative impact on community participation in dance. He says, "They are telling the audience: You have to be trained to do this, you have to be young. . . . They should be telling the audience that you can dance, too. You dont have to do the fancy footwork. You dont have to wear the clogging taps."
Other dancers have concurred that team clogging hurt the popularity of community square dancing, and "changed things."
It is ironic that Lunsfords efforts at preservation may have in fact helped change and eventually terminate the mountain square-dance tradition he was attempting to protect. The changes brought to it by putting it on stage parallel similar changes that occurred with the commercialization of old-time mountain music and fostered the development of bluegrass music. Mountain square dancing became entertainment for a passive audience, with an emphasis on exhibition and competition, rather than the community-based participatory event it had been historically.
Over the years, the tourist industry has continued to thrive in western North Carolina, providing musicians and dance groups with venues and audiences, thus helping to keep the local mountain-style team clogging alive as performance. Even though nowadays they are more often referred to as "cloggers," the name "square dancer" is still in common usage, though few of the dancers on the current teams are likely to have ever danced at a community-based square dance. When I mention to people that I am doing research on "old-time square dancing," they assume that I am referring to square-dance teams with costumes and taps performing in competition. This has become the local "square dance" tradition. While many of the older dancers recall participating in community-based square dancing in their youth, this is no longer what the words "square dance" mean to many in western North Carolina. n
Information for this article was gathered from interviews with the following people during August and September, 2001: Albert Burnette, Elmer Chandler, Arnold and Inez Ferguson, James and Jackie Hyatt, Dan Lane, Evelyn Moody, and Joe Sam Queen.
Farlow, Betsy, Dan Lane, and Duane Oliver. Haywood Homes and History. Hazelwood, NC: Betsy Farlow, 1993.
Haywood County Heritage - North Carolina, Vol. 1. Waynesville, NC: Haywood County Genealogical Society, 1994.
Jones, Loyal. Minstrel of the Appalachians. Boone, NC: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1984.
Our House to the White House. Documentary film. Dir. Lawson S. Warren and Ron Ruehl. NC Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh, NC, 1982.
Whisnant, David E. "Finding the Way Between the Old and the New: The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival and Bascom Lamar Lunsfords Work as a Citizen." Communities In Motion. Ed. Susan Eike Spalding and Jane Harris Woodside. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 91-109.
Phil Jamison is an old-time musician, dance caller, and flatfoot dancer. He is assistant director of the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC.
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