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Swing Your Partner: W.Va. Circles Back To Square Dancing

A couple takes to the floor in Harmon, W.Va., in 2012. West Virginia is trying to revitalize its square-dance tradition.
Jessie Wright-Mendoza for NPR
A couple takes to the floor in Harmon, W.Va., in 2012. West Virginia is trying to revitalize its square-dance tradition.

Square dancing, once a pillar of small-town life, is making a comeback in West Virginia. A statewide project is trying to help communities preserve and promote this part of their cultural heritage.

Marlinton, W.Va., is one of the towns taking up the cause. Its square dances can gather a crowd, but residents still worry about attracting the attention of the next generation.

If you go to a square dance in Marlinton, there are some rules to follow. First of all, leave your stereotypes at the door, says Becky Hill, who works on The Mountain Dance Trail initiative.

"No one wears the frilly costumes," she says. Or string ties and ten-gallon hats. Cowboy boots are optional, though a leather-soled shoe does make a particularly satisfying sound when it hits the dance floor.

In fact, there's no dress code whatsoever, because it's all about the dance. "Everybody's on beat. ... That rhythm is just going, usually the fiddle is just like tearing into some old-time tune," Hill says.

Hill says the music has to be live. There are even bands that ride the circuit, playing dances in small towns from Ohio to Virginia.

Creating A Cultural Center

Marlinton's downtown is about three blocks long. On Saturday night, the town seems deserted, until you walk into the Pocahontas County Opera House.

In West Virginia, cowboy boots are not required on the square-dancing floor.
/ Jessie Wright-Mendoza for NPR
Jessie Wright-Mendoza for NPR
In West Virginia, cowboy boots are not required on the square-dancing floor.

The place is packed, and the din of conversation competes with the hot fiddles going on the stage. The floor trembles from the boots hitting the dance floor as couples dance two-by-two and four-by-four.

The square dance is part of a project headed by Gerry Milnes, a folklorist at the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis and Elkins College.

"I saw them sort of slipping away — might be the fiddler passed away, and so the community dance tradition started to dissipate," he says. "At the same time, there were a few places that were continuing the tradition. And it seemed like something that we could get a hold of before it completely passed away."

So Milnes enlisted Hill, and together they launched The Mountain Dance Trail to help organize and promote community dances around the state.

"Most of these communities are rural, underserved communities throughout the state. Most of them don't really have an art center or a cultural heritage place, and so these dances kind of serve that purpose," Hill says.

Tradition's Role In The Present

The Dance Trail is in its second year, expanding to 14 communities. But there's one key group it's having a hard time attracting.

"We need the families; we need the parents to bring their kids and have their kids grow up at square dances," Hill says.

An average crowd is made up of two groups: 20-somethings who come for a night out, and the over-50 set, like James Carpenter.

He's a caller; it's his job to tell the dancers what they're supposed to do.

"My goal is to get some young person to take over where I'm at, you know, and start calling these figures," Carpenter says, "because it's going to be a lost art one of these days." He points to the regular callers, all close to 70 years old.

The callers yell out figures at a rapid-fire pace, switching from tight, four-couple squares to loose circle dances. Still, to many folks, square dancing is a relic of the past. Milnes disagrees.

"Tradition acts in the present. It's based on the past, but it acts the present," he says. "It can only happen in the present."

By the number of young faces in the crowd, it seems like these dances may have a shot, not just in the present, but in the future, too.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessie Wright-Mendoza