Square Dancing Is Making A Comeback In The Allegheny Highlands

Monterey, VA – A dozen people square danced in the Highland Center in Monterey on Saturday afternoon. That might not have been headline material a couple decades ago, but square dancing has become something of a rarity – only seen during festivals and special occasions.

Before the days of satellite TV and video games, Highland County residents got together every weekend to square dance. In Richmond, hundreds of people attended square dances with headline performers such as Grandpa Jones, broadcast live over the radio.

Bath County resident Willie Smith is trying to keep the tradition alive. As a youngster, Smith played guitar with the Valley Hay Riders at square dances and picked up calling figures – the distinctive play-calling for the square dancers to follow. Smith has called figures at square dances since 1986, including big events at the Homestead and Greenbrier resorts.

Smith taught Saturday’s square dance class in the former gymnasium at the Highland Center. Sunbeams filtered through the gym’s high windows, creating a warm and comfortable ambience for the dancers. Smith teaches a style of square dancing distinctive to the Appalachian Mountains.

“The early forms were called contra dancing,” he said. “Then, around the turn of the century, 1900-1910, came along a Kentucky southern square dancing – mountain style square dancing. That’s what we’re teaching. It’s a little different than western square.”

Square dancing experienced a decline, starting about 25 years ago, according to Smith.

“We used to have them every Saturday night, probably up until about 1984-85,” he said. “Then, it kind of fell off.”

The instructor says he is seeing something of a comeback for the traditional dance.

“I think it is coming back some and that’s a good thing,” he said. “It gets your heart going and people get to dance with each other and dance with a pretty gal. They like that, too.”

Beginner Sue Cornelius is part of the square dance resurgence in Highland County.

“My husband and I were interested in learning how to square dance, so that, when square dancing returns to Highland County, we’d be ready to go,” she said. “It’s a great way to get out of the house and socialize and have fun.”
Bluegrass resident and AMR newsman Keith Carson was enjoying Saturday’s class.

“It’s going great,” he said. “Willie’s an excellent instructor. He really breaks it down to some simple moves and things. Then, you put it all together and it’s going well.”

Assistant instructor Dorothy Stevenson says square dancing is for everybody.

“With all the Dancing With The Stars and that sort of thing, it’s coming back into pop culture,” she said. “I’m glad that Willie is getting this going again. It’s a lot of fun and it’s for everybody. It’s not something that you have to have excellent coordination or excellent footwork. You don’t need fancy costumes, fancy shoes- nothing. As long as you have the desire to have fun, you’re ready to square dance.”

Beginners and veteran square dancers will have opportunities to learn and practice the traditional art in the near future. The Bluegrass Ruritan Club is holding a square dance this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Smith is teaching a class in Clifton Forge on January 28 and a dance is scheduled for March 3 at Valley Elementary School in Hot Springs.

A Friday night dance is scheduled for April 20 at 7 p.m. at Valley Elementary School, to kickoff the weekend’s Bath County Bluegrass Jamboree. For more information, call Smith at 540-839-2060.

“We used to have them every Saturday night,” said Smith. “If we could even get it back to once a month, it would be a great thing.”

Story By

Heather Niday

Heather is our Program Director and Traffic Manager. She started with Allegheny Mountain Radio as a volunteer deejay. She then joined the AMR staff in February of 2007. Heather grew up in the Richmond, Virginia, area and now lives in Arbovale, West Virginia with her husband Chuck. Heather is a wonderful flute player, and choir director for Arbovale UMC. You can hear Heather along with Chuck on Tuesday nights from 6 to 8pm as they host two hours of jazz on Something Different.

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