The Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College has announced a new cultural tourism initiative, "The Mountain Dance Trail," which connects old-time dance venues throughout the state.
From Franklin in the Potomac Highlands to Henderson on the Ohio River, the trail highlights 10 communities where mountain square dancing takes place.
Randolph County, which has a rich dance heritage, will have three locations on the trail: Helvetia, Elkins and Harman. The towns of Riverton, Dunmore, Ireland, Sutton and Glenville also are included in this extensive project.
The Mountain Dance Trail is the first trail of its kind to promote traditional square dancing and the 2012 season runs from April 6 through November.
"West Virginia has a real treasure in its old-time square dance traditions and this project will ensure the tradition is preserved and maintained," said Gerald Milnes, Folk Arts coordinator for the Augusta Heritage Center. "No other state in the Appalachian region has a comparable tradition."
Community dances have been part of the Helvetia heritage since around 1875 and currently take place in the Community Hall. They are conducted on the first Saturday of every month, with the first one affiliated with the Mountain Trail Project set this Saturday. The dances vary from mountain circle square dances, waltzes, polkas and always include the Helvetia Polka, a type of "schottische."
The Helvetia Star Band is headed up by Joe McEnroy and occasionally includes Vernon Burky, the elder musician of Helvetia who knows and plays many of the older Swiss tunes. Several callers fill the bill and instruct from the floor.
"The whole community comes out to the dances," Burky said.
Dances in Helvetia are a great family event and attendance includes all ages. Dances also are hosted to celebrate Fasnacht, Helvetia Ramp Supper, Helvetia Day, Swiss Independence Day and the Helvetia Fair. Upcoming dances are scheduled for Saturday, as well as April 28, May 5, June 2 and throughout the rest of the summer. A complete schedule can be found online at helvetiawv.com.
Another stop on the trail in Randolph County is Harman, where square dancing was first documented by David Strouther in 1852. Local residents recall dances taking place there as long as they can remember, including when the Harman School prom was a square dance. The first Harman square dance will be at 7 p.m. April 14 at the VFW Hall. Refreshments will be provided by the VFW Ladies Auxiliary. Jack Hedrick of nearby Dry Fork will be on fiddle and Alan Crossland of Canaan Valley will be on guitar. Other dances are scheduled for June 9 and Nov. 17.
The Elkins Country Dance Society hosts its monthly dances from September through May at the Randolph County Community Arts Center. Square Dances will be hosted on April 14 and May 5 starting at 8 p.m. with a beginner's workshop at 7:45 p.m. Dances vary between four couple squares, mountain circles and contra dances. There is an admission charge, with no charge for Davis & Elkins College students and children younger than the age of 12.
During the summer, the Augusta Heritage Center of D&E holds public dances at 8 p.m. Sundays through Fridays, from July 8 through Aug. 12. There is an admission charge, and dances are conducted in Augusta's open air pavilion on the D&E campus. The dance styles vary each week: Cajun two-step and waltz, July 8-13; Blues dancing, July 15-20; Irish Ceili dances and Set dancing, July 22-27; Swing Dancing, July 29-Aug. 3; and Square Dances and Contras, Aug. 5-12. The best musicians in their genre from throughout the country and abroad will be playing at these dances.
"All of these community dances feature live old-time string music and local dance callers who maintain traditional square dance figures and 'patter,'" Milnes said. "The dance forms change as you travel. For instance, on the eastern side of the state, 'big circle' or 'mountain circle' dancing is done. On the western side of the state, the dancers square up in traditional four-couple sets. 'Round Dancing' waltzes and two-steps are played between squares at most locations. Community square dancing can be found somewhere in the heart of the state every weekend.
"Numerous visitors to the state have no idea these dances are occurring," Milnes added. "With a website and brochure distributed throughout the state, this unique cultural experience will attract visitors and West Virginians to participate in community dances. Whether you dance or not, the joy of square dancing to live fiddle music entertains both dancers and 'wall flowers' alike."
Milnes and Becky Hill, an AmeriCorps VISTA worker with the Augusta Heritage Center, are documenting musicians, callers and dancers at each specific dance site to ensure the traditions of each community are maintained. In an effort to inject youthful energy into the dances, 4-H clubs along the route have been contacted and educational outreach programs are planned. Mack Samples, a veteran caller who helps with the annual 4-H Jackson's Mill Dance Weekend, also will assist with the project.
A full schedule is available in the Mountain Dance Trail brochure and online at www.mountaindancetrail.org and on the Trail's Facebook page. Information also is available by calling D&E's Augusta Heritage Center at 304-637-1349.
The West Virginia Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Country Dance and Song Society supported this project.