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Square Dancing in the Kentucky Foothills

Square Dance Parties

Square dancing was still popular enough in Berea in the 1950s that two public venues, Berea High School and the American Legion hall, offered it on a regular basis. It was also a highlight of the annual Berea Community Home-Coming. Square dance parties were still held regularly at the Christmas Ridge House, and people went to the Brodhead Fairgrounds and to the Lancaster Elks Club to square dance. In addition, two Berea children’s square dance teams were formed to perform and compete around Kentucky.

In the early 1950s, John Bill Allen continued his square dances at Berea High School, and in spring 1954, the American Legion began to offer square dances as a fundraiser for their new hall, using musicians from Renfro Valley and Berea. For their fifth square dance they announced in the Berea Citizen, “Billy Keith, one of our nationally-known radio performers, did some mighty fancy guitar work at the old-fashioned square dance last Saturday night. Helping out were Preston McDaniel, bass fiddle, Tom Williams, fiddle, and Dr. D.B. Settles, guitar.”  A May 6th article remarks that for another dance, “Coleman Cornelison will be pushing the bow.”[22]

Mary Lee Jackson

In 1954, too, Mary Lee Jackson and her family moved to Berea from Estill County, bringing her square dance heritage with her. She quickly formed a square dance team for her youngest daughter, Belle, and her friends. Because many of them lived on Boone Street, which intersected with Valley Street, she named them the Boone Valley Hoedowners. Soon she formed a team for youngsters a few years older than that group, calling them the Berea Mountaineers.

Mary Lee Jackson, remember, had been on the Estill County Square Dancers team with George Crowe, Travis Wells and Red Williams’ father. Though she had moved to Berea, she returned to dance with her team for the annual Mountain Square Dance Festival in Irvine, and may have danced socially with them during her frequent visits to her hometown. She brought her love of dance with her to Berea. Her daughter, Belle, now the Director of Tourism for Berea, said she remembers her mother “taking off her shoes in the living room and square dancing. She called it ‘hittin’ a lick.’ As a child I was always aware that mother was a dancer. It was like learning to swim. I always copied my mother.” Mary Lee’s husband’s family, who had lived in Berea for four generations, were also very musical. Belle said, “My father’s mother, my Granny Grace, exposed me to music very early and she had three sisters and several brothers. She had a sister named Laurel who played harmonica; a sister, my Aunt Ollie, who played old timey clawhammer banjo and she played piano for church. My Uncle Walker would play a fiddle and my Aunt Ollie played and sang. All of my grandmother’s brothers and sisters except my Uncle Chess would sit on the carport – and at that time you didn’t put a car in the carport, you had all of your porch furniture on that – and they would sing and they would play and my Granny Grace taught me to play guitar.” Mary Lee Jackson carried the musical tradition forward with her daughters. Her daughter Jimmy Lou Jackson, now a glass artist in Berea, said, “When we’d get in the car and go somewhere, she’d say ‘girls, sing for me.’ We’d always sing to make the time go by faster,” on the regular weekly or bi-weekly trips to visit family in Estill County. “She took us to a lot of jam sessions in homes, just to listen – in Estill County, and also here [in Berea].” The close connection with Estill County was not unique to the Jackson family. Jimmy Lou Jackson said that there was “a lot of courtship between Estill and Madison County. It was not unusual for somebody in Berea to court somebody in Irvine and vice versa especially after the war, when the guys came home and a lot of them got jobs at the Bluegrass Army Depot [in Madison County].”[23]

Belle drew a contrast between the string band dance music she heard in Estill County and the music traditions of Berea. “They didn’t play the same kind of music. It was a different sort of genre. Their Madison County/Berea music was more of a sitting together and sharing music and singing as a family. They knew all the words.  My grandmother would start it” and the whole family would sing together, mostly ballads. “My mother was from Estill County and for her, music was dance.”

Berea Square Dance Teams

Mary Lee must have wanted to share her love of square dancing with her daughters and their friends. As team member Linda Owens, now Jennings said, “she brought the square dancing to us.” But she brought it to fertile ground. A number of the children’s parents had square danced. Rieta Botkin, now Eaton, learned from her parents, Lewis and Geneva Botkin, who were among the Renfro Valley dancers mentioned above. George Bryant said, “My mother and daddy and Geneva were good friends. Geneva liked to square dance and my mother and daddy were big in the square dancing. Dad even called some. Mom taught me on the kitchen floor.” The children who did not come from dancing families learned quickly under Mary Lee’s tutelage. Children had other exposure to dancing, through their school. Gladys Wagers, aunt of team member Billy Wagers, taught the Virginia Reel to her fourth grade students at Berea Independent School. When they reached seventh grade, their teacher Flora Allen, John Bill Allen’s wife, taught square dancing as part of Kentucky history. When she taught it, she used the running step as opposed to the jig dancing footwork used in Estill County. She taught other traditional skills as well. George Douglas Bryant said that “We had to learn how to weave rugs and make potholders. She had a big loom and every kid had to weave a rug before they were passed to eighth grade. I also learned how to knit and crochet in seventh grade.”[24]

