Connecting Generations Through Music & Dance: An Interview with Becky Hill

Enjoy an interview with Becky Hill, the 2022 Summer Artist in Residence at Olive’s Porch. Becky is a percussive dancer, square dance caller, choreographer, community organizer, and educator. We sat down in the Folk School Vegetable Garden just after the music & dance weekend she organized featuring West Virginia caller, dancer, and musician, Mack Samples, August 26-27, 2022. Interview by Cory Marie Podielski.

Becky Hill plays banjo in the garden at the John C. Campbell Folk School.

CP: Tell me about the Appalachian Dance Weekend taught by you and your mentor with Mack Samples. What was the inspiration for organizing it? 

BH: Before coming to the Olive’s Porch Artist in Residence Program, T-Claw and I had run a festival called Helvetia Hoot in West Virginia. Due to the pandemic, the festival has been on hold. We were missing that community, so when I got the residency, we started to conceive an idea, and explored creating an event connected to squares here at the Folk School. It was really amazing to feel the space and support to welcome Mack Samples, one of my mentors, down here. 

Mack is in his 80s and he’s a firecracker. Out of that generation, he is one of the few who is still moving and shaking and just “wow!” He was the first person to shove a microphone into my hand and tell me, “It’s up to you, you gotta call.” When I initially came down here, I was hoping to be able to spend more time looking for local square dance callers. I asked around and came to the conclusion that there may not be many of the older generation of square dance callers in this area anymore, who aren’t connected to the Folk Revival. There’s a lot of contra dance callers or people who are my age or a little bit older calling squares in the community, so it felt like a great opportunity to bring an elder master artist down here. 

CP: What were the biggest successes?

BH: I think the whole weekend was great. We had about 35 participants during the weekend. People felt receptive. It also felt like people could drop in and out of what they wanted to participate in. Since there were different workshops focusing on a variety of topics like calling, music, square dance, flatfooting, and storytelling, there was an invitation for people to do what they wanted when they wanted to. And the Saturday night dance was really ruckus last night! Mack was calling and other callers rotated in, it was great!

Mack Samples calls a square dance in Open House.
Becky Hill teaches clogging to a young dancer.
Portrait of Mack Samples & Becky Hill
Becky Hill calls a square dance in Open House.
Clogging class with Becky Hill in Open House.

CP: A big part of the Artist in Residence Program at Olive’s Porch is tradition bearing. Bringing Mack here to share his knowledge and stories was really special. Do you have any advice for someone looking to find a mentor? What is a good way to connect with an older generation?

BH: My first piece of advice would be to slow down enough to make time to have those conversations. It’s going to take 50 cups of coffee before someone might be like, “Oh, she’s sticking around. We like her.” It takes time and some dedication. Productivity is a big guiding light in how we operate in the world, and we often don’t slow down enough to learn from older mentors who have so much to give. I think that’s the beauty of the Folk School; it is really intergenerational, so a lot of that is already naturally happening. Everyone has a secret skill and opportunities for those conversations are all over campus.

The second piece of advice is being intentional about what community you are in. The Folk Revival period has brought a lot of people to the Folk School, but then if we step out of this Folk School bubble, there’s Jimmy’s Pick N’ Grin, or the Raceway, or country pro-wrestling. There’s a community of people who live here who are not tethered to the Folk School. If you take that extra step into discomfort, you end up meeting people who really transform your life in a way that is very connected to this environment and this world. Go talk to someone you normally wouldn’t talk to.

Close up of dancing feet

CP: How do you see yourself as a tradition bearer, passing on dance, music, folklore, etc. to different generations?

BH: I see myself in a few different roles. I am good at facilitating community. That’s something I did a lot in West Virginia and this past weekend it was nice to facilitate bringing communities together. A lot of my former students and traditional music friends came from all over from places including New York, D.C., Atlanta, Asheville, and Athens. Bringing people together is a skill that I offer to this community.

