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Square Dancing in the Kentucky Foothills

Berea Home-Coming

An important annual event for the Boone Valley Hoedowners and the Berea Mountaineers was the Berea Home-Coming, a community event sponsored by the Berea Lions’ Club. The event included a huge street dance, a parade, a Miss Berea contest, and a performance at Indian Fort Theater by Berea’s big name performers like Red Foley, Ernie Lee Cornelison, Billy Edd Wheeler, and even Pat Boone, who had married one of Red Foley’s daughters. The square dance teams performed as well, either at Indian Fort Theater or during the street dance. The Berea Home-Coming began in 1951 and continued until 1966. Almost everyone I spoke with remembered the Home-Coming as a major event of the year. It intentionally focused on local performers from Berea and the surrounding area, and on traditional music and square dance.[37]

The Home-Coming parade traveled through Berea, and at least some of the years, it began on Boone Street. The Boone Valley Hoedowners and Berea Mountaineers square dance teams had floats in the parade, as did other organizations. Theirs was usually a flatbed wagon pulled by a tractor or mules, with the dancers seated on bales of hay.

The Home-Coming street dance filled the whole of Main Street in front of Boone Tavern, between Prospect and Estill Streets. It was a “big circle” square dance, rather than four couples, with local musicians. Usually the dances were called by Lions’ club member and Home-Coming organizer John Bill Allen, though George Bryant’s father called some of the sets as well. Bryant said, “anybody who wanted to jump in could jump in – little’uns and big’uns.” Rieta Botkin Eaton reminisced, “I remember as a little girl wearing this square dance outfit dancing with the big people. Daddy would say come on Jody, and I would swing your partner with the big people, momma and daddy’s age.” The Porter Moore drugstore on Main Street stayed open until late in the evening and took on extra waitresses, to accommodate the many street dance participants wanting ice cream or cherry cokes.[38]

John Bill Allen calling a street dance in Berea on 10-24-1975, with music by the McLain Family band, with Lewis and Donna Lamb.

Recorded by John Ramsay. SC-OR-841-010, Berea College Special Collections & Archives.

Building Confidence

Dancing on the square dance teams helped to shape the dancers and to build their self-confidence. Once they had outgrown the teams, they were still asked to perform at school functions “just because we knew how to do it. Teachers would come to us when they were doing programs in the gym, and they would say “all of you dancers” and we would know who we were, “would you all come out and do this.” So we were used as that special touch because we had been trained, had the background to do it. But we didn’t wear a costume and we didn’t have a name, and all that sort of thing, but we were still identified as the kids who danced.” Their square dance experience gave them the confidence to dance in other styles, as well. At school sock hops, “all the kids that were dancers - we knew how to dance, we knew how to swing, we knew how to complement another person in dance and we were always the first kids on the floor.”[39]

Jimmy Lou Jackson devised a special application of her square dance experience. For senior night the year she graduated from high school, she created a square dance to illustrate the history of the class. “Kids that started first grade together started the dance together. I came in in sixth grade so I joined later, and we added kids til we got the whole senior graduating class in the square dance. Mother came up and taught us all how to dance. We took the gym and I called the set.” The square dance “class history” helped to make a point. The school had recently been racially integrated, and Jimmy Lou’s dance naturally incorporated the black students and the white students together, modeling acceptance.[40]

Reflecting on her square dance team experience, Linda Owens Jenning exclaimed, “It was a big deal for twenty kids in Berea to get to go to competitions and wear these costumes. Wow! We were twenty special kids!”[41]

The dancers demonstrated their cohesiveness and their devotion to Mary Lee Jackson when she became seriously ill in 1979. Geneva Botkin organized a Mother’s Day reunion of the dance teams at Mary Lee’s house. Jimmy Lou called the square dances, and music was provided by the Reel World String Band, of which Belle was a founding member. George Bryant recalled that Mary Lee asked the dancers who came that day to serve as the pallbearers and honorary pallbearers for her funeral. Remembering her, George Bryant exclaimed, “She loved that music – that dancing!”[42]

Reunion of the Boone Valley Hoedowners and the Berea Mountaineers at the home of Mary Lee Jackson, Mother's Day, 1979. Jimmy Lou Jackson and Dinah Jackson Tyree are seen dancing in the opening moments. Jimmy Lou Jackson calls the square dance. Belle Jackson plays guitar with the Reel World String Band, accompanying the dance. Recorded by John Ramsay.
RE-VR-007-001, Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

