Square dancing is more ethnic than you think


The folk dancing of the Southern Appalachians wasn’t just shipped over from the British isle but developed in the melting pot of American culture, according to a new book by a Warren Wilson College professor.

“I hope to dispel some of the myths that have been longstanding for the last 100 years,” said Phil Jamison. “These dances are not just ancient Anglo-Celtic heritage that has been locked away in isolation in the mountains, but it includes multicultural and multiracial influences, and it is a continually changing tradition.”

Jamison has released “Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance,” his highly-anticipated book examining the history of square dances, step dances, reels and other forms of dance from southern Appalachia.

Jamison, a nationally known dance caller, old-time musician and flatfoot dancer, spent 14 years researching traditional Appalachian dance and turns the table on, what he says, is the oft-told incomplete history. Jamison argues that the distinctive folk dances are not the unaltered jigs and reels of the early British settlers, but hybrids that developed over time, drawing from the European, African-American and Native American traditions.

Jamison explores the powerful influence of black culture showing how practices such as dance calling and specific steps combined with white European forms to create distinctly “American” dances.

“Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics” includes the work of Warren Wilson students, members of the College’s Geographic Information Crew, who helped create three maps for the book.

While one map identifies the Appalachian region, another shows the region’s river system, which Jamison calls “the back door to Appalachia” and credits with the transmission of new styles of dance throughout the southern mountains during the 19th century. A third and final map pinpoints the regional location of dance callers, who were recorded on 78 rpm recordings in the 1920s and 30s. As a companion to the book, Jamison maintains a website featuring the recordings of nearly 100 Southern dance callers from 1924 to 1933.

From the Shoo-fly Swing to the Virginia Reel, “Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics,” published by University of Illinois Press and supported by a grant from the L. J. and Mary C. Skaggs Folklore Fund and Warren Wilson College, reinterprets an essential aspect of Appalachian culture.

“Throughout the book,” Jamison said, “you find the continual exchange of culture back and forth between blacks and whites across racial lines and between social classes. There’s way more to the story that nobody has ever talked about.”

For more about the book, visit philjamison.com.