Many of the parents of the children on the team socialized together. According to Linda Owens Jennings, “some parents worked together at Parker Seal Company, some were neighbors, some belonged to the same organizations or the same churches.” As an example of the close connections, Lewis Botkin and George Douglas Bryant’s father owned a grocery store together, so Rieta and George Douglas grew up knowing each other from a young age. Jennings went on, “I remember the adults having a lot of potluck suppers. The basement of the Masonic hall up on Chestnut Street was like the recreational room for the lodge. That’s where a lot of family or neighborhood potlucks were held. Potluck suppers were a big part of our social life back then, and a lot of children’s birthday parties.”[25] 

Some of the parents danced together at the Christmas Ridge House during the 1950s, like Lewis and Geneva Botkin and George Douglas Bryant’s parents, as did John Bill and Flora Allen and George Davis, Jr, and his wife. George Bryant said his parents’ circle of friends were “big buddies.” Belle Jackson described the closeness of the group: The community belonged to every child and every child belonged to the community. The kids on each team were all in the same grade, and the parents knew each other. They were very involved parents.” The parents made the costumes, brought children to practice, and went with them to their performances and competitions no matter how far away. The square dance teams contributed to the strength of the community.[26]

Boone Street

Jimmy Lou Jackson said that “Boone Street was the best place to be at that time,” with the Berea Independent School at the top of the street, along with a grocery store, hardware store, pharmacy, and restaurant, “so a lot of the kids came down – played together, ate together with their whole families.” Belle described “the coolest thing” her parents used to do: “put an extension cord out the kitchen window and set a [ten inch black and white] tv outside and the kids would have blankets and we’d watch outside tv, and the parents would be inside. We were out of their hair and glued to the tv and sometimes you’d run around and act wild, and they would have a potluck and be inside playing cards or whatever grownups did at that time.” Jimmy Lou remembered that at least one time the square dance teams and their parents rented the VFW hall on nearby Bond Street and had a dance there, kids and parents together, and divided up the winnings from recent contests.

The teams practiced weekly. Belle said, “In good weather, spring or fall, Mother would literally close the street down in front of our house on Boone Street. She would run an extension cord and plug in that record player and all of us would gather and when cars would come by, she would just dance us over to the curb, not interrupt the set, and when they were gone she would dance us to the middle of the street. Of course we thought it was pretty cool, because we got to play in the middle of the road. But it was a lot of practice. She was very directive – “you stand here – No you can’t squeeze their hand, you have to hold their hand.” Boys and girls don’t want to hold hands at 5 or 6 years old. We were pretty proud that we could do it. And we were pretty- I don’t want to say professional - but we lined up as she told us to, we went through the sets smartly, we were well-practiced, well-rehearsed. And somehow it was great fun, it was like showing off, like a good ball team is. We could run through sets and we did it with a lot of energy. In winter we used the basement of the Masonic Lodge for practice.”[27]

Performances and Competitions

The Boone Valley Hoedowners and the Berea Mountaineers danced often at the annual Estill County Mountain Square Dance Festival and competition, at Berea community Home-Comings, at the State Fair, at Renfro Valley, at Natural Bridge State Park, in Richmond, and in Rockcastle County. They even appeared on Lexington television. Linda Owens Jennings has a vivid memory of the group being at Renfro Valley. “I do actually remember being on the stage at Renfro Valley, but my biggest memory is being in the dressing room and all the ladies putting their makeup on – the entertainers, you know – with makeup and costumes and that sort of thing. I’m sure my mouth was wide open and my eyes were wide open.”[28]

Almost all of the parents traveled with the dancers when they performed or competed. George Bryant remembered that his dad sometimes called for the teams. He and mom went everywhere with us. They’d pack up as many as we could get in one car and others would follow them. When they went to the State Fair one year, dad had just bought a   1958 Ford box truck and everybody didn’t have a way to get there. He took bales of hay and busted up in the back of it, and Mom fixed us a snack and cut up a bunch of lemons so if we got car sick we could lick on the lemons. He put us in the back and he stopped every once in a while for a break. But we made it to the fair and won it.” Belle Jackson said, “There was always a competition [at the State Fair]. It was a party. The dancing was supplemental to all the things you did to get there. I got to play with friends. And then – for seven minutes you got to get up and perform. That was the small time for all the preparation and going to Louisville. Fifty years ago, sixty years ago that was a major undertaking. It would be like going to Denver now, to coordinate all those kids and parents and get us there at the same time in costume and having fed us.”[29]

George Bryant told this story about competing at the State Fair: “My dad told me, son, if you don’t do something you’re beat. … When you hit that floor, just make one circle and then squall out just like a panther at the old time barn dance. I hit the floor and made the circle and I tried to holler and I couldn’t. So then everybody else went to squalling and the crowd got with us and that’s what saved us. Crowd acted like it was a big party too. We won a little blue ribbon that said Kentucky State Champions.”[30]

