So many dances in my childhood began with the caller shouting, “All join hands and circle to the left…!”
The community of loving hearts and lively music that I grew up in anchored my love of the art forms, and I enjoyed sharing with you some of the elements of how I became an improvisatory flatfooter and clogger who makes music with my feet!
A few things I talk about include: how most of our “square dances” in Eastern Kentucky are done in circles, how I learned old-timey and more contemporary styles, and how I went from learning steps and choreography from other people to learning how to put the steps together to “dance the fiddle tune.”
You’ll also hear a little tune from Marion Sumner, who along with banjoist Lee Sexton, provided an important part of the soundtrack to my early dancing life.
And finally, I’ll talk a bit more about what inspired me to create the Appalachian Flatfooting & Clogging Academy!
Marion Sumner plays Sally Goodin
Appalachian Flatfooting & Clogging Academy
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welcome to the what dreamers do podcast. i’m your host carla govan and appalachian musician flatfoot dancer, mama creative and dreamer from kentucky. i’m on a mission to inspire others to realize their dreams and live their most creative lives. grab your mason jar full of sweet tea or something a little stronger, and pull up a chair, because it’s time to get your dream off.
that’s what dreamers do. hey, dreamers. hope you’re doing well. i am coming to you this week with a mini episode about my journey as a dancer. and the reason it’s going to be a mini episode is because i am preparing to go on vacation in hawaii for the very first time ever. and there’s a lot going on. but i don’t want to leave you guys with a week of no podcast. so i just thought i was thinking about this this morning. i did an interview earlier this week about my dance experience and being a dancer in eastern kentucky. so i thought it might be interesting to share a little bit of that with you. so i’ll just begin a dancers tale. when i was growing up, there was a lot of dance still going on in my hometown of whitesburg, kentucky. but for me, it was a little bit more complicated because of the religious background and my family. so there’s a lot of different flavors of baptists in eastern kentucky. and my grandmother was holiness. my grandfather was old regular baptist. so they had they had a mixed marriage. they made it work, but i had to keep my love of dance a secret from my grandmother. and it’s funny because she was okay with all the banjos and fiddles and all the music in there are some people from the holiness church that are not comfortable with music unless it is in that religious context. they’re not okay with it being played in a secular format. but, you know, granny was only going to go so far. she was a religious woman, but she loved her banjos and fiddles. even though she actually told me that when she was younger, her mother would not allow her to go down to the schoolhouse to hear the fiddle and banjo players because she called it that old devil music. anyway, my granny loved the music, but the dance was a sticking point for her. so i kind of had this sneak and keep it secret. so my mother fortunately was on board with the dancing and would take me to a lot of different places where there was dance, she was really drawn to it. of all sorts. my mother was a lover of the arts. so really, she took me to all kinds of artistic events and experiences. but as far as traditional appalachian dance, she loved to go to the hoedown so that they would have at the local general store. and that was where i saw more of the fancy footwork with the flat footing the really old timey dancing there, we would sometimes go to hoedown island, which was in the red river gorge natural bridge state park. and that was the really white shoe fancy, like you would see on tv with the clogging teams, they used to have a lot of that kind of clogging on a tv show called p haul that my family also liked to watch. and that i didn’t like that as well, because the emphasis was not as much on the musical connection with between the dance and the music. it was more all about the dancing. it was almost like the music was just kind of secondary. so but that was definitely an influence in my life and something i was exposed to. but one of my favorite places to dance was at a place called the clarkson community center, also at an old school house with a old billy woodstove in it. and it was certainly a big wintertime activity because it was some way that we could get activity and and get movement even though it was cold outside and we couldn’t be outside as much. and one of my favorite things about that place was the musicians because almost without fail, it was the same two fellas leeboy sexton and marian sumner and marian was an incredible fiddler and just the synergy that they had together. the humor. they laughed a lot. they teased each other mercilessly. and so they were as entertaining as their music, just the interaction between them. and they always brought so much life to dancing with the power and the energy of their music
