Thoughts on Hindman Settlement School’s New Monthly Square Dance & Potluck
“All join hands” has been a phrase shouted for generations wherever people living in the mountains have gathered to dance a square. This simple act of human contact, of holding hands with a stranger or a neighbor, is an act of solidarity. How often do we take the time to come together, share fun and tenderness, to truly see one another?–let alone dance! Such opportunities that require we put down our phones and take up each other’s hands build community across personal histories and politics.
Hindman Settlement School has started hosting monthly square dances and potlucks, well, because it’s a fun thing to do, but also to encourage our neighbors to engage one another in ways that can tear down barriers that divide. At times we all build walls, make excuses, distance ourselves from our best selves and each other. Of course, for mountain people, hurtful stereotypes can also divide us from ourselves–you know, the caricature of the barefoot hillbilly flapping his arms and kicking his feet high in the air. But traditions, such as square dancing, have healed our communities for generations. These dances, patterns, and shapes weave a story about our people as old as the day First Nations stepped foot in this vast wilderness, as old as the first white settlers who built their cabins and dug their gardens here, as old as the first African Americans who helped build the major railroads that opened up the coalfields and then remained behind to dig the coal. Here in the mountains, we have coexisted, co-mingled, and cohabited with our ancestors and neighbors for generations, creating a diverse artistic tradition all the while. Our story is a deeply complex and multicultural one, and when we all join hands these stories move through us as we pull past one another, rip and snort, do-si-do, and swing one another around the same hardwood floors that hold the vibrations of our ancestor’s footsteps so deeply engrained.
For example, in 1917, folklorists Maude Karpeles and Cecil Sharp traveled here from England to collect ballads, and they found themselves elated by an ancient and unfamiliar dance they called “the running set,” which they first observe at Pine Mountain Settlement School and then at Hindman. Now known as the “Kentucky running t,” the dance can be done by as few as two couples but can open for many. Similarly, it evolves as it is performed; it can be danced in a square or a big set, welcomes flatfooting, and can be distinct from county to county. The Settlement’s Folk Arts Director Randy Wilson, who often calls dances at Carcassone (the longest running community dance in Kentucky), notes that in Letcher County a set is run in both big sets and smaller squares, exchanging members of couples along the way. Maude and Cecil first observed the dance here in eastern Kentucky, but who knows where else people were running sets and improvising them, or for how long. Today, that same running set is carried forward and is being taught to our children, despite our people’s journey through the many cultural shifts the last century brought. By learning and practicing these traditions, we carry with us these stories into our families and our future generations. I invite you to “all join hands” as we weave a new chapter in the story of these mountains.