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Square Dancing in the Kentucky Foothills

Renfro Valley

The Renfro Valley Barn Dance was established by Rockcastle County native John Lair based on his experience working with the National Barn Dance in Chicago, the first of many radio barn dance shows that appeared in both rural and urban areas during the 1930s and 1940s. The largest of these was the Grand Ole Opry. The first performances occurred in Cincinnati in 1937. Lair used primarily local performers, and in 1939 when he moved the show to Rockcastle County, he recruited local square dancers to perform. John Bill Allen was the leader of the first square dance team there, performing from 1939 until he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941.[10]

“The Berea Square Dancers” at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, 1941.
Front row: Margie Rambeau (Hooper), Geneva Powell (Botkin), Ava Hoskins, Grace Cornelison
Back row: Buck Anderson, Victor Ewen, Newt Botkin, Lewis Botkin, Edward Ewen.
Courtesy of Geneva Botkin.

The second team to dance at Renfro Valley was one led by Newt Botkin. This team – all from the Berea area - performed from 1941 until 1944. Geneva Powell (now Botkin) was on that team during her high school years, along with her future husband, Lewis Botkin, who was Newt’s cousin and Fanny Harrison’s neighbor. Mrs. Botkin said, “I don’t know how they found out that they needed dancers (at Renfro Valley). One of the girls on the team was a sister to one of the performers, and she dated the caller, so that she may have told [Newt Botkin] they were looking for dancers. The caller had a Victrola and records and we practiced maybe once a week. Berea High School let us have the auditorium to practice.” Mrs. Botkin described the exciting times she had while on that team. “In summer, it was a big thing. We got paid $1.50 a show and sometimes had 3 shows in one night. They had bales of hay on the stage. When we weren’t dancing, we were the background. We sat on the bales of hay and clapped for the singers. We wore taps and clogged while we danced. You could have heard us over the radio real good! … One winter, when it got so cold, John Lair made arrangements with the owner of the National Theater in Louisville and advertised for Ballard’s Biscuits. Every Saturday all one winter, we left Berea around 12:30. The caller took the girls and the boys rode with the musicians. We would go to Louisville and we would be on the broadcast – the grand old Renfro Valley radio show. Our show was early - maybe 6:30 to 7:30 - but after that they might have a show right off of Broadway. We saw the original Tobacco Road there [for free]. We would stay to watch the show and on the way home stop to eat. There was a place that we would buy a whole bag of little biscuits with sausage.”[11]

Renfro Valley Barn Dance performers.

It seems to me that Renfro Valley helped to usher in square dance teams in this area. They had earlier become popular in North Carolina as a result of Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, founded in 1928. In North Carolina, the first teams were groups of friends who got together to compete. Within a few years, teams formed far in advance of the festival, practiced regularly and made costumes. This same pattern occurred in Berea and surrounding counties but during the 1940s. Lunsford did play a consulting role with the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, and may have suggested the dance teams. By the end of the 1940s, square dance contests were being established in counties neighboring Berea, perhaps influenced by the Renfro Valley teams and by the teams on other radio barn dance shows.[12]

Berea

After World War II, Renfro Valley continued to feature square dance teams, and social square dancing frequently took place in Berea and the surrounding counties. John Bill Allen resumed calling the square dances at Berea High School when he returned from the war, and they were held regularly during the late 1940s and early 1950s. His daughter, Nora Allen Jenkins, remembered the dances fondly. “Every Saturday night there would be square dances. And the gym would be full. [Lots of people] just came to watch. I was always thrilled when daddy would call upon me. He would say ‘Nora Ruth you come down and you dance in this group right here.’ It made me feel so big. Dancing with - to me - giant men and trying to help them and teach them to square dance. …. And my sister has those same memories.”[13]

John Bill Allen is said to have called also at monthly street dances in Berea, along with Jim Buck Morgan, the son of Oscar and Carrie Morgan. Fanny and Philip Harrison recalled these square dances during the mid- to late- 1940s. “They were real good callers and people enjoyed it. We were first married and had children. It was something to look forward to every month on Main Street. And we started meeting friends twice a month at Brodhead [Fairgrounds Skating Rink in Rockcastle County] to square dance. A lot of people from Berea went to that. And at Brodhead, which was so nice, they brought their children, fourteen or fifteen years old. We know one family in Lancaster that had three children and had such a wonderful time being able to square dance with their children. We ended up going to Lancaster to the Elks clubhouse, and they had square dances about once a month.” In addition, private square dance parties still took place at the Christmas Ridge house.[14]

Estill County

Social square dancing also continued in Estill County, and by the late 1940s it had moved out of the home and into bigger, but still privately held, venues, and team competitions had begun. According to Red Williams of Irvine, “Travis Wells had a big building at his lumberyard. It had a hardwood floor. Every Saturday night [Williams’ parents and their friends] would go out there and practice dancing. They didn’t have to practice, but that’s how they did. He stacked lumber in the building in the wintertime. He’d clean it all out, and they’d go out there and dance about half the night. I used to go out there too [in the 1950s], and after my team stopped dancing in high school, they’d go out there and dance on Saturday night and have a big time, dance all night.” Travis Wells had gone to Ohio to work, as did many from Estill County. Upon his return in 1946 he opened his building to dancers.[15]


"Red Lick," Performed by Travis Wells, 01-07-1977
 

JH-CT-097-003-B in the John Harrod Collection, Berea College Southern Appalachian Archives.