I am good at empowering younger, and also female, square dance callers. This is a role informed from growing up in a very male-dominated elder calling scene. I think within these traditions there is a choice and how I feel about these traditions is that they are malleable. If I don’t want to keep a certain square dance call, I don’t have to. I can write my own patter. It’s all there and was changed by people over time, and will continue to change. It gives me such bright light to see people up there who are young being like “All join hands and circle to the left!” And they can have their own patter. It’s so sweet.

From a teacher standpoint, I try to focus on making sure that people know the ancestry of these traditions, and challenge some of the myths around them. I ask people to think about dance from both a musical and percussive standpoint. As a flatfooter and a clogger, that’s also what I offer to this world. I’m thinking about this in a different way. For example, when collaborating with someone, I ask questions like. “What if we used more space? How would that feel with the banjo?” I feel like I am really good at setting up the “what-ifs?” I don’t want people to dance exactly like me, but they will take those questions and create their own style and passion.

Becky Hill clogging in the Music Studio in Davidson Hall at the John C. Campbell Folk School
Becky Hill plays banjo in the garden at the John C. Campbell Folk School.
Becky Hill dancing in Open House at the Folk School.
Becky Hill playing banjo in Open House at the Folk School.

CP: What are ways you have engaged with the local community here through your Olive’s Porch residency?

BH: My absolute favorite was working with the senior center. I went every other week and would teach music and dancing. Every time I went we all would just laugh until we cried while dancing. It was joyous.I could tell that through movement they felt seen, validated, and creative. There’s so much to learn from the senior community that I am really drawn to. That work was really powerful.

On the other end of the spectrum, I was helping out with the Little Olives, working with the tiny tots. And then I have also taught dance workshops open to all at the Folk School.

CP: What have you learned?

BH: One of the beauties of this residency, and I hope that everyone holds on to it, is that you feel encouraged to learn, invest, and percolate. It’s like here is this fertile ground (literally the environment is beautiful and fertile), but more metaphorically it feels like having someone hand you some compost and then asking you “What are you gonna grow with that?” That’s been pretty fun. I’ve learned things from this space and I’ve tried to use the classes I’ve taught as sort of a laboratory. 

Also, Ben Nelson came and we spent 10 days transcribing into our bodies and banjo playing a bunch of Hammons Family West Virginia tunes. We did 8 different tunes. It’s a shared vocabulary for us; we both love squirrely West Virginia tunes. We really pared them down to just banjo and feet. It’s an interesting negotiation because banjo and feet share similar roles in this type of music. In old-time music, banjo and feet both play melody and they both play rhythm. In that negotiation we figured out ways to support each other musically. We recorded 7 tunes. It was a very fun focus to dive into. 

CP: Do you have a favorite place on campus?

BH: I love  gardens, so I love walking and wandering in the garden at the end of a dance class. It’s great to take a moment to remember you are here and be present. This up here by Open House feels special, overlooking the garden and the mountains.

CP: What is your “go-to” square figure if you are walking into calling a dance with totally beginners?

BH: I love a good party square. I actually called this one last night. I think you need 5 squares to make it really good. It’s called a few things: “Through the Tunnels,” “Tunnel & Snakes,” or “Arches & Tail.” One couple is in the center and they make an arch and everyone tunnels through. It’s playful and silly and always a success.

I also love a big circle. You meet potential new dance partners in different ways. You are reminded in a big circle that we are a big community, all in this together. How powerful is it to do something so simple like “Circle Right” or “Circle Left” and be all in this moment together and this time.

CP: Closing words?

BH: The legacy and the land of the Folk School holds a lot that you can kind of excavate when you arrive here. I had some ideas of what would happen when I got here, but I wasn’t fully sure. I think that’s also the power of it. The potential to meet someone you’ve never met before, try something a little bit differently, learn a new skill, there’s a lot of raw potential.

Artist in Residence Program at Olive’s Porch

The Artist in Residence Program at Olive’s Porch is a grant-funded opportunity for early to mid-career artists to spend four months in Murphy and Brasstown, North Carolina