Estill County Mountain Square Dance Festival

The Estill County Mountain Square Dance Festival was an important part of the year for the Boone Valley Hoedowners and the Berea Mountaineers. For the Jacksons, it was a real homecoming. That was when they performed for Mary Lee Jackson’s family and friends and the other dancers on her adult team. As Jimmy Lou Jackson said, “The parents had costumes made or made the costumes, and we went to that contest in Irvine like the rest of the people that we grew up with.” She remembered perhaps as many as a hundred fifty people involved in the Estill County square dance community. She said, “They’d get a group up and enter the contest. Mother danced with the older people there. She just danced when in Estill County. They were really good. It’s interesting - because a parent teaches a child that kind of dance step and you can tell who has taught that child to dance. Mother said ‘you can tell which holler they come out of,’ because they danced like their parents.”[31]

 “It was a big thing in Irvine” according to Jimmy Lou Jackson. “You had to pay an entry fee to dance and then there was prize money.” Belle Jackson gave a vivid description of the competition. “It was in a big gymnasium, with live music for the competition. That was good for the energy! Plus the nervousness of being in front of a crowd was always fun. … I was head couple, which was couple number one. That’s how mother would call a set. She would say “Couple number one” and then move them to couple number two, to three, to four. Go back in your place and then couple number two would go out and repeat the set through. As the lady in couple one, because my mom was the director, of course, I got to choose the position that we danced – were we first in the competition or fourth, for example. And I would also be able to give the fiddler our request for music and I can remember I would always ask for the tune Devil’s Dream.” Jimmy Lou said “That’s the tune [Mary Lee] liked to dance to because it was smooth. You listened to that music and it had a nice steady beat.” Sometimes Jimmy Lou would be the caller for her mother’s teams at the festival. She had a special costume that she wore for the occasion. As she described it: “Great big seersucker pants and a great big pair of suspenders, and a flannel shirt," all borrowed from Linda Owens Jennings’ great grandfather, Ed Owens, who lived with his wife on Boone Street, two houses from the Jackson family.[32]

"Devil's Dream," Performed by Marion Pridemore, c. 1980s.

SC-CT-924-001, William Sears Collection, Berea College Southern Appalachian Archives.

Howard Hardaway, writing in the Louisville Courier Journal Magazine in 1958, said that contests included square dancing, rock ‘n’ roll, and folk dancing, and that teams came from at least five counties: Estill with seven or eight teams, mostly square dancing; Fayette, with a half-dozen groups equally divided among square and folk dancing; Morgan, with two teams of teenagers [possibly Richard Jett’s first Ezel teams]; Madison, with “two teams of high-stepping little folk” [Mary Lee Jackson’s teams]; and Powell with a teen square dance team, the Powell County Promenaders. Winning the adult square dance championship that year was a team called the Black Satins. When the contest ended at midnight, Hardaway said some of the dancers invited him to go “someplace with us for a session of real square dancing – where we won’t have to worry about getting off the floor every few minutes to make room for some other team.” It is tempting to imagine that they were inviting him to go to Travis Wells’ lumber yard for social square dancing after the contest.[33]

The jitterbug contests that were part of the Estill County Festival made an impression on Linda Owens Jennings. “They would take a break [from square dancing], and the older dancers would participate in the jitterbug contest. They would flip the girl over the guy’s back and all these things. All these crinolines – dancing and flipping, and I just thought that it was the most wonderful thing on earth.”[34]

Figures and Style

Among the figures performed by the Boone Valley Hoedowners and Berea Mountaineers were “round that lady and take a little peek,” “bird in the cage,” “lady round the lady and the gent don’t go,” all for two couples. The dance began with all four couples circling left and back to the right, then “right and left all the way around [grand right and left]” and “ladies in front, gents behind, Indian style [single file promenade].” Each couple danced a figure with each of the other couples and at the end, the call was, “Now all join hands, circle left.” Linda Owens Jennings also remembers going through a “tunnel sort of thing.” Belle said that after dancing half the set, “you would swing your corner and then swing your lady, which was always confusing until you learned it. For a five year old to know who their corner is and get that timing right so that your partner is coming around at the time when you could reach out and get them within that step and within that rhythm and then move back into your space without looking like you’re trying to avoid a football tackle -- that is tough. I think about that for a five-six-seven year old to be able to do that would have been practiced.”[35]

Jimmy Lou Jackson demonstrates her calling style, 2014.

Susan Eike Spalding Collection, Berea College Special Collections & Archives.

As everyone agreed, “Once you hit the floor, you’re dancing. You don’t quit til you come off the floor.” Throughout the dance, the couples watching stayed in place clogging and clapping. Mary Lee Jackson taught a basic step to children inexperienced in jigdancing and square dancing. Jimmy Lou said that “she started with teaching them heel-toe heel-toe change foot … Shift your weight. Heel toe shift weight. You get them started and eventually they’ll find their lick.” Others described it as “heel toe click step.”

George Bryant’s father occasionally called for the teams, but his style was somewhat different from Mary Lee’s, perhaps owing to differences between the dancing in Mr. Bryant’s home of Berea and the dancing in Mary Lee’s home in Estill County. Bryant liked to insert patter between his calls, like “chicken in the bread pan picking out dough, swing your partner and do-si-do. Momma will your dog bite, no child no …”[36]