An honored recipient of the Governor’s Folklife Heritage Award and winner of over 60 first place awards in contests across region, Thomas Maupin is widely considered Tennessee’s most gifted practitioner of flatfoot buck dancing. Flatfoot buckdance is a percussive dance similar to, but older than, tap dance and clogging. Its roots go back to an early American syncretism of Scots- Irish step dance with African dance and rhythm that was popularized in nineteenth century minstrel shows. “I grew up in a large farming family full of dancers,” Maupin says. “I can still remember the sound of my grandmother’s bare heels hitting the floor, right on top of the beat. That made a big impact on me.” He learned the basics of this improvisational dance form as a child and continued to hone his skills throughout his life. Buckdancing – often performed spontaneously on a wooden plank that the dancer carries with him to events – is increasingly becoming supplanted by choreographed, competitive clogging. Maupin states, “Buck dance is typically done with the feet closer to the floor, focusing on sound rather than acrobatics, trying to match the note values of the music.” Maupin has already been teaching his chosen apprentice, Courtney Williams, who he believes has natural talent and the determination needed to perfect this dance tradition. They plan to perform together at Breaking Up Winter, the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, and other events and venues.
Thomas Maupin, buckdancer
Describe the traditional art you are teaching?
Buck dancing is a percussive dance similar to, but older than tap-dancing and clogging. You tap out the tune you are dancing to using your feet Unlike tap-dancing and clogging, which are often done in routines with groups and taught formally in classes so everyone uses the same techniques, buck dancing is rarely taught, usually done solo, completely improvised based on the music, and you will rarely ever see two buck dancers dance alike. Buck dancing is typically done with the feet closer to the floor than clogging, not focusing on acrobatics, but focusing on sound, trying to match the note values of music.
How did you learn this skill? Who taught you? How long have you been practicing it?
I was born in 1938, and I’ve been dancing since very early childhood. I can’t remember the time before I was able to dance. I think it’s a gift from God. I grew up in a large, farming family full of dancers. My mom’s people were dancers. I can still remember the sound of my grandmother’s bare heels hitting the floor, right on top of the beat. That made a big impact on me. All of my brothers and sisters danced. We were all self-taught. None of us tried to copy each other’s dancing. You could see and hear a lot of similarity between some of us, but our steps were different.
Why do you believe that it is important to preserve and pass down this art form?
There are buckdancing contests in the area, but the practitioners of the true folk dance are dying out. In Tennessee, we are losing the distinction between buckdancing and clogging, just as we are losing the distinction between Old-Time String Band Music and Bluegrass Music. We’ve lost a lot of diversity. Most people assume that buckdancing is just basic clogging that just marks time, with all the flashy kicks taken out, and it has gotten to the point where almost everyone just repeats the same step, not because they are bad dancers, but because that is all they have been taught, because most people nowadays lack knowledge of the true history and subtle techniques of old-time buckdancing. It is supposed to be a form of art, but now it has taken on the trappings of a competitive sport, and we are losing our history.
What is the importance or role of this art form in your community? Where do you share your art form with others?
As a teenager, I used to go to square dances, and sometimes people buckdanced while they square danced. I’ve been to a lot of festivals, competitions, and other gatherings where I would either dance in contests or to musicians jamming under shade trees. I’ve won over sixty first place awards, my first being in a talent show, the prize of which was to appear on the Noel Ball Show, and I’ve performed at Merlefest, the Grand Ole Opry, the Jalopy Theater, the Tennessee State Governor’s mansion, the Newport Folk Festival, and many other venues.
Have you taught before?
I have traveled to many different states, performing and teaching. I have taught at the Ozark Mountain Folk Festival (Missouri), the Berkeley Old-Time Music Festival (California), the Montana Folk Festival, the Lowell Folk Festival (Massachusetts), the Great Lakes Folk Festival (Michigan), the Great American Folk Festival (Maine), the Blue Ridge Music Center (Virginia), the National Folk Festival, and the Swannanoa Gathering (North Carolina), the Newport Folk Festival (Rhode Island), and the Appalachian String Band Music Festival (West Virginia), and Berea College (Kentucky), as well as several festivals in my home state of Tennessee. I have taught several dancers who have become national champions, including Jay Bland, Hillary Klug, and Ruth Alpert. I encourage not only respect for tradition, but also emphasize development of creativity and skill
Tell us about your apprentice?
I have danced with Courtney Williams informally in jam sessions at festivals and also had her join me during some shows. Courtney is a beginner in buck dancing, but she has natural talent and has quickly picked up on the dance. She has a natural rhythm and a desire to learn and share the tradition with others.
Courtney Williams, apprentice buckdancer
What is the traditional art form you are learning? How did you become familiar with it?
I am studying the traditional art form of buck dancing and flatfooting. I was first introduced to this form of dance while attending fiddlers’ conventions and local festivals with my family such as Uncle Dave Macon Days, the Smithville Fiddlers’ Jamboree, and the Summertown Bluegrass Reunion. Growing up, these were annual events for my family. Most of what I was exposed to were clogging steps, but I was always in awe watching Thomas Maupin dance on his board.
At home, my family played instruments and I would try to imitate the steps I had seen. A few older ladies I go to church with saw my interest in dancing, so they would show me their steps and tell me about going to dances when they were younger. It was from the ladies that I learned the basic steps. Then, when I was in high school, a girl I went to school with gave me a pair of her clogging shoes. I danced home but I was too shy to try to dance among the skilled dancers at the festivals.
How long have you been practicing this traditional art? Who has influenced you?
In 2012, my family and our friends put together a band to enter the old-time string band contest at Uncle Dave Macon Days. We continued to enter other contests throughout the summer and eventually started booking gigs as a band. Because of this, I frequently saw Thomas Maupin at various events. Just as Thomas has shown many others, he showed me the basic step of his dance. He told me stories of going to square dances when he was younger and stressed the importance of developing your own style. He also told me that the most important thing is being able to hear your feet and to dance to the music as if I were playing an instrument. He told me to listen to the music and to change my step when the musicians move to a different section of the song. He said to “let the music tell you what to do.” I was completely in awe of this kind of dance. Thomas can literally play a song with his feet without any other accompaniment. He is by far my biggest influence.
What have been your goals while working with this master?
I love the idea that buck dancing adds to the music rather than just being a visual display. While it is important to be visually smooth and appealing, the most important thing is rhythm and sound. Thomas knows this better than anyone and is a master at his craft. He is not only a dancer, but a percussive musician. Last summer I bought my first pair of tap shoes, and this summer I entered my first contest. Thomas had been coaching me along the way and encouraging me. He is often kind enough to invite me to dance onstage whenever he and his grandson are playing, and he shares his board at festivals with me and many others. I have been to flatfooting workshops in Clifftop, WV and watched cloggers all my life, but no one can dance like Thomas. He learned his steps right here in middle Tennessee, and I hope to emulate that same style and preserve our region’s folk heritage.
Why do you believe it is important to pass this tradition on?
While no one in my family dances, there are many members in my community who do. Old-time music is made for dancing in my opinion. There are many people teaching clogging in our area, but very few dance in the same style as Thomas. I feel that Thomas has preserved the style of middle Tennessee, and as a middle Tennessee native I want to learn from him rather than be influenced by other regional styles.
How are you sharing this tradition with the public?
Since I have started dancing, we have started incorporating this into our shows as a band. I always enjoy dancing more when there are others dancing with me. It’s fun to get the audience to participate and to introduce someone to the art of buck dance. Each time I learn a new step I am eager to show someone else and try to teach them. I look forward to doing this more as I progress and improve.