A Tennessee master of a waning dance style has earned national recognition.
Thomas Maupin is a scrawny 78-year-old buck dancer from Eagleville. His elbows, hips and knees jangle like a country puppet while his black shoes clack out intricate rhythms across wooden dance floors. After years of local notoriety, he's been named as a National Heritage Fellow.
He’s widely considered a master of flatfoot buck dance.
The form has steps similar to tap but is distinguished by its percussive musicality, which contributes to the old-time music that it accompanies. It can appear understated compared to the flashier high-kicks of clogging, but as Maupin says, “your ears won’t lie to you.”
“A buck dancer dances that tune that they’re playing and is trying to match that music and be part of that band,” he says.
Maupin has been passing on the finer points of buck dance to younger performers for decades, and that’s a big reason for his heritage honor from the National Endowment for the Arts, which will give him $25,000 and bring him to Washington D.C. for a performance in September.
That award also arrives as Maupin completes a master-apprentice program that began this year with the Tennessee Arts Commission. He was chosen as one of eight masters to be paired with a young apprentice to preserve a folk tradition.
The buck dance pairing has hinged on relatively few words — and a lot of footwork.
A Toe And A Heel
At age 21, Courtney Williams has grown up watching Maupin dance at local festivals while her family performs old-time music. And this year she has formally linked up with Maupin for lessons — although their form of studying, like others in the folk tradition, doesn’t require a classroom or a formal rehearsal space.
Other than country festivals, they’re regulars at the Mayday Brewery tasting room, which hosts old-time jams.
“It’s kind of hard for Thomas to explain what he does, because it just comes so natural to him,” Williams says. “So he’ll show you the basic step, and then it’s like, you just do this...”
Yet Maupin says Williams catches on quickly, in part because of her musicianship and familiarity with the old tunes.
“When we first started, I just did with a toe and a heel — a toe and a heel,” he says. “She plays the guitar, so she understands what I was saying.”
Listen: Below, hear Thomas Maupin explain the dance style, with insight from his apprentice, Courtney Williams, musical collaborator Rob Pearcy, and current national champion dancer Hillary Klug.
“I try to get as close to Thomas’s dancing as I can, just because I think not a lot of people dance like him and I want to preserve what he does,” Williams says. “I’m still working on creating something that I think is good.”
Here To Stay
The brewery makes a prime place to practice, with hardwood floors, a capacity crowd and Maupin typically setting the pace.
On a recent night, two other top buck dancers (one is a reigning national champion) accompanied Maupin and Williams. And several audience members also jumped up to learn a few steps.
The dancers typically take a turn in the center of a circle of musicians, and they dance on the wooden board that Maupin carries with him at all times.
But they also drift out into the tasting room, and Maupin and Williams trade runs of steps side by side. When Williams is on a good streak, Thomas hoots and claps as encouragement.
Yet the way Maupin sees it, the future of buck dancing doesn’t hinge on him alone.
“I think it’s here to staym and I’m trying my best to help it,” he says.
And with the resurgence of old-time music, Maupin says that means there will be plenty of musicians circling up, with space in the middle for the next buck dancer.