App State dance and music symposium embraces Appalachian roots


Jenna Guzman

Symposium attendees dance as the Heel Raisers perform in the Plemmons Student Union Parkway Ballroom, March 31, 2022.

Jenna Guzman and Georgia Dixon

App State’s Center for Appalachian Studies hosted an event to celebrate the diverse traditions of the Appalachian community through a Global Roots of Appalachian Dance symposium March 31 through April 2.

The three-day event happened in Plemmons Student Union, I.G. Greer, Varsity Gym, Sanford Mall, the Jones House Community Center and Florence Thomas Art School. The event consisted of dance and music performances from different cultural backgrounds and traditions, workshops, panels, film screenings and more to showcase the “diverse traditions that make up the global roots of Appalachian dance,” according to The Global Roots of Appalachian Dance website.

Assistant professor of Appalachian Studies Julie Shepherd-Powell said this is the first time the university has hosted the symposium. 

Shepherd-Powell was the main coordinator of the symposium. She said she came up with the event in 2019 and took inspiration from the Black Banjo Gathering, an event that took place when she was a student in the early 2000s. 

“It’s kind of where I got some inspiration for this event in terms of thinking about bringing together different traditions, and really honoring the places where our music and dance come from,” Shepherd-Powell said.

Over 60 performers were involved in the three-day event and represented African, Irish, Cherokee, Afro-Caribbean cultures and more.

Performers gather on stage in the I.G. Greer Auditorium, April 1, 2022. (Jenna Guzman)

Shepherd-Powell, who is also a flatfoot dancer, said she reached out to performers based on her personal experiences with them, like taking classes they teach and by contacting people she’s networked with. She hopes displaying different roots of Appalachian will “challenge some of the stereotypes or dominant narratives about Appalachia being a white space because that is certainly not the case, historically or now.” 

Trevor McKenzie, director of the Center for Appalachian Studies, said the event was spread over a three day period to ensure each culture and tradition had an opportunity to be displayed and appreciated. He also said it ensured that those performing, workshopping or teaching had the opportunity to see, learn from and participate in other cultures and traditions on a different day.

“We also want it to be sort of a way to build community and make connections across these different dance and music traditions,” Shepherd-Powell said. 

Thursday night marked the beginning of the symposium. Participants partnered with each other and square-danced to bluegrass music by The Heel Raisers for over an hour in the Parkway Ballroom in Plemmons Student Union.

Before participants started dancing, Jeff Atkins and John Turner led them through square dancing instruction. 

Atkins said his mission by coming to teach mountain dance is to celebrate the gift of mountain dance for the community. 

“It is part of our heritage here in the mountains, when people would gather, they did not have movies, TVs, so they would work hard, and on the weekend’s many times they would gather in someone’s home, in a barn sometimes, and they would get together and dance,”Atkins said.

Atkins said anyone who stepped onto the dance floor could learn to do mountain dance, the main goal was to have fun and enjoy the hundreds of years of tradition. 

 “I am so impressed by the organization, the leaders of this, and so it is going to be a great time. I hope a lot of folks will come out and enjoy this. It is a real treat to be a part of it” Atkins said.  

Ashley Magnani, a freshman biology major, said she loves dancing and was excited for the event.

“I’m really glad they’re putting this on, and I hope they do it more,” Magnani said.

Audrie-Emma Bruce, a guest at the event, said she has a passion for dancing and music and worked with the dance department when she attended the university.

“I always like a good, open to the community event, and I just jump on that anytime I hear about it,” Bruce said. 

Phoebe Pollitt, a retired associate professor in the nursing department, said she has been square dancing and country dancing in Boone for over 40 years. Pollitt said she came to the event and brought her 5-year-old granddaughter because they love to dance and because she enjoys supporting the university and the events it hosts.

“It’s great living in Boone because we try and take advantage of all the cultural events,” said Pollitt.

Friday was the second day of the three-day event, and it consisted of dance workshops, a panel discussion and a performance held in the I.G. Greer auditorium featuring live music and dancing. The Raven Rock Dancers, the African Dance II class Green Grass Cloggers, Tommy Defrantz, Allison Duvall, Sherone Price and more performed.

The Raven Rock Dancers are a Cherokee family dance group. The group performed social dances passed down to them for generations such as the Buffalo Dance, the Bear Dance, the Horse Dance and the Bullfrog Song. They also provided the audience with facts and stories about their culture.

Frankie Bottchenbaugh, a member of the Raven Rock Dancers, said social dances created by their ancestors were intended for younger generations to have fun and mingle.

“I think it’s really awesome to see people carrying on traditions that have been a part of their culture for so long,” said Audrey Rudinsky, a graduate student.

Sherone Price, associate dance studies professor, performed and spoke as a panelist at the symposium Friday.
Price said he looked forward to seeing people play music and “jam together” in one space during the event.

“We don’t get a chance to see that often,” Price said. “There are no wrongs to the situation. There is nothing but sharing that happens, so I’m looking forward to all of that.”

Coyote Johnson and Audrie-Emma Bruce in the Plemmons Student Union Parkway Ballroom, March 31, 2022. (Jenna Guzman)

Price teaches African Dance, African Dance II and other dance classes and is the dance director of App State’s Diyé African Dance and Drum Ensemble. Price said he’s been involved with dance for most of his life and took his first African dance class in 1978 at the American Dance Festival held at Duke University. He also traveled to Africa in 1999 to learn more about African dance and culture.

“I’ve been interested in it for so long that I want to do it correctly,” Price said.

Price said he hopes people who attended the event realized how alike cultures and people are and “understand each other more.”

Reid Coffey, a graduate student, said she enjoyed the performance night because it exposed her to cultures and dance customs she wasn’t familiar with. She said she grew up going to Appalachian festivals but never knew what or where certain elements originated from.

“I think it’s cool to learn where each of the roots of these cool dances and experiences are coming from,” Coffey said.

Professor of Appalachian Studies, Katherine Ledford said sponsors from different organizations and departments supported the event. The sponsors can be found on their website.

McKenzie said he believes this event will open up more opportunities to have similar events in the future through the Center for Appalachian Studies.

Ledford said she believes being able to enjoy music, dance and cultural elements from the region is “special and one of the great things about our university.”