In 2012, the New York Times reported on a revival of square dancing in Pendleton County. If the Gray Lady had sent their reporter a few miles farther down the road to Dunmore, they would have found a place where square dancing never went away.
Thanks to some dedicated disciples, square dancing remained alive in Pocahontas County and neighboring Highland County, Virginia, when it disappeared in other areas. During the two-year hiatus in Pendleton County, reported on by the New York Times, several square dances were held at the Dunmore Community Center.
Late arrivals to the square dance on Saturday night in Dunmore had trouble finding a parking space. The lot was full and vehicles lined the only street in the scenic Pocahontas County village. Despite the near-capacity crowd, many wondered why it wasn’t as large as a dance the previous month.
Square dancing became the official folk dance of the United States when President Ronald Reagan signed an act of Congress in 1982. Although never totally disappearing in the local area, square dancing has seen its ebbs and flows in popularity.
A recent Pocahontas County Parks and Recreation program has given a big boost to the folk dance. Parks and Rec has sponsored square dances in Dunmore for the past couple months, including the one on Saturday night, and the response has been tremendous. A joy to behold for long-time diehards, swarms of high school students arrived to take up the traditional dance.
The Dunmore Community Center is a focal point for traditional music and dance in a multi-county area. Aficionados from Highland and Pendleton counties are regulars at events in Dunmore. Ellen and Eugene Ratcliffe, of Monterey, Virginia, were calling the square dance on Saturday night. Coincidentally, Ellen was quoted in the 2012 New York Times article on square dancing. More than two years later, she described the scene at Dunmore.
“You saw what a good crowd we had Saturday night,” she said. “Years ago, the little place was packed full. Last Saturday night, we couldn’t have held many more. We just had them from everywhere. Of course, it was a busy time of year for a lot of people, with other things going on. I missed several people who are usually there, but a lot of the same old crowd was back again. They’ll go through hell and high water to get there, almost.”
Ratcliffe described why more people in the electronic age are taking up square dancing.
“It’s part of finding out what your heritage is and what your traditions are, and finding out that it’s so much fun to get out and be with people,” she said. “They’re finding out how much fun they can have away from the TV.”
The Augusta Heritage Center of Davis and Elkins College is another group promoting square dancing. The Center launched the Mountain Dance Trail in 2012, which publicizes square dancing in West Virginia and Virginia. The Mountain Dance Trail connects communities that host the old-time dances, including Marlinton, Dunmore, Franklin, Upper Tract, Circleville, Riverton, Harman, Elkins, Helvetia, Pickens, Ireland, Sutton, Glenville and Henderson in West Virginia; and Monterey and Blue Grass in Virginia. The project received financial support from the West Virginia Humanities Council. The next square dances on the Mountain Dance Trail schedule are on December 12 in Elkins and Henderson. For more information, see mountaindancetrail.org on the Internet.
Its roots reach around the world, but the square dance is uniquely American.
“A lot of these calls and dances have come from all the other nations and people who were immigrants to our country years ago,” said Ratcliffe. “Rich people had their music masters and their dance masters to teach them, but their indentured servants and their slaves didn’t. They taught themselves and made their own fun. That’s trickled down through the generations.”
Ratcliffe distinguished Appalachian and Western square dancing.
“In the Appalachians, one call may be done a certain way in one hollow, and then it may be done differently somewhere else, in the next hollow,” she said. “So, it depends on the area that you’re from.
“Western square dancing is pretty precise, the world over, with their calls and their figures and so forth. But with Appalachian dancing, it depends on your area. Some will do a do-si-do one way, and somewhere else, they’ll do it completely differently.”
The next square dance in Dunmore is scheduled for Saturday, February 7, at 8 p.m. The dance is sponsored by Pocahontas County Parks and Recreation. Call 304-799-7386 for more information.