1960s and 1970s: Teams and Competitions

Lewis and Donna Lamb said that during the 1960s, a number of square dance and jig dance opportunities existed in the area, some social, some competition, and some connected with fiddle contests. They often played music for jig dancing contests. The Brodhead Fairgrounds dance continued, with small sets running through their figures on their own, rather than someone calling for the whole group. The Juniper Hill Golf Club in Frankfort had a dance, and Pioneer Dinner Theater sometimes held dances. In Stanford, radio station WRSL sponsored dances on Friday nights for a time, organized by Jim Gaskin. Clogging instructors Eben Henson and Carl Clark ran contests in Danville that Lewis and Donna played for. Lebanon Hound Days, run by Allen B. Hanks, had contests, and Anderson County High School had events monthly. The Lion’s Bluegrass Fair in Lexington had clogging and fiddle contests, perhaps into the 1980s.[43] It seems that by the 1970s precision clogging had become more popular in Estill and Madison counties, but solo freestyle jig dancing was still enjoyed in Powell, Wolfe, Owsley, and other neighboring counties, side by side with precision clogging. Social square dancing and jig dancing were largely fading away by then, but new versions of the traditional forms were performed by organized teams.

An example of freestyle jig dancing or clogging at the Owsley Homecoming, September 13, 1975. Recorded by John Ramsay.
RE-VR-019-001, Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

In the early 1970s, Red Williams, together with some other Estill County parents who had danced, formed a square dance team for their children called the Hillbilly Hoedowners, and directed by Darrell Rogers of Powell County, who had danced on Richard Jett’s teams. They performed and toured all over the region, appeared in Gatlinburg and on the Grand Ol’ Opry, and even traveled to the western United States. Williams pointed out that by then, the children were no longer doing the individualized footwork of jig dancing, but precision clogging. He said the difference is that “clogging is all one big racket – boom-boom-boom-boom all the way through,” everyone doing the same thing. “In jig dancing (softshoe) it’s pitty pat pitty pat pitty pat pat pat … everybody had a different rhythm.”[44]


Clogging teams like the Hillbilly Hoedowners were common in the area in the 1970s. Two children’s teams performed on the concert for the first Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music in 1974. A video of the Little Colonels demonstrates the high intensity precision clogging that had become popular by that time. It contrasts with the Owsley County freestyle jig dancing and Donna Lamb’s buck and wing video segments above. Like the Hillbilly Hoedowners, the Little Colonels used square dance figures in their performances.

The Little Colonels from Richmond, KY at the 1974 Celebration of Traditional Music, accompanied by Asa Martin and the Cumberland Rangers. AC-VR-001-031. Berea College Special Collections and Archvies.

George Bryant and his wife Genny were among those who took up clogging as adults in the 1970s. He remembered that there were lots of clogging teachers at that time. He and his wife joined a group in 1971 led by Fay Burton, practicing weekly. They used a basic precision clogging step, “double-toe rock step rock,” as Mr. Bryant described it, along with traditional square dance figures in four couple sets. The clogging group was purely a social group, rather than a performing or competing group, that traveled together to dance for fun at places like Hoedown Island at Natural Bridge State Park and Fort Boonesborough State Park. One time the group danced on television for a telethon, answering phones when not dancing. Other Bereans in the clogging group were Ronald and Henrietta Pennington and Benny and Glenna Boggs. The group continued until the 1990s. Geneva Botkin and her granddaughter took clogging lessons in Berea together during this same period, but their classes involved dancing in lines, rather than using square dance figures. Among those teaching clogging in the latter part of the twentieth century was Richard McHargue of Richmond, Kentucky. His teams, some for children and some for adults, have been performing since at least the 1990s.[45]

The Richard McHargue SugarFoot Cloggers at Natural Bridge State Park’s Hoedown Island. A Capella precision clogging followed by “Rise and Shine” in which each dancer demonstrates her own clogging excellence. Posted in 2010.

Social Square Dancing

Apparently social square dancing and jig dancing still occurred in some places in the 1970s. John Harrod said that he played for or attended quite a few community dances, but they gradually faded away “as the old fiddlers died.” He listed the Monterey School House and Long Ridge School House in Owen County, Goforth in Grant County, Campton School and Lacey Creek in Wolfe County, and one in Lewis County. He did not know of any in Madison County, and he said that he felt he had just missed community square dancing in Estill County. What he did experience there was a strong dance culture. He performed with the Kentucky Clodhoppers, sometimes playing at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall in Clay City, near the Estill County line. “The people who came in the 1970s were more interested in dancing than in sitting down and listening. They weren’t set dances, but they’d all be up there flatfooting, and spontaneously somebody would take their partner and lead out and start doing figures. But it wasn’t in a big circle or in a set. It would just sort of happen out of a bunch of people flatfooting to bluegrass music or old time music. That is the way they adjusted to the loss of their community or the loss of their dance venue.”[46]