In about 1949 or 1950, an annual Mountain Square Dance Festival began in Irvine, taking place in the Estill County High School gym through the 1950s. Frank Smithers, the American Legion Post Commander, served as the master of ceremonies. “The place was packed. The Estill County High School gym was only five or six years old - one of the biggest high school gyms in the state back then. The floor was covered with chairs, plus people sitting in the bleachers. Standing room only. On Friday and Saturday night of the contest, all the people from Ohio came back down home. When I was a kid, when you got out of high school, first thing you did you took off to Ohio and got a job.  Come home every other weekend, tell everybody about the big city. They all came back for the contest.”[16]

According to Red Williams, “they built a platform stage off the regular stage out to the middle of the floor, with a red, white, and blue curtain all around it. They could seat about five or six hundred people with a packed house every night. Square dance teams came in from Lee County, Powell County, Morgan County, Wolfe County, Berea, and even from out of state for competitions on Friday and Saturday night. On Saturday night when it was about over with, they would pass out who was the best team.” His father’s team, the Estill County Square Dancers, competed. “My Daddy’s team wore blue and white striped Carhartt overalls and plaid shirts. The women wore big dresses with a whole lot of petticoats underneath them. Some of these women danced in high heels. Had some great dancers on their team for soft shoe, and dad, he called the set. He was the caller and danced with them.” Among the team members were George and Allen Crowe, Robert Osmond, Bob Wells, Travis Wells sometimes, and Mary Lee Jackson. Jimmy Lou Jackson, Mary Lee’s daughter, remembered seeing her mother dance. “She was really smooth, she had the smoothest dance step you ever saw. Looked like she wasn’t moving her feet, just gliding across the floor. It was the old time clogging, but didn’t look like her body moved at all, just her feet. I grew up watching mother dance with groups. It was kind of neat going to that contest because you knew the people that she was dancing with. She always liked to dance with George Crowe. He had a smooth step too, so together they looked like they were just gliding across the floor.”[17] Mary Lee made sure her daughters attended the festival and included Jimmy Lou when she was in about third grade. She taught the Virginia Reel to Jimmy Lou’s Girl Scout Troop, and they opened the contest that year with their performance.

Footwork

Footwork, sometimes called jig dancing or soft shoe dancing, seems to have been an important component of square dancing in the Kentucky Foothills. Musicians interviewed by John Harrod frequently mentioned how many steps a person could do. “Travis Wells talked a lot about dancers and was a good dancer himself. He talked about steps. Pigeon Wing, Buck and Wing, Buzzard Wing, Double Shuffle and the Back Step. Ed Howell had his own patented step called Falling out of the Loft.” Wells described several informal competitions between dancers where one tried to outdo another, and told stories of comical endings, as when one dancer jumped onto a chair and continued dancing. His competitor tried to match him and fell, thereby losing the impromptu contest. Darley Fulks of nearby Powell County said that Gordon Wells and his sister Viney could do seventy-two steps. John Harrod traveled widely in Kentucky, and discovered through his interviews that names of steps varied among locales. What was called “buck and wing” in one community might have another name in another community, for example.[18]

In talking about good jig dancers on his father’s Estill County team, Red Williams said that “Everybody had different steps they danced.” He especially mentioned brothers George and Allen Crowe. “George was about five-foot-four and man he could burn a set of shoes up, and his brother the same way. George had a good backstep. He’d go round that couple and take a little peek, come back home and shake those feet. He’d back back up [backstep] instead of turn around. That arm had a little kick to it. Stick that arm straight out and he would start backing up. They [jig] danced all the time [during the square dance].”[19]

Red Williams became the caller for his own youth square dance team, organized by Virginia Comley, when he was about 12, and competed with them through his high school years. Among the other members of his team were Lois Jane Comley, Louis Earl Edwards, Joy Caywood, Jody Comley, and Glenn Marcum and his older sister. Williams remembers that his was one of three or four teams in Estill County at the time, and that they were the winners of the National Championship at the Kentucky State Fair in 1954. He described how the solo footwork enhanced the square dancing, noting a particular moment in the square dance that featured the footwork. “Doing the backstep to travel backwards, that was when you were really dancing – dancing by themselves. [In Take a Little Peek], two [would be] backing up and two dancing [in place]. That’s when they really got to show off their steps. [As caller], if a couple was doing good and the crowd was applauding, I’d just let them dance awhile. When they got through, I’d say grab your partner and do-si-do. And they’d go to the next couple and do something and they’d listen to the call then. They only gave you so long to perform in the contests, and you had to kind of move quick – not dance all night.”[20]

Donna Lamb learned to dance from her uncle and granddaddy in Garrard County. “Uncle Bird said when they’d go dancing [in the 1930s and 1940s], they did the buck and the wing, [demonstrating arms as wings]. He said it was mostly the men who did everything. The ladies just stood [in a circle] and didn’t do anything at all. The men would just go from this partner to that one and show off to this one and show off to that one, all the way around the circle. And then the next man would do the same thing around until they’d all get tired. Sometimes the ladies would do something, but they weren’t allowed to do what the men did. They’d curtsey around to each one and come back. He said you’d see two or three men over in a corner showing stuff they could do with their feet. They didn’t use taps at all. Mostly old time brogan shoes, work boots. Leather bottom shoes. You’d wing your forearm and did like a double shuffle. Balance over the feet – tossing the weight both ways. Your foot never came a half inch to an inch off the floor at any time. No high kicks.”[21]

In February of 2014 Donna led a workshop for Berea students and demonstrated the footwork style used during square dancing in the 1940s. In watching the video, one sees the very specific footwork, and a rhythm that is different, not only from today’s precision clogging, but also from the 1975 video sample from Owsley County below.


Donna Lamb demonstrates Buck and Wing dance steps at a Berea College workshop, February 2014. Courtesy of Sam Gleaves.
Video montage edit by John H. Bondurant.