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A promoter’s vision and backlash came before street dance caught on

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Summer was a couple months away when the French Broad Hustler printed a story about a proposed Saturday night attraction in downtown Hendersonville.
Said the headline over a story by Dr. Lucius B. Morse, the developer of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure and a tireless promoter of attractions to draw tourists to the region. It was the spring of 1918, six months before the end of World War I.
Morse reported that promoters had come up with “one of the most brilliant and interesting plans for entertaining alike the yearly sojourner to Hendersonville and the many thousands of soldiers at the nearby camps” filled with World War I trainees. Military bands would provide the music and the Saturday night street dance would entertain the young soldiers who were already coming “by train or motor to these beautiful mountains” looking for R&R.
“It has been the policy of the government to leave nothing undone in an effort to supply for these defenders of the nation’s honor wholesome pleasures of all sorts,” Morse added. “There are, it must be remembered, some 60,000 men in the two camps!”
Switched some time later to Monday night, the Hendersonville Street Dance celebrates its 100th anniversary season on July 9 with a kickoff ceremony, remarks by tourism officials, a clogging performance and a quick square dance primer by veteran caller Walt Puckett.
Whether it’s true or a good promotional tagline (in the spirit of Lucius Morse), the Tourism Development Authority, the present day sponsor, calls the event “the oldest street dance in America.”
“I don’t specifically know that,” TDA staffer Michael Arrowood said when asked if the county had proof that the street dance is the oldest. An avid local history researcher, he was cautious about defending the claim as unequivocal. “That’s a claim I’ve heard before. Nobody’s ever challenged the claim that I know. It is believed to be the oldest continuous street dance. It’s a bold claim to make.”
“If present plans are carried out,” Morse wrote 100 years ago, “the charm of the street dance of 1917 will be but a feeble reminder of the brilliant Saturday night street dances of 1918. They would make Hendersonville veritably the social rendezvous for the men at Wadsworth and Sevier,” the military camps in Spartanburg and Greenville respectively.

Dance recieves ‘stamp of disapproval’

If Morse and the tourism industry hyped the street dance, the churches immediately condemned the idea, warning that the dance might generate something besides “wholesome pleasures.”
Within days, First Baptist Church had issued a blistering condemnation of the idea and the Methodist Church followed with a slightly milder resolution against dancing. The Baptists voted to “place the stamp of our disapproval upon the street dance” and vowed to fight “any and all movements to reenact the shameful and disgraceful scenes that took place upon our streets last summer.” During a discussion after the church service, J.E. Shipman reminded congregants of the previous summer’s street dance that ended in “a disgraceful street fight” just outside the sanctuary windows during a prayer meeting.
In a resolution addressed to Hendersonville Mayor C.E. Brooks and the City Council, the Methodist Episcopal Church South implored the city to “prohibit this offensive and harmful form of entertainment.” The resolution was signed by the Rev. Raymond Browning and church conference secretary Henry F. Stewart.
The Baptist Church’s Baraca Sunday school class, meanwhile, busied itself shooting the messenger, French Broad Hustler editor Noah Hollowell, who happened to also be serving as Sunday school superintendent. Defending his role as editor, Hollowell told his classmates that “the paper was only fulfilling its purpose or mission in publishing the news, neither did he endorse all things his duty as a newspaper man called on him to publish.” Then, beating an emphatic retreat from Morse’s proposal, Hollowell declared that his personal views on the subject “were so pronounced as to be obnoxious and that in his opinion consistent Baptists could not be otherwise than opposed to dancing of any kind,” the Hustler reported.
The Men’s Bible class at the Methodist Church also turned on one of its own, C.F. Bland, the president of Board of Trade, which church members assumed had endorsed the street dance idea of a well-known tourism promoter. Bland disassociated the business group from the street dance, saying that “the organization could not be held responsible for Dr. Morse’s idea.” (By then it had become clear that the inventor of the “brilliant and interesting” idea was Morse himself.) The next day, confronted by a Hustler reporter, Board of Trade secretary A.S. Truex was compelled to issue a statement again disavowing the street dance, saying the board had never discussed the idea.

Doughboys welcomed home

The date of the first street dance is unclear and whether early dances featured popular music or traditional mountain music also is hard to document.
“Bluegrass music didn’t exist until the 1940s with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys,” said Arrowood, who uncovered the French Broad Hustler article. Old-time music did exist, of course. But Morse says nothing in the article about mountain music or square dancing and whatever their repertoire, military bands made up of brass and woodwinds were very unlikely to feature old-time music. It’s not even clear that the idea, as first framed by Morse in March of 1918, led to the inauguration of street dances that year.
Present-day news coverage invariably repeats the information that the Street Dance originated with a welcome-home celebration in 1918. (The TDA says on its website that the Street Dance “began in 1918, at the end of World War I when the city welcomed our soldiers home from the War by celebrating in the streets.”) That may be more folklore than fact. World War I ended with the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month). The city’s big welcome home celebration for soldiers occurred on May 30, 1919. There was a parade on Main Street with marching bands, a picnic and baseball game at Laurel Park (Blue Ridge boys school vs. the soldiers of Kenilworth, the soldiers winning 1-0) and, yes, a dance — indoors. “The big night event was the largely attended dance at the armory until a late hour,” The News of Henderson County reported on June 3, 1918.
Local historian Jennie Jones Giles said in her research for an article for the Times-News a few years ago she interviewed old-timers with a living memory of the street dance, as far back at the 1920s. The interviewees all remembered old-time music, not popular music.
“What they remembered was Appalachian mountain music,” she said. “Everybody I interviewed said it was country music. It’s not rock’n’roll type dancing.”
Our deeper dive into the history of street dancing in Hendersonville, though far from dispositive, verifies that there was a street dance in 1917 that left church leaders strongly against the idea. It’s fair to say that Lucius Morse was the father of the idea of a street dance as we know it today but not the originator of an actual street dance that summer. There was a big welcome home celebration for WWI soldiers in 1919.
We know, too, that just a few years later, when W.A. Smith founded Laurel Park and the big hotels were attracting hundreds of tourists from beyond the Bible Belt, that dancing was not only accepted but widely celebrated. Hendersonville was known as the dancin’est town around. Couples in dressy clothes danced to Big Band music on the hotel dance floors and the casino at Lake Rhododendron. Dancing was a part of the town’s attraction, along with its cool weather and clean air. The local folks, though, preferred old-time music, clogging and square dancing.
Jim Kesterson, a Hendersonville resident who gained fame with his Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers clogging team, recalls attending his first dance at the age of 10 in 1947.
“In those days the street dances were packed,” he said. “Everybody went. It was a very exciting place for a kid to be. That was the first place I ever tried to square dance.”
The Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event for 87 years. In 2005, the Henderson County Travel & Tourism office (now the TDA) took over.
Dave Cooley, chamber president from 1952-1958, recalled that the dances were featured in several Fox Movietone newsreels and were regularly visited by celebrities attending the North Carolina Apple Festival.
The 100th anniversary program starts at 7 o’clock with speakers who will talk about the history of the street dance, the sponsorship by the chamber and the TDA, different locations it’s been held and its role in preserving mountain heritage. Puckett will be on hand at 6:30 Monday night to teach some basic square steps before the Bailey Mountain Cloggers take the stage. The bluegrass band Appalachian Fire will play for the public square dancing, carrying on the tradition.

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The 100th Anniversary Street Dance Commemoration will be at the Visitors Center stage. People attending are encouraged to bring a chair. The seating area opens at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. No alcoholic beverages, backpacks or coolers are allowed. Please leave pets at home. Square dancing is from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.