In Berea during the 1970s, no local community square dances seem to have taken place, but John Bill Allen, and perhaps others, were invited to call for street dances hosted by the college. A 1971 Berea Citizen article features photos sent to Ethel Capps, then Berea College Recreation Extension Director, by a visitor who had attended the Mountain Music Symposium on October 9, 1970. The narrative describes John Bill Allen calling for the street dance “as of old,” though he had last called for a Home-Coming street dance in 1966, only four years earlier. [47] In the late 1970s, then Recreation Extension Director John Ramsay invited John Bill Allen to call for street dances as well. Ramsay made an audio recording of Allen calling for one of these street dances [above], and he also videotaped Mr. Allen calling for a dance seemingly organized for the Berea Folk Dancers in about 1975. Appalachian square dance and clogging were part of the curriculum at Christmas County Dance School, as it had been for some time, but by the 1970s, they seem to have faded entirely as recreations in the surrounding community.

John Bill Allen calling a square dance at Berea Community School, circa 1974-1976. Recorded by John Ramsay.
RE-VR-007-001, Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

Traditional Dance in the Twenty-first Century

Today, in 2014, old time square dancing is a feature of the Morehead State University Old Time Music Festival and the Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music, both annual events, and Christmas Country Dance School still offers classes in square dancing and clogging. The Kentucky State Championship Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest in Elizabethtown includes Jig Dancing competitions in three age groups: under 15, 16-39, and over 40. Somewhat further afield, the Louisville Old Time Squares Association hosts monthly dances. Lexington, Kentucky hosted its first Old Time Music Gathering in February 2015, with square dances called by Peter Rogers, Randy Wilson, Alex Udis, Julie Shepherd-Powell, and Johanna Sims.

Louisville Old Time Squares Association

Lexington Old Time Music Gathering

Clogging has continued to the present in the area. Precision clogging is preferred at Natural Bridge State Park’s Hoedown Island, but every dance evening includes square dancing, freestyle clogging, the Virginia Reel, and other dances.

A precision clogging line dance at Hoedown Island, Natural Bridge State Park. Note that individual style comes out within the choreographed routine, and that the traditional process is at work, as small children learn by copying. Posted July 14, 2009.

Among the teams currently performing at these places, at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, at the Pioneer Playhouse, and at community events are the Shack Shakin’ Hoedowners from Georgetown, led by Susan Tackett, the SunShine cloggers from Richmond, led by Richard McHargue, the Harrodsburg Heavenly Hoedowners led by Morgan Hudson, and Kentucky Romp n’ Stomp from Brodhead, led by Ginger Taylor. Bill Robinson of Grayson also leads clogging teams and teaches at national clogging conventions. A group called the American Hoe Downers was formed, mostly of dancers from the Georgetown, Kentucky, area to serve as good will ambassadors for Kentucky and the United States. Co-directed by Mike Cassidy and Susan Tackett, this team performed in Ireland at Damhsafest in 2012. The American Hoedowners consist of director Mike Cassidy; co-director, choreographer, and costume designer Susan Tackett; Russell Tackett; Justin Tackett; Tracy Roth; Patricia Parker; Darita Marcum; Jim Stigall; Jamie Harrod; John Tackett; Tabitha Tackett; Caleb McFarland; Pat Puckett; Serena Brierly; Rodney Brierly; and Marjorie Roe.

The American Hoe Downers at Hoedown Island, Natural Bridge State Park, KY, 2012.
Dancing starts at 0:20.

Local dance traditions evolved over the course of nearly a century in the foothills and central part of Kentucky, and they continue to evolve. Having begun as a home-based recreation, square dancing and jig dancing moved to larger but privately-held venues and to schools and lodge halls. Eventually the dancing was performed primarily at competitions and festivals rather than being a community participatory social activity. Square dancing and old style jig dancing and flatfooting increasingly faded away as social dances here during the 1970s, and, with the exception of Hoedown Island at Natural Bridge, rarely occur as regular recreations in local community settings now. But the traditions continue in their new forms in clogging teams and at festivals.[48]

Throughout this process, individuals have helped to sustain the traditions as they evolved. Two main lines of influence can be identified, though there are many crossovers and overlaps between them: the Christmas Ridge dancers, who led public square dances at the high school and elsewhere; and the Renfro Valley dancers, who led or participated in these dances and who helped to establish the children’s teams in the 1950s. Estill County traditions, through Mary Lee Jackson, also had an important influence. Throughout the evolution of square dancing and jig dancing/clogging traditions, the background of the dancing as a social activity has remained consistent. Though people formed teams and competed, preparing for the competitions and even the contests themselves are social events, just as the home-based square dances once were.