Thomas Maupin & Friends with Daniel Rothwell & Overall Creek
Eighty-three-year-old Thomas Maupin is the most renowned Tennessee buck dancer of his generation, with a distinctive style that dancers and musicians alike emulate. With numerous titles to his name, Maupin is also a recipient of a 2011 Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award and a 2017 National Heritage Fellowship—the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts—and is the subject of the documentary Let Your Feet Do the Talkin’.
Old-time buck dancing is not about choreography—a set routine, fancy costumes, or a lot of flash. Instead, this traditional Appalachian freestyle solo dance with roots in Africa and the British Isles is about active engagement with the music. Playfully competitive, buck dancing has long been a feature of rural dances and house parties. Emphasizing rhythms created by the heel and toe, the dancer’s feet become a percussion instrument in the old-time string band. Maupin knows this better than anyone, saying, “Lot of dancers you mostly have to see. I have always concentrated one ear on the music and the other ear on the sound of my feet, [matching] it with the tune that’s being played. I’m part of that band, that’s the way I try to be.”
Maupin grew up on a farm in Eagleville, Tennessee, with nine brothers and sisters, all self-taught buck dancers. Memories of his grandmother dancing barefoot—hearing the thud of heel hitting wooden floor—along with “trading steps” at community square dances strongly influenced his dancing, as did his older brother, Ollie. Maupin says he has his grandmother’s timing but adds his own unique flourishes. However, as Maupin started a family, took work at an aircraft factory, and saw the local dances wane, his dancing hit pause. It wasn’t until the 1970s, with children grown and old-time music and dance contests re-emerging, that Maupin began to dance competitively; since then, he has won 60 titles, including the National Old-Time Buck Dancing Championship six times.
Maupin will be joined at the festival by grandson Daniel Rothwell, a fine clawhammmer banjo player, leading the Overall Creek band. The two have been dancing and playing together since Rothwell was small; he cites his grandfather as the main influence in his music. “My banjo playing, the rhythm, is definitely based probably off of his dancing lick,” Rothwell says. Maupin treasures that he and his grandson are able to share in the old-time tradition, explaining, “Daniel came along playing my music, so we’ve been good partners. He’s helping me grow old.” The other members of Overall Creek are Daniel’s father, Danny Rothwell (guitar), Sharlene Hazelwood (bass), and Austin Derryberry (fiddle).
Three dancers Maupin has mentored over the years will also join him in Salisbury to create spirited, multigenerational performances. Kory Posey is a long-time collaborator and fellow champion buck dancer, including the 2012 National Old-Time Buck Dancing Championship. Courtney Derryberry and Jake Fennell are recent apprentices of Maupin’s, who he worked with in 2017 and 2018, respectively, through the Tennessee Arts Commission’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship.