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'The music tells me what to do,' Maupin says of buck dancing

October 6, 2013


Oct. 06--"When I'm a-dancing, I'm not just going through a bunch of steps making a bunch of noise," Thomas Maupin said, describing the folk tradition known as buck dancing.

"I'm trying to play the tune they're playing. If they're hitting four notes, I'm hitting four sounds. When I dance without the music, I've got a tune in my head."

Maupin, 75, said his style is more like mountain flat-footing than clogging.

"You don't do a lot of kicking. You're closer to the floor," he explained. "I've never considered myself a clogger, but if you see some of the older people clogging, they don't kick and jump. ... Anybody can kick their foot up high. Not everybody can hit the beat of the music on every note they play.

"It's a little bit hard for me to tell someone what I do. The music tells me what to do. If you need to hesitate and leave out a sound, you do that. You don't just do the same step every time."

He comes from a dancing family, Maupin said, but dance wasn't the way anybody made a living in the hills of Murfreesboro, Tenn. Maupin worked at an aircraft factory in Nashville for 41 years and then mowed yards for eight years. He still has a garden with about 300 tomato plants, and his phone conversation was interrupted by someone at the door wanting to buy a few watermelons.

Maupin didn't start competing as a dancer until his daughter, Deana Rothwell, was a teenager. Since then he's won more than 60 championships, including the National Old-time Buck Dancing Championship six times. He's also a recipient of a 2011 Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award. In Richmond he'll be joined by Kory Posey, 28, the 2012 National Old-time Buck Dancing Champion.

Daniel Rothwell, 20, was inspired by his grandfather's dancing, but he took up a different aspect of the family tradition. He plays banjo like his great-grandfather Cecil Shores. Rothwell's collection of honors for himself and the Slim Chance Band includes the Tennessee Old Time String Band championship in 2012 and 2013.

Rothwell and Slim Chance guitarist Chris Gray will perform with Maupin at the Folk Festival in the Overall Creek Band.

"Daniel plays the kind of music I like to dance to," Maupin said. "When Daniel first started -- he used to go with us when he was just a little bitty thing -- he could hardly keep his hands off a banjo.

"When he started playing, I would dance, and he would keep time with my dancing. It was a gift for Daniel. He can play the fire out of an old-time banjo."

Rothwell is taking online courses this fall at Motlow State Community College while traveling with his grandfather and recording local old-time musicians for a college honors project. He's studying English and history and hopes to move on to musicology.

Rothwell said it's important to him to keep the tradition going. At performances, he usually sits in a chair that his great-grandfather used while playing.

"It gives you an insight into the history of a people," he said. "If we don't carry on our traditions, then a part of ... who we are as a people will be lost. It also gives future generations something to enjoy."


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