Thomas Maupin, Champion Buckdancer

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Thomas Maupin grew up on a farm in Eagleville and worked 40 years in a factory, making airplane parts, but he made a name for himself on weekends, by winning buckdancing contests.

Maupin has been named national champion time and time again. Now, he’s set to receive one of Tennessee’s highest honors: the Governor’s Arts Award.

Thomas Maupin dances on a square of heavy plywood to ensure a deep, bass sound.

Thomas Maupin dances on a square of heavy plywood to ensure a deep, bass sound.

Buckdancing is the ancestor of clogging and tap dance. There’s no choreography, no costumes. All you need are a pair of shoes that make a nice sound on a wooden floor, maybe some metal taps screwed on the sole if you’re serious about it. And if you know a rhyme or two, you don’t even need music.

 

“You ought to see deacon jones when he rattles his bones,
Old parson brown dances round like a clown,
Old aunt jemimah, past 83,
Shouting out a-hop, a-holla, ‘Watch your step (watch your step)!’”

 

Thomas Maupin is 73. He’s lean and lanky, and dances with a strong, fluid motion. He says his dance is a family tradition. “My grandmother lived with us. She was an old lady and she could dance really good.”

Maupin says he has her timing, but with extra steps of his own. Dancing on his covered porch, he demonstrates her style with ramrod straight back, knees pumping up and down. He doesn’t move an inch to either side as his feet pound out a steady, lilting beat. Then he shifts easily into his own style, keeping that same beat, but adding a filligree of lighter, quicker taps.

With every extra flourish, Maupin leans to one side or the other, and he begins to cover more ground, but still, the focus is on his percussive feet.

Maupin jokes that buckdancing shoes are "whatever's the cheapest," but that they need leather soles to hold the taps.

Maupin jokes that buckdancing shoes are “whatever’s the cheapest,” but that they need leather soles to hold the taps.

“Lot of dancers you mostly have to see,” says Maupin. “I have always concentrated on one ear on the music and the other ear on the sound of my feet, trying to match it with the tune that’s being played. I’m part of that band, that’s the way I try to be.”

These days, that band also includes Maupin’s grandson, Daniel.The 18 year old is already a national champion, thanks in part to that dancing rhythm that’s been passed down as a family heirloom.

“My banjo playing, the rhythm is definitely based probably off of his dancing lick.” Daniel says that’s probably where his style comes from.

Daniel Rothwell plays banjo on his grandfather's porch.

Daniel Rothwell plays banjo on his grandfather’s porch.

His grandfather couldn’t be more proud. “Daniel come along playin’ my music, playing my music, so we’ve been good partners. He’s helping me grow old.”

During the warmer months, the pair spend most every weekend at old time music festivals. They enter the banjo and buckdancing contests, and often times, they win. But Maupin says that’s not the point.

“When I’m out under trees and such and meeting the people, talking to people, that’s where it’s at because it’s free, you’re free, and when I’m a-dancin’, I’m the richest person in the world.”

Governor Bill Haslam will present Maupin with a Folklife Heritage Award. Other Governor’s Arts Awards recipients this year include gospel singer Charles Tower, Nashville’s W.O. Smith Music School, ragtime pianist Johnny Maddox, and Estelle Condra, a blind actress and storyteller.

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