one of the things that i like to tell people about the traditional dance that we would do in that location. the carcassonne community center, and just in general, whenever there would be a square dance is that we didn’t do dances in squares. for the most part every once in a while somebody would call one. but a lot of times at the carcassonne community center, there was a caller named charlie whitaker. and we started our dances all in circles. and so all of the calls that you would do, all the figures that you would do would come out of that big circle. and sometimes you would stay with the same partner the whole dance and sometimes there would be what, what they would call a mixer. so sometimes you would have different partners throughout the dance essentially. when i was in high school, we moved to the outskirts of appalachia, to madison county, kentucky, when my dad lost his job with the coal mines. and there i encountered a lot more of that white shoe style contemporary clogging. there was a teacher named richard jet, who was very popular and very active and had a whole lot of students and i danced with one of his students named darlene stoll, and we had a little dance group called the kentucky thunder cloggers. and we danced to a ricky skaggs tune as our as our rise and shine. opening big number when we were performed, sometimes we performed at renfro valley and we also performed at hoedown island. so that was definitely an important component of my dance education. but i had a life changing teacher. and this was actually after my grandmother passed away because my grandmother, she never saw me dance. i never danced in front of her it was it was something i was not open about with her because i loved her so much. and i admired her so much. and i wanted her approval so much that it wasn’t something i even really consciously thought about. it was just like this separate part of my life, my separate identity as a dancer that i never really shared with my grandmother, even though the rest of my family would come to my performances and, and watch me dance. and never asked my grandmother to do that. i never told her about it. but anyway, the life changing teacher i’ve met was in the course of making my first album, produced by mark schatz and i met his girlfriend, aileen carson, his girlfriend at the time later, his wife, and she pretty much hired me on the spot we just connected and she knew i was a musician, and i knew a few dance steps. you know, so i had some skill as a dancer, but i didn’t know a lot. and i danced with her for a couple years in her company, which had its ups and downs, you know, she was a big personality and in the kind of a lot of drama around her in both positive and negative ways. so that was, that was quite an experience. but i learned so much, and i’m so grateful for everything i learned from her. and also, her ex husband, rodney sutton, was an influence, i got to dance around him at some of the events with aliens dance company. and that was the period of my life where i really learned lots and lots of steps. but at that time, i was mainly learning choreography, i was learning steps that she had put together that had particular songs that we were dancing him to. and there might be like one little section in one of our dances where we were asked to improvise and just kind of come up with the steps on the spot. but at that point in time, other than just getting up and dancing one or two steps when i heard a good fiddle tune, improvisation was not really a big part of my dance approach or vocabulary, i guess you could say. but i learned a lot of steps. and i learned a lot about performance and stage presence. and the changes that you make in what you do when you’re moving from an art form that you primarily do for your own personal artistic benefit and just for fun and enjoyment to transmitting that and translating the tradition and the culture onto a stage because there is an element when you’re on stage where you have to make things a little bit bigger. you have to polish things up a little bit to convey what it is that you really want to convey and and just the whole point process of thoughtfulness that you have to put into that. so she was a huge teacher and i learned so much from her, i’m really grateful for that.
and then i was on my own, i knew all the stuff i had grown up with and knew all the stuff i’d learned from eileen, i was touring full time as a musician. and dancing regularly as part of the show that that i did with my band, and dancing at festivals and dancing at jam sessions. but the next leg of my dance journey, no pun intended, but bad when made anyway, was really understanding more deeply the relationship between the music and the dance steps, because i was a musician, identified as musician, probably before i became a dancer. and so i think i’ve always approached the dance form, as a musician from a musical standpoint. and so i spent the next decade really diving in and exploring in going deep on that relationship between which steps work better with this kind of tune. how can i connect these steps together to make a seamless dance rendition or performance? whether i’m on stage or not? it was more for me about how can i be musical? how can i be another member of the band? how can i make my feet complement what the fiddler is playing. and so then it became more of a dialogue between my feet, and the fiddle player or the banjo player. and it’s really interesting, because i noticed this the other day, when i was recording some dance for this radio segment, when i’m dancing for just the audio purposes, when i’m making a recording, for instance, it’s very different than if i’m dancing on stage. because when i’m dancing for audio, i’m totally focused on the feet, i’m totally focused on the sounds, i might even make a totally different step selection. because all i’m thinking about is how can i make this sound awesome with the tune. whereas when i’m on stage, of course, you want it to sound good, and you’re still having that musical dialogue, but people are looking at you, too. they’re looking at your body. they’re watching what your arms are doing, they’re watching the expression on your face. and so i will do more dramatic steps or more exciting steps, steps with jumps in them just to make it visually exciting and appealing for the audience and help them to connect with the music in that visual way. and that’s that’s our job as an artist on stage right as we want to help people to feel that exuberance, that joy, that connection, that passion, that vitality, and vibrancy of the art form. and all through this time, i was of course teaching, i was teaching kids, i was teaching adults, i was teaching camps and festivals, i was teaching for short periods, i was teaching for a week at a time. and, of course, teaching something also causes you to think more deeply and think differently about it than if you’re just performing it yourself. so i think this also was an important step for me. as a dancer, it helped me become a better dancer. and more importantly, the act of teaching for so many years helped me refine how i explain the dance, how i teach the dance, my methodology. and i went back to school in 2013. and i got a master’s degree in education. and that was something that also surprisingly, really affected the way that i think about teaching dance because i learned about pedagogy and best practices and how to address people with different learning styles and how important it is to include modifications for people with differing levels of ability. and so i have been talking a lot this past year about the course that i created the dance course i created which is called the appalachian flat footing unclogging academy. and it really has been such a culmination of so much of my life’s work that i put into this one course and i’m only running it once or twice a year. it’s a digital course with lots of videos and a real self paced component but there is also live teaching from me and coaching and feedback, as well as an entire layer of content and information about the musical traditions of appalachia and especially kentucky, there’s a deep dive into kentucky fiddle tunes, and kentucky players important and iconic kentucky fillers and banjo players.
so all of that is part of the education that have built into this course. and so i just wanted to mention that because i know some of you listening to this podcast have taken the course already, but some of you maybe haven’t. and i just want to put it out there and tell the world about it. because it’s like, it feels like a magnum opus in a way i took 30 years of knowledge and wisdom and hard one understanding and distilled it down into 75 videos and this whole learning experience. and one of the reasons i’m talking about is because i’m getting ready to open registration in february, i’m going to be running some free workshops. so if you feel like that’s something that you might be interested in, i totally encourage you to take one of my free workshops and just get a taste of what i’m going to be teaching inside my course. and i’m really excited about it. i’m really passionate about it. and i love my students and i love the deep connections i’ve made almost 100 people have gone through the course now, as well as many youth in appalachia because some school teachers in kentucky have adopted it into their curriculum. so anyway, it’s it was a labor of love. and you can tell it’s it helps you learn how to improvise and have a relationship with the music in your dancing, then i encourage you to check it out. and if you want to just get a taste of what i’m talking about, head on over to my website and sign up for my mountain mama digital care package. and you will get a free beginner dance video in there. so you can just kind of get a feel for my teaching style and what it looks like. i’m really proud and really excited to be able to offer this to you. and i’m going to be back with you next week with my special valentine’s day episode. i can’t wait to share that with you. i love love and i love love stories. and so i’m going to be sharing a little bit more about my own love story and some of my thoughts on having a really awesome relationship. something i think about a lot as a dreamer. but meanwhile, i want you guys to have a great week, i hope that you pick at least one thing to do that you really love that you’re really engaged with that makes you feel alive. and maybe that thing is dancing. and if that thing is dancing, and i can help you out on your journey, i’d love to do that. but most of all, i just want you to keep doing those things that make you feel most like yourself because that’s what dreamers do.
thank you so much for joining me this week. if you want to make sure you never miss an episode. please hit subscribe wherever you’re listening now. or visit my website to get on my email firstname.lastname@example.org when you sign up, you’ll instantly receive my milton mama digital care package, a bundle of music and videos to help you wring every drop of yeehaw out of life. you’ll even find a dance listen, as well as my granny’s cornbread recipe with new goodies being added all the time. i’ll see you next thursday on the wet dreamers do podcast
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Carla is currently based in Lexington, KY, ancestral lands of the Adena, Hopewell, S’atsoyaha (Yuchi), Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee), ᏣᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East), and Wazhazhe Maⁿzhaⁿ (Osage) nations.
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