Monthly Archives: December 2014

Pat Napier

by Katy Tarter German

In 2007, CDSS awarded its CDSS Lifetime Contribution Award to Patrick Napier of Bowling Green, Kentucky,  for his long service and inspirational teaching to his local community. The article below appeared in the CDSS News, issue #198, September/October 2007. Pat died on September 6, 2014, at the age of 88.

pat napierPat Napier is a living legend in Berea, Kentucky. He has been teaching Appalachian dancing and stories since the 1930s. A paper he wrote for a Berea College recreation class early in his career has been the gold standard for folk dance teachers and instructors, and is still being used today. For over fifty years, he has been a much-loved staff member at Berea College’s Christmas Country Dance School as the teller of Jack Tales and teacher of the Big Set and Kentucky Running Set dances.

As a boy, Pat was a student of the legendary Frank H. Smith who worked for Berea College and the Council of Southern Mountain Workers in the 1930s and ’40s. From him Pat learned singing games such as “Paw Paw Patch,” “Old Bald Eagle,” and “Jump Josie.” Learning folk games and dances from Smith and others, Pat attended his first Mountain Folk Festival in 1942.

“We practiced square dancing,” he said, “but used a two-hand swing mostly. The closed swing was used in our folk games but usually not permitted in the square dancing. The teachers finally got over this problem.”

Pat’s introduction to the Big Set was in the spring of 1943 when he entered Berea College. “Uncle Frank,” as Smith’s students called him, invited Pat to join the Country Dancers, and, at an early session, Smith announced Pat would call a square dance.

“As many of you know, says Pat, “there’s a difference between a good caller and a beginning caller so I did a very poor job.”

However, he made up for it. He joined the Merchant Marines in 1943 and wrote down all the dance figures he could remember, practicing his calling on the fantail of a Liberty ship in the South Atlantic and South Pacific oceans using imaginary dancers. Returning to Berea in 1946, he rejoined the Country Dancers as a caller and subsequently wrote the booklet Kentucky Mountain Square Dance as a paper for a Recreational Leadership class in 1949.

Pat Napier has worked quietly his entire life to bring history, tradition, music and dance into the lives of those who are most often overlooked. He has spent his whole life preaching and teaching Eastern Kentucky dance traditions in rural areas of the state. A firm believer of the community-building power of traditional dancing, he has been a mentor and inspiration to hundreds of people in Kentucky over the years.



Math, Music and Contra Dance

by Lena Erickson

lena ericksonI first heard about contra dance at a small math conference in Northfield, Minnesota during the summer of 2013 when a graduate student described the connection between contra dance and permutation groups. Contra dance, a type of partnered folk dance, involves people dancing in two lines facing each other or in groups of four. If the participants of a contra dance are each labeled with a number, with n being the total number of dancers, then their most basic interactions during the contra dance can be represented as permutations on the set of numbers one through n.

norman, OK contra dance_miranda arana_cropped

Norman, OK, contra dance, December 2014 (Miranda Arana)


A permutation, put simply, means a reordering of members of a set, so a permutation of the dancers is a function that moves the dancers to other dancers’ positions, like two people swapping places (e.g. gents’ allemande), a group of four people circularly moving in a full rotation (e.g. circle left), or no one changing position (i.e. the identity permutation). If you combine these functions, adding one small dance step to another, you’re composing permutations, which is the operation that defines the algebraic structure known as a permutation group.

norman, OK contra dance 2_miranda arana

Norman, OK, contra dance, December 2014 (Miranda Arana)

This link to mathematics brings something special to contra dance: it evokes a feeling of connection to the universe at large. Permutation groups themselves are only yet a subset of the set of reflection symmetries, which has applications anywhere symmetry is present: in the structure of a snowflake, in the arrangement of atoms in a molecule, and even in the transpositions and inversions in Bach’s Art of Fugue, which are precisely the symmetries of a dodecagon. Math is deeply and richly tied to music and dance, and my knowing that the movement of our bodies in dance symbolized a greater relationship between elements brought an almost spiritual aspect to my experience of contra dance.While the mechanics of the dance were explainable by the mathematical structures I’d previously come to understand, the experience itself involved so much more: a sense of community, an interaction with people normally distanced, and the exhilarating act of applying these abstract concepts I’d learned to movement in the physical world, with music playing and bodies moving all around me.

Lena Erickson is a senior at Oklahoma University in Norman, OK, majoring in math.

Our thanks to CDSS member Miranda Arana who sent us Lena’s essay. She teaches Introduction to World Music for non-music majors at OU.