Berea College Country Dancers is a college dance group that has been active, though not formally recognized, since approximately the early 1920s. The group gained a firm foundation in the 1930s, during the presidency of William J. Hutchins, when the idea of having an official college dance group came up. At that time, Berea College had a ban on social dancing, because it had been long considered as a social immorality, but this changed when the students and faculty members demanded that the ban be lifted.
As current director of Berea College Country Dancers Dr. Deborah Thompson stated, the demand for the ban on social dancing had started during the progressive recreation movement, when certain people felt that society needed improvement through public education, transportation, hospitals, and playgrounds. President Hutchins decided to make some changes after he saw a performance by the John C. Campbell Folk School folk group in North Carolina. He came up with the idea that Berea College could have a “folk games” club, which he considered a “wholesome alternative to contemporary social dancing.” Thus, in 1932, he sent the chair of the Berea College’s physical education department, Dr. Oscar Gunkler, to the John C. Campbell Folk School to acquire knowledge on traditional folk dances. Upon his return, Dr. Gunkler founded a Folk Club, which soon became a popular college organization on campus. In addition to dances and performances, the Folk Club performed during the half time of Mountaineer basketball games.
In its early years, the Folk Club did not travel and perform outside of Berea College. In fact, the club participants were advised not to call the club a dancing club, but rather to refer to it as a recreational activity of folk games. However, everything changed in 1938, when a faculty member from the Sociology department - Frank Age Smith - got the permission of the college to organize a group of dancers who would perform outside of Berea and represent Berea College at the Mountain Folk Festival. As the director of the Country Dancers, Smith envisioned it as a group doing recreational and healthy dancing. Thus, initially the dance group was called Berea College Recreation Extension Service. The Recreation Extension Service aimed at increasing “the appreciation of Appalachian cultural heritage through participation in recreational activities based on traditional folk material.” Due to his English descent and studies in Denmark, Frank Smith was interested in English and Danish folk dancing traditions as well. Therefore, upon acquiring more knowledge on native Appalachian, English and Danish traditional dances, Smith aimed to create an opportunity for Berea College students to learn all of those folk dancing traditions in one group.
Berea College hosted its first Mountain Folk Festival in spring of 1935 and by 1938, the College became a permanent location for this celebration. During the winter of 1938, the College also hosted the first Christmas Country Dance School, which continues to take place even now during every winter break. By 1940, Frank Smith received the permission from the College Cabinet for the Folk Club to become a formal organization and be called “Country Dancers.” During the war years, the group included not only Berea College students, but also the Navy V-12 men. Over the years, the mission and goals of the Country Dancers gradually changed or adapted new principles, becoming more of a social and competitive dance group
In 1958, Ethel Capps succeeded Frank Smith as the next director of the Country Dancers group. Before 1958, the Country Dancers did not have a leader for an entire year, due to Frank Smith’s retirement in 1957. Yet, under Capps’ supervision from 1958 to 1974 the Country Dancers transformed into world travelers. In 1962, they traveled to Latin America for their first foreign tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. The following year, the group performed for President John F. Kennedy in Washington D.C. In all, during Capp’s administration, the Country Dancer’s became known not only throughout the Appalachian region, but also throughout the world.
In 1974, the Country Dancers welcomed Dr. John Ramsay – a Berea alum as their new director. Apart from his leadership in the Country Dancers, Ramsay founded and led Morris, Contra, and an Oh Contraire group, participated in leading the community-wide Adult Folk Dancing for Teachers and Leaders and Berea citizenry, and further strengthened the Danish American Exchange program. He was also the leader of the Berea College Recreation Extension Service, which was terminated upon his retirement and added into the Physical Education Department. Dr. John Ramsay had combination of values, such as teaching, traveling and performing, especially through exchanges with Denmark. For his sabbatical year of 1981-82, he traveled to Denmark “to explore the philosophy and structure of the Danish Folk School ideas.” In the fall of 1984, the alumni of the Country Dancers traveled to South Korea with sponsorship by the CIOFF (the International Council of Organizations of Folkloric Festivals) and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Dr. Ramsay also organized various international dance tours to folk schools and festivals in Belgium, Czechoslovakia, China, Denmark, El Salvador, England, Germany, Luxembourg, Scotland and Sweden throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
Under the leadership of Dr. Susan Spalding, Country Dancing was offered as an academic or credit-earning course at the Seabury Center Dance Studio for all students of Berea College, due to the liberal arts program of the college. Dr. Spalding’s goal for the Country Dancers and Physical Education Department was to “enhance and extend the dance programs for cooperative activity.” During her administration, the Country Dancers was the only official dance group on campus. Yet, soon more dance groups were created as extracurricular activities and as credit courses. The Country Dancers was now lead not only by Dr. Spalding, but also by assistant coaches on Men’s and Women’s Morris Dances and a Danish American Exchange Representative. Dr. Spalding, like previous leaders of the group, organized various international tours to Denmark, England and even a KIIS (Kentucky Institute for International Studies) based tour to Mexico. Dr. Spalding retired in 2010.
Nowadays, Dr. Deborah Thompson leads the Country Dancers. She is also responsible for the Christmas Country Dance School and Mountain Folk festival. The Country Dancers now gives dancing shoes, a costume bag, a T-shirt and a jacket with a Country Dancers’ logo to every student dancer of the group. The group even has its own costumer, who is also a Berea student. Every fall semester, the Country Dancers offer a convocation concert, called Berea Dances, at the Seabury Center, which attracts many new participants.
In 1980, some pictures of Country Dancers were featured in a display created at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Those pictures were mainly from their performance at the White House during Kennedy’s administration. Moreover, it had a Country Dancer’s costume as an artifact. The Country Dancers were featured in a display section on the former president’s personal interests, family life and the atmosphere of the White House during his administration.
In 1986, the Country Dancers, already a 48-year-old student organization, accepted a record number of 42 new members. The director of the group, Dr. John Ramsay, stated that due to the number of students at tryouts he had to ‘schedule an additional session to get names and faces together.’
In 1998, during a tour to Denmark, the Country Dancers performed at the Danish royal wedding, which was aired on national television.
Berea College Alumnus. 57:3 Nov-Dec 1986, p.14
The Berea Alumnus, 56:2 Sept. 1985, p 17.
The Berea Alumnus, 52:1 Sept. 1981, p 13.
The Berea Alumnus, 50:4 Jan-Feb. 1980, p 20.