I'm learning how to flatfoot.

 

I've had a recurring vision of myself out in my meadow, dancing an offering to the gods and land spirits, my feet pounding out the frost in spring, my footsteps echoing in the cold darkness of a midwinter night. A percussive, offertory folk dance, filled with power and joy sent into the earth through my feet.

 

At first, I thought schuhplattler would answer the call I felt -- the stomping, foot-slapping, sometimes even acrobatic dance of Austria. Typically performed by men in a line, it is joyous and vigorous and percussive. But I felt pressed to look closer to home. I remembered the times I watched clogging troops at festivals in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, and eventually it led me to flatfooting.

 

Flatfooting is a type of percussive dance similar to tap dance and clogging, but where the feet are generally kept close to the floor and the sound is softer. Like many aspects of Appalachian culture, flatfooting has a diverse heritage: English, Scottish, Irish, African, Alpine, and Cherokee. It comes from the land and from all of the peoples who have lived and died on the land. It's also a highly personal kind of dance, where a handful of basic moves serve as the foundation for improvised individual dances that express how the dancer feels the music. No flatfooter dances quite like another, and the best flatfooters are the ones who give themselves up to the music, channeling it through their bodies into the floor.

 

I love to dance, to feel the music in my body, to let it possess and direct me. I have a little bit of a formal background in dance, from my middle and high school years. In those years, I learned that dance is about more than just hitting the right poses in accurate succession -- it's about translating sound into physical form. When I dance, I become an extension of the music. It possesses me, speaks through my bones and muscles.

 

Lately, I've been reading Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance. She describes how dance traditionally induced trances in men and women, sending them into the Otherworld, opening them to possession by fertility spirits, and healing sickness. She writes of folk dance as a form of "'channeling' fertility spirits," bringing the spirits' power into living human bodies and then into the earth (238). Dance is life; it is creative power.

 

Because of this, it has been a fixture of festivals and holidays centered on important agricultural calendar days since prehistory. It is a form of offering given by trained officiants, such as Morris dancers in England, the Lazarki in Bulgaria, and the Thyiades at Delphi. These dancers translate key myths through their bodies, such as the cyclic birth, life, and death of fertility deities.

 

Barber doesn’t mention Alpine traditions in this context, but there are striking parallels in the use of dance as magical practice and offering to spirits. Like the kukeri Barber discusses, Austrian dancers "often perform dances and go from house to house to deliver blessings and luck. Dances often involve the joint stomping on the ground to awake spring and seeds in the soil.” This was done as part of a larger ritual celebration of Perchta, which involved costuming as the Perchten at the turn of the year. As Barber explains, "divine movement will create life, and attendant human dancers will lightning-rod it to the community" (270). Dance is inherently powerful. It is a gift of energy -- movement, sound -- and of effort and time in practice.

 

It's been years since I studied dance, and I've missed it. In odd moments throughout the day, I'll pull on a pair of boots and practice the basic steps, gaining muscle memory and absorbing the spirit of the dance style. The more I practice, the better I understand how flatfooting speaks through me -- not just in my feet, although that's where the emphasis is, but in my arms and back, too. It's soothing and exhilarating at the same time -- the challenge to keep the rhythm, keep my feet limber and sensitive and precise, while intuitively feeling out the music. As one West Virginia flatfooter describes it, the music "goes in your ear, down through your soul, and comes out through your feet." When I dance, I am fully present; I don't worry about other things -- it's only the music, my body in motion, and the sound of my boots hitting the floor. 

 

 

Photo by Genessa Panainte on Unsplash