Western North Carolina Dancers Keep the Tradition Alive
Cheryl Thomas had always been passionate about line dancing. So when she and her husband, Bob, who moved from Illinois to Bryson City a decade ago, were asked to fill in for a Swain County Cooperative Extension instructor who couldn’t teach anymore, they quickly agreed.
On Thursday nights, about 15 In Step Line Dancers – 25 in peak summer season – gather at the extension facility to do everything from the Macarena and the Chicken Dance to the Cupid Shuffle, the Wobble, and the ever-popular Electric Slide. Familiar tunes like “Funky Cold Medina” and lesser- known songs like “Daisy Duke and Her Cowboy Boots” ll the air as the mostly senior dancers kick up their heels.
“It’s fun. It’s good exercise. It is also exercise for the mind,” says Thomas, 69. “When you get older, they say you’re going to lose it, but you don’t if you keep going. That’s what I do it for.”
Her spouse now has Parkinson’s disease, which affects his memory.
“Every week that I teach, I have him learn a dance, and then he has to teach it himself,” Thomas says. “And that keeps him involved and getting a little exercise.”
Western North Carolina boasts a long love a air with “mountain dancing,” from synchronized clogging and line dancing to solo improvisational styles like flatfooting and the higher-stepping buck dancing. In some places, traditional dances have fallen by the wayside, but these centuries-old rhythms are still going strong here, at competitions, festivals and group classes.
“In North Carolina, we are very lucky because we have our cultural history of the Appalachian Mountains that bring these dancers forward,” says Thomas DeFrantz, professor of African-American studies and dance at Duke University. “These are old-timey dances that were formed in the early years of the country. And then as people settled along these more remote areas, the dances and music traditions managed to retain their hold in these communities.” One reason the dances are so enjoyable, says DeFrantz, is that they allow people to “peacock,” or strut their stuff. “If we’re doing a buck dance or a line dance or clogging, we’re in a sense showing o . You get to do a turn that’s unexpected or do a step faster than anyone knew you could and kind of help everybody rethink what’s possible. So even in a line dance, where everyone works in unison or toward the same movement, everyone’s also allowed to do it their own way.”
Despite the popularity of Thomas’ line-dancing class, clogging is still king in Swain County.
“When cloggers perform, you usually get a big turnout because people really enjoy watching it,” says Dee Decker, who oversees the clogging and line- dancing programs at the Swain County Cooperative Extension office. “It’s very energetic. The music’s always upbeat. It’s fun to dance and fun to watch.”
The Tangled Feet Stompers was established in 2009, when the clogging teacher at Southwestern Community College returned to Florida, but the students kept dancing together. The In Step Line Dancers group formed a bit later, in response to requests for an option that was not as tough on the knees. Lessons for both are free, with no auditions, sign-up fees or registration requirements, and both groups perform at area festivals. “It’s very fluid,” says Decker, one of the original Tangled Feet Stompers, which includes 15 youth dancers and 15 adults. “We just welcome people when they can come.”
The classes are a perfect t for the agency’s goal of promoting good health through physical activity, Decker notes. “It reduces stress. It increases energy. Dancing is a weight-bearing exercise, so it can help strengthen the legs and hips. And it improves your balance.”
She gives the example of a woman who took up line dancing and clogging and lost more than 70 pounds. Then there are the two sisters in the youth clogging class. “[The mother] said that of all the team sports that her daughters participate in, we provide one of the safest environments. We promote improvement in a healthy way and it’s non-competitive so they can have fun and be relaxed.”
For Thomas, the social aspect of dancing may just be the best part. “We meet a lot of people and it’s enabled us to find new friends,” she says. “We all get together and we get to laughing and cutting up. It’s really great.”
– Nancy Henderson