As a string band plays an old-time tune, flat-footing dancers pound out the percussion - not an uncommon sight in the Mountain Highlands of West Virginia. But what makes this ensemble unique is that they are college students at Davis & Elkins rehearsing on the back porch of one of the campus's historic mansions. They are celebrating the region's traditional music and dance - not rock, not rap, not hip-hop, but breakdowns, back-step, flatfoot and clogging.
Under the name of Appalachian Spirit, the students are part of the college's newly formed performing ensemble that combines two former groups, the String Band and Dance Collective, into one high energy company. Appalachian Spirit will have its public debut during the college's Evening of Holiday Music on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Halliehurst.
"What we do is very unique," explained Matt Kupstas, a world champion clogger and D&E's dance director for Appalachian Spirit. "We are dancing to live music, usually old-time music, and we are the only traditional percussive dance program in the country that I know of in which dancers perform exclusively to live music."
The West Virginia Children’s Home in Elkins recently hosted an employee food drive led by Daniel Pennington and Mike Mason from the children’s home. The food was donated through Tygarts Valley Presbyterian Church to Tyrand Cooperative Ministries. Pictured are Daniel Pennington and Mike Mason from the West Virginia Children’s Home, Avis Forinash, board representative to Tyrand from Tygarts Valley Presbyterian Church and the Rev. Joanne Glaser, pastor of Tygarts Valley Presbyterian Church in Huttonsville.
Kupstas's love of dancing began when he was age 11 and solidified four years later when he came to the D&E campus to attend an Augusta Heritage Center summer program. "Coming to Augusta at age 15, my passion for dancing was taken to the next level. I was struck by how all of the music, dance, craft and folklore traditions of Appalachia brought everyone from different backgrounds together," he said.
His love of traditional dance and music is contagious. Leading the dancers in a practice waltz on a grassy lawn, Kupstas enjoys the fact that this style of dance can be done anywhere, anytime. "My favorite part of Appalachian Vernacular Dance, such as clogging, flatfooting, square dancing or hambone, is that it is both social and performance-oriented in nature," he added. "I can have just as much fun dancing on a wooden board at a jam at a festival, or in a kitchen, as I can on stage."
After graduating from Mars Hill College, Kupstas came to D&E as an AmeriCorps member to help establish the Appalachian Studies minor at the College. He is now an adjunct member of the college's Fine and Performing Arts faculty and also administrative assistant with the Center for Sustainability Studies.
"I think there's a renewed interest in traditional arts," he said, "and there is a lot of regional pride in this area. While the rest of the country is experiencing a cultural homogenization, we are keeping the heritage arts going." Kupstas likes to quote an observation a friend of his made: "Traditional music isn't good because it's old; rather it is old because it's good."
Gerry Milnes, Augusta Heritage Center Folk Arts Coordinator and music director of Appalachian Spirit, said, "Our repertoire of traditional music is not limited to only Appalachia. We chose the ensemble's name to express that more than Appalachian music is performed. English waltzes, French Canadian step dancing, tap - all share our repertoire with Appalachian flat-footing tunes. The broader name allows us to celebrate shared traditional roots," he added, "but with the spirit of old-time Appalachian music and dance."
Appalachian Spirit is also an example of the continued growth and expansion of the college's Department of Fine and Performing Arts. In the past year there has not only been an increased emphasis in providing quality event programming to both the college and local communities, but also in increasing the course offerings in the arts.
"It is exciting to see the students choosing to come here for heritage arts," Kupstas said. "We are the only college which offers college clogging scholarships. We also train dancers to be proficient in other related percussive dance forms by providing comprehensive instruction and guidance to improve their dancing and performance quality."
"This is one of the many ways the college exemplifies its commitment to the region," Milnes added. "From the Highland Scholar program to Augusta, people can come learn and experience the rich culture of the area.
"We have many students who may have never experienced the region's traditional music and dance heritage, even though they may be from this area," Milnes said. "Now that they are at D&E they have the opportunity to learn about and enjoy it."
Several members of the ensemble band are former Augusta Heritage Center summer workshop participants. "They fell in love with the place when they came to the D&E campus for Augusta," Kupstas said. Some are from as far away as Seattle and Montreal, Canada. Thanks to performing arts scholarships, they are able to do what they love while attending classes and performing with Appalachian Spirit.
Watching Appalachian Spirit rehearse, one can see that enjoyment. "What is amazing is how far we've come since the semester began," Kupstas said. "We started with several new students of diverse dance backgrounds and now have several dance routines." His goal is to continue to attract talent to Appalachian Spirit and the Appalachian Studies minor. "Interest among students in these efforts has been percolating for several years at D&E," Kupstas said. "Now it seems like it is really growing."
Members of Appalachian Spirit include: Rebecca Wudarski, Davis; Scotty Leach, Seattle; Kaia Kater-Hurst, Montreal, Canada; Rebekah Davis, Alliance, Ohio; Ashley Stitely; Philippi; Cassidy Dickens, Madera, Calif.; Barbara Fellenstein, Fredericksburg, Va.; Millie Omps, Slanesville; and Conner Berkey, Culpepper, Va.
For more information, please visit the College website at www.dewv.edu or call 304-637-1243.