Jacob Fennell listens during interview with Thomas Maupin (right) (Photo by Sara June)

“A flat footer plays the tune that musicians are playing.  It’s not about making noise with your feet.  It’s about making music with a toe and a heel,”  Mr. Maupin told me. He looked me in the eye and said it again: “A toe and a heel.  Here, let me show you.”   And he rose from his chair to show me a foundation step in flat footing.  

I was sitting on a rusted folding chair in a tent-shelter at Felts Park in Galax, Virginia.  It was Saturday afternoon during the 87th Annual Old Fiddlers Convention – six consecutive days of music and music competition organized by Moose Lodge #733.  

At week’s end, underneath this canopy in August’s swooning heat, I’ve already enjoyed 14 hours of old-time fiddle, dobro, mandolin, clawhammer banjo, autoharp, guitar, and old-time and bluegrass bands.  That afternoon, a flat-foot competition was taking center stage and I had an opportunity to talk to buck dancers Thomas Maupin, 2017 Heritage Fellow recipient from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his student, Jacob Fennell, 2022 Robert Spicer State Buck-dance Champion.  

Jacob looked on as Mr. Maupin showed me how to dance in a patch of dirt made bare by the week’s crowds.  “See?” Maupin said as he slowed down the heel-toe movement.  His body rised gracefully above his footwork and, in time with their rhythm, he looked at me and said,  “had-a-piece-of-pie-had-a-piece-of-puddin’-give-it-all-away-just-to-see-a-sally-goodin.”  I did see but I was slow to understand.  So I stepped back with my camera and hit record.  Maupin grinned and said, “The camera won’t lie.”  After his demonstration, Maupin and Fennell visited with me about this American dance tradition.  I talked to Mr. Maupin first.  

Sara June-Sæbo: Mr. Maupin, most people think that music and dance are two separate things.  But to you, are the dance and the music together?  

Thomas Maupin: They are.

SJS: Can you tell me what that means to you?

TM: It means everything to me.  It puts more pressure on me to dance the tune that they’re playing. ‘Had-a-piece-of-pie-had-a-piece-of-puddin’-give-it-all-away-just-to-see-a-sally-goodin’: those are the notes that go in that tune, but now if you put a bunch of notes that don’t even go with ‘sally goodin’, what are you playing?  Dancing out of form doesn’t look as good as standing up straight and letting your feet do the dancing, and your body is a part of that, and your actions are a part of that, and how you’re enjoying it and perform it.”

SJS: You’re not focusing on your body as much as you’re focusing on your feet?

TM: Yes, your feet and the music. 

SJS: So, you’re dancing straight upright?

TM: You’re not stiff and you’re not waving your arms as much.  You’re dancing closer to the floor.  In my opinion, buck dancing and flat footing are the same.  Buck dancing – you can still play that tune, with your footwork, – but you stress more flat footing with the toe and a heel.  When you’re buck dancing, you can move around a little bit more and a little bit higher but you still have a good body in control.  And the audience can tell when you’re communicating with the music: your body and your steps are communicating with the music.

SJS: What’s the most important thing you want people to know about you?

TM: I come from a family of 10 kids.  My grandmother lived with us.  She was crippled in one arm and barefooted most of the time.  She’d hear a tune come on the radio and she’d start dancing and you could hear that timing in her feet.  Her heel – that’s where her weight was – she’d be dancing on top.  It’s a difference in the timing when it’s dead center, and your body will tell you when you’re with the music or not.  When you’re with the music, you’re floating.  That’s the most important part [with dancing] is being a part of that music.  I’ve danced all my life; my brothers and sisters – we all danced at one time.

Mr. Maupin leaned over to Jacob and said,  “I got something to say because you’re going to be teaching this one day and you really need to hear it.  I think my dance was a gift.  Everybody dances different and that’s what I want you to do and to pass it on.  You can feel the dance in your body.”  

Maupin patted Jacob on the shoulder and continued, “Your body can tell you a lot… after you get used to hearing it.  You’ll be relaxed when you dance center on top of the beat, your body will get relaxed and that will make the next note come easier and you begin to feel that music – you ARE that music and that music is YOURS.  It goes all over you.”

SJS: What do you mean when you says that a dancer is centered on the note? Does feel like being energized.

TM: Yeah. And it [the music] gives you more energy on the next step and it adds to it.  Musicians will tell you that too: when all of them are in a groove, the notes are easier to hit.  You hit notes that you didn’t hit before.  It just comes from… somewhere from within.  You’re just enjoying that tune so much that it adds to you.

SJS: Jacob, what do you think about what Mr. Maupin just said?

Jacob Fennell: I think this is what it’s all about.  Playing your feet to the music.  If you never dance differently to a song, then you’re not dancing to the song.  You’re just dancing.  If you dance ‘Durham’s Bull‘ and then dance ‘Sally Goodin‘ and dance the exact same thing, you’re not dancing to the tune.  But if you make your feet say, ‘had-a-piece-of-pie-had-a-piece-of-puddin’-give-it-all-away-just-to-see-a-sally-goodin’, then you’re feeling the music… you’re part of the music.

SJS: What does it mean to you to be a part of this American dance tradition with Mr. Maupin?

JF: It means the world because I’ll be able to pass it on… a style that only Mr. Maupin himself teaches.  I want to be able to teach the true Appalachian-style flat footing and the true history of where it all started because styles evolve and adapt over the years and then they eventually change and then flat footing becomes a wide concept with some people saying there’s a right version and some people saying there’s a wrong version.  But there’s really not a right way to dance.  You need to feel the music; be a part of the music; dance with the music.

Near the end of our visit, Mr. Maupin reminds me that he’s 84-years-old and said  “I was dancing with some old folks – friends – last week and they’d seen I was dancin’ more than I’d been (able to do recently).  And they came over and were congratulating me.  I told them, ‘well, I can’t do what I used to,’ and they said, ‘That’s okay.  We remember when you used to.’”  

To learn more about buck dancing, flat footing and Thomas Maupin, see this film from the Museum of Appalachia or visit Tennessee Crossroads for a biographical sketch of Maupin and his life.  Learn about his award from the National Endowment for the Arts YouTube channel.

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