The Mountain Dance Trail returns to Morgantown for its monthly Appalachian square dance this week! Here are some photos, audio and writing from last month’s event.
On a cold winter evening in March, Morgantown’s Marilla Park is dark and nearly silent. The pool sits empty, like the skate ramps and the basketball courts. Only the soft light and the faintest sounds of music gently emanating from the pavilion’s windows betray the life and energy here. A sign outside the front door reads, “Square Dance Tonight.” The door swings open to warmth and rhythm.
Inside, three dozen people nearly fill the hall, divided into small groups, moving in synchronous patterns across the floor. In one corner of the large room, a four-piece band called The Allegheny Hellbenders amplifies their old-time Appalachian music through a nearby speaker system. Their feet stomp gently in unison.
This is the Mountain Dance Trail, an ongoing, traveling square dance event that stops through several West Virginia cities each month. At each location, dancers gather to enjoy one of Appalachia’s oldest traditions and spend an evening with members of their local communities. The dances are almost always performed to live music and a traditional dance “caller.”
One of the callers for Mountain Dance Trail is Glenville native Tony Minney, who stands at the head of the room near the band with a microphone in hand. “Leave that girl right where she be, on to the next, and couple up three,” Minney drawls in time with the music, and the dancers’ formations energetically mirror his words. Callers are the facilitators of square dances, calling out turns of phrase to signal which moves come next. In addition to being a traditional component of dances, this also seems to make it easier for new dancers to keep up with those who more experienced.
Minney’s children play nearby, signaling the truly diverse age group represented at Mountain Dance Trail events. Just across the room, high school students promenade senior citizens in tight circles around the dance floor. Everyone is smiling or laughing, which is part of what keep Minney working as a caller.
“It’s my heritage,” he tells me. “I’ve called all over the place trying to preserve the Glenville style. There ain’t anything else that can bring strangers together like square dance.”
Annie Stroud, fiddler for the Allegheny Hellbenders, says that the music also speaks to the diversity of the cultural influence in the region. “People have this idea of square dancing as this hillbilly thing,” she says, “but the tradition and music and dances themselves come out of this incredible variety of cultures and immigrants who came to this region.” While the dances themselves probably had their origins in the British Isles, important components of the music originated worlds apart. The banjo, for instance, which has long been considered a traditional Appalachian instrument, has its origins in Africa.
The attendees stay at the Millan pavilion past 11pm, learning new dances and sharing familiar ones until everyone starts to look exhausted. Finally, Tony Minney calls for one last dance that involves everyone. The dancers all links hands and snake their way through the room, whooping and cheering, discovering the past and participating in the present, all at once. No one seems disappointed as the night draws to a close. The next dance is always just one month away.
This month’s Mountain Dance Trail in Morgantown is taking place on Saturday, April 8th. You can check out the Facebook event here.