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.