A Century of Street Dances in Hendersonville
It’s a balmy Saturday evening and Hendersonville is alive with the twangy sound of bluegrass. In a parking lot off of South Main Street, residents young and old are do-si-doing as members of The Jeter Mountain Band pluck banjo strings and long-time caller Walt Puckett belts out directions in his honey-sweet drawl.
“I’ve been calling for 50 years and square dancing for even longer,” says Puckett.
Something of a local legend, Puckett knows a thing or two about the Hendersonville Street Dances. A cornerstone of Apple Country culture, the much anticipated summertime gatherings feature mountain music, clogging demonstrations and square dancing.
“It’s family-friendly fun,” says Puckett, who attended his first Street Dance in the 1950s when he was a third grader at Rosa Edwards School. Thirty years later, he assumed the role of caller. “People of all ages look forward to the event,” he says.
But that wasn’t always the case. Back in 1918, when Dr. Lucius B. Morse proposed inviting military bands to provide musical entertainment downtown, folks protested.
According to a March 1918 edition of the French Broad Hustler, Morse’s idea “did not find very warm endorsement in church circles…but incurred righteous indignation.” The newspaper goes on to describe how several religious groups “assaulted the idea” on grounds of salaciousness.
Unperturbed by the condemnations, Morse continued advocating for the idea. As the owner and developer of Chimney Rock Park, he knew regular dances would encourage the 60,000-some soldiers training at Camp Wadsworth and Camp Sevier in South Carolina to “swarm the mountains.” He believed other sojourners would also appreciate the “new thrill.”
Equally sold on the prospect of tourism dollars, the Board of Trade—today’s Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce—decided to sponsor the dances that summer.
Despite initial resistance, the social function quickly exploded in popularity, inspiring several local dance troupes to form. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg even sponsored a group known as the Connemara Square Dance Team. In 1948, the team traveled by bus to the Chicago Railroad Fair with a banner that read: “From Hendersonville, N.C.—The Dancingest Town in America.”
Though Hendersonville has since outgrown its status as a town, the square-dancing tradition endures, says Michelle Owens, executive director of the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority.
“Time moves ever forward, but every summer one constant has been Hendersonville’s Street Dances—a mountain moment that brings together newcomers and long-timers alike to stop, hear the fiddler play and join the caller’s dance,” says Owens. “It’s an Appalachian tradition like no other.”
That’s thanks, in part, to Puckett’s legacy as the event’s emcee. “I try to keep the dances simple and fun,” he notes. “Anyone who wants to get up and dance is welcome to.”
The Hendersonville Street Dances happen Saturday, August 12 and 19, 7–9 p.m. in the Hendersonville Welcome Center parking lot (201 South Main Street). Admission is free. For more information, see VisitHendersonvilleNC.org.