Let Your Feet Do The Talkin’

by

Let Your Feet Do the Talkin’
A documentary film by Stewart Copeland (Dust-To-Digital DVD)

by Ted Olson (www.oxfordamerican.org):

The South has been a hotbed of old-time music for generations, and remains so today. On any given weekend, Southerners from seemingly every walk of life gather with fellow aficionados in settings both formal (festivals, workshops) and informal (porches, backyards, picnic areas) to play chestnuts from the old-time music repertoire (fiddle tunes, hymns, ballads, nineteenth century sentimental parlor songs, etc.). But while old-time music has been widely revived across the region, another cultural expression from the pre-modern rural South—buck dancing—is only now receiving the attention it deserves, and that is largely the result of the promotional and participatory efforts of one individual, Thomas Maupin.

Buck dancing has long been associated with old-time music, in that a dancer traditionally would tap feet and move arms in harmony with the rhythms created by musicians.  Buck dancing is elusive because it is expressly individualistic, and until recently has had a difficult time competing for public attention with the showier, more programmatic or regimented dance forms that buck dancing has influenced—clogging and tap dancing—and also the recently popular, unrelated dance form imported from England by way of New England, contra dancing.

Buck dancing is not easy to categorize—it is simple, involving neither choreography nor costume, yet it is complex, with no set routines or rules. When you are buck dancing, though it is to someone else’s music, you are guided by your own sense of rhythm, in a manner encouraged in the mid-nineteenth century by Henry David Thoreau: “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”

While far from mainstream, buck dancing holds considerable appeal to limber-bodied people who are unafraid to dance alone without an established set routine.  No one is more dedicated today to the tradition than Maupin. Anyone wanting to know about this talented and low-key revivalist should watch the recent short subject documentary film, Let Your Feet Do the Talkin’, which portrayed Maupin and his love for buck dancing (which he refers to as “a little ole country dance”). Over the years Maupin has been named national buck dancing champion six times, and he has won many other awards for his practice of this particular tradition (including the Tennessee Governor’s Arts Award).

A native of Eagleville, Tennessee, Maupin grew up on a farm, and then toiled as an adult for 40 years in an airplane parts factory; on weekends, though, he found relief from his cares while buck dancing.  Now retired and in his mid-70s, Maupin is competing and beating other dancers who are more than half his age. But it is a very friendly rivalry, and those who lose to Maupin in organized competitions are awed by his passion for dancing and by his time-defying physical fluidity. And when one of the younger dancers beats the master in a competition, Maupin couldn’t be happier because many younger buck dancers, including the recently emerged buck dancing talent Jay Bland, are his apprentices. (An interesting interview of Maupin and Bland is included as an extra on this DVD.)

Buck dancing was not something Maupin learned through apprenticeship. It was a family tradition, a fact made clear in Let Your Feet Do the Talkin’. To Maupin and his nine siblings, buck dancing was as natural as breathing because they grew up watching the dancing of their grandparents, parents, and other elders in their home community. The sibling most committed to the tradition, Thomas Maupin acknowledges the particular influence of his grandmother: “She was an old lady and she could dance really good.” He seems to suggest that buck dancing is the reason she lived so long!

Made by Stewart Copeland (an award-winning filmmaker from Tullahoma, Tennessee), Let Your Feet Do the Talkin’ portrays Maupin and his love for buck dancing. Voiceovers of people who know his work well are used from the film’s early frames to establish the themes: “When he shows up to dance with the group you’re playing with,” says one voice, “the energy goes up, the intensity picks up, he’s part of the music.” “His feet are his instrument,” says another.

The film is respectful, and intimate without being invasive of its subject. Copeland’s approach to filmmaking gives his subject ample room to speak and also to pause and reflect before speaking. As one example of the film’s sensitivity, Maupin wells up when he talks about his banjo-playing teenaged grandson Daniel Rothwell, who has cerebral palsy. This grandfather and grandson perform together at old-time music festivals, and the film features one joint performance at the West Virginia Folk Festival. Daniel was given star billing for this performance, yet the crowd was clearly awestruck by the dancing of Daniel’s unbilled grandfather, who was on stage alongside the young banjo songster. At another point in the film, Maupin speaks matter-of-factly about his bout with cancer; while acknowledging his mortality he says quietly yet assuredly that he looks forward to buck dancing in heaven.

While representing Maupin’s commitment to his art in a quiet yet assured way, Let Your Feet Do the Talkin’ employs both visual and interpretive power.  It would not be a surprise if this film sparks broader interest in an overlooked tradition.

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