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Traditional Dancing is Annual Feature of Old Time Music Festival

Traditional dancing in two forms will again be featured at this year’s Old Time Music, Ozark Heritage Festival in downtown West Plains, Mo. 

The two-day annual event in downtown West Plains, Mo., celebrates Ozarks music and culture.  Admission to all festival events is free. Festival hours are noon-9 p.m. both Friday and Saturday.

The Bob Holt Old Time Jig Dancing Competition will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday, in the civic center theater, and traditional square dancing will take place both evenings from 6-8 p.m. in the Civic Center Exhibit Hall. Bring your dancing shoes and join in!

Bob Holt Jig Dance Competition –– Jig dancing contestants will compete in four age divisions:  Under age 17, age 18-50, age 51-70, and over age 70.  No entry fee will be charged and contestants register to participate by contacting Paula Speraneo at the West Plains Council on the Arts, or 417-293-2325.  Over $500 in prizes will be awarded, organizers said.  

Cathy Marriott, Ava, Mo., a master artist with the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program of the Missouri Folks Arts Program, will be the competition’s emcee.

The competition was named in honor of the late Bob Holt, a long-time Ava resident renowned for his old-time fiddle playing for Ozarks square dancers.  He received a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999 for his music and was a master artist with the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program in the Missouri Folk Arts Program.

Within the southern folk tradition, there are several styles of solo, freestyle dances, organizers said.  Flatfooting and buckdancing are two of the most common forms.  In the Ozarks, the term “jig” is frequently used to describe this style of dance.

Although these dances are all loosely related, they also are distinctly different.  The word “jig” dates back at least to 1500 AD and is probably somewhat older in usage.  It describes a solo dance that originated in the British Isles where it consisted of repeated hops on one foot while the free foot pointed patterns in the air – heel and toe, front, side or back.

The Ozark jig draws not only from British tradition, but also from American Indian and African cultures.  It basically consists of movement from the hips down while the upper body is held erect, organizers explained.  Emphasis is on leg rather than body movements, and the steps are individualistic and virtually limitless.  The feet serve as a rhythm instrument, and the sound of the shoes striking the floor beats the time of the music.

Even though several jig dancers may take to the floor at the same time, each dancer’s steps are improvised without regard to the movement of the other dancers.  When jig steps are incorporated into square dances, no effort is made to synchronize steps with other dancers in the square, organizers explained.

Another major difference in the British and Ozark versions of the jig is the rhythm of the dance, they added.  In the British Isles, the jig was danced to a lilting 6/8 rhythm.  Ozark dancers prefer extremely fast-paced, driving 2/2 or 2/4 hoedowns.  The Ozark style of jig is a “freestyle” dance form identified with northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.

Each year the Bob Holt Jig Dance Competition is enjoyed by hundreds of spectators and contestants, organizers said.  This year’s event is being sponsored by The Fish Shack in West Plains.

Traditional Square Dancing –– Traditional square dancing returns, dances will be held from 6-8 p.m. each night – Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 1 in the Civic Center Exhibit Hall.

Traditional square dancing has been an integral component of the Old-Time Music, Ozark Heritage Festival since the first event in 1995.  Fiddler Bob Holt and caller Edna Mae Davis of Ava introduced this art form that year, and their influence continues to be felt.

Square dancing has been an important vehicle for both artistic expression and social recreation in this region since the arrival of the first white settlers.  It is closely associated with traditions of fiddling and string band music, as well as traditions of solo dancing such as jig dancing.

Square dancers in the Douglas County, Mo., area, especially Ava, maintain a distinctive tradition of square dance characterized by brisk tempos, the incorporation of solo jig dancing into square dances during transitional segments, and the participation of the callers as dancers.

Traditional square dancing still takes place at least occasionally in some locations within the Ozarks.  Additionally, Western square dancing, a pan-regional, popular-culture version of the art form that is related to traditional square dancing but does not have long-established local roots, has become popular among some Ozarks residents in recent decades. 

Experienced string band musicians from south-central and southwest Missouri who are thoroughly familiar with regional square dance traditions, led by guitarist Alvie Dooms of Ava, fiddler David Scrivner of Mansfield, and banjo player Nathan McAlister of Neosho, provide live musical accompaniment for the dancing.      

2019 Festival partners include the West Plains Council on the Arts, the City of West Plains, Missouri State University-West Plains, the Ozark Heritage Welcome Center, and the West Plains Civic Center.  Partial funding for this event was provided by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

For more information on the festival e-mail, visit the website at, or “like” the Facebook page at