In Appalachian Dance: Creativity and Continuity in Six Communities, Susan Eike Spalding draws the reader into a sorely needed conversation about dance scholarship and Appalachian studies, fields that Spalding argues rarely speak to one another. Spalding establishes a difficult task for herself in assembling this text: weaving together research on dance and Appalachian studies, while contributing to conversations about cultural diversity in Appalachia, meaning in movement, and dynamic traditions (p. 3). Regrettably, Spalding’s ambitious goal of accommodating a wide audience, including undergraduate and graduate scholars in dance, American studies, cultural studies, Appalachian history, sociology, and casual readers, results in some unfortunate editorial trade-offs and omissions.
Appalachian Dance offers six ethnographic case studies of dance communities in central Appalachia. Three communities are located in eastern Kentucky, two in southwestern Virginia, and one in northeastern Tennessee. The case studies, presented in chapters three through eight, may be read thematically (three and four; five and six; seven and eight), geographically (three, four, and five; six, seven, and eight), or as stand-alone chapters. In each chapter, Spalding traces the evolution [End Page 785] of one community, focusing on topics of race (three and four), evolving dance traditions and interventions (five and six), and dance and community development (seven and eight). Before plunging into case studies, however, Spalding offers introductory chapters exploring dance and the myth of isolation that has plagued Appalachia.
Spalding samples critical literature on dance and movement in chapter one, touching upon the perpetuation of social structures at the scale of the body. While the critical literature Spalding highlights is engaging, the author does not consistently employ a critical lens in her own analysis. For example, Spalding misses an opportunity for gender analysis when she documents that although it was not unusual to find males dancing with males and females with females in individualistic flatfooting, the social convention of the male-female couple unit in square dancing remained. Although Spalding suggests that the mixed-couple square dance creates a sense of welcome and connectedness for attendees, one wonders if a homosexual couple would feel welcomed given that the gendered language and forms in square dancing perpetuate heteronormativity. In what ways, if any, are dancers queering dance spaces? Furthermore, readers with limited knowledge of dance may struggle through the historical section on social and theatrical dance forms in chapter two. If used in a classroom, supplemental video and audio resources may be needed.
Chapter two also critiques the isolation myth associated with Appalachia but fails to fully explore the process of boundary-making and perpetuation of stereotypes about the region. Readers would have also benefited from a complete map of Appalachia and subregional maps delineating the Blue Ridge and coalfields areas. Out of the eight maps included, none offer a working boundary of Appalachia. Teaching with Appalachian Dance may require supplemental reading material as well. In chapter eight, for example, which addresses community development and the evolution of the Carcassonne square dance, the author avoids a critical discussion of development practices and diversification efforts, instead documenting precise dance movements found in this community. [End Page 786]
Scholars of dance and those interested in the study of dance in Appalachia will find this work of interest. Unfortunately, Spalding fails to delve into development policies or scholarly debates surrounding “development,” “tradition,” and “community.” Nor does the author offer a thorough review of literature on global dance studies (a brief list of studies is referenced in the endnotes, p. 227). Future scholars will want to address these omissions. That said, Appalachian Dance is a useful text, merging dance and Appalachian studies, highlighting cultural diversity, and providing a unique lens through which to understand Appalachian history.
AMANDA L. FICKEY is an economic geographer, oral historian, and Appalachian scholar. She holds a doctoral degree in geography from the University of Kentucky and a master’s degree in folk studies from Western Kentucky University. Fickey has published a number of academic articles, book chapters, and open source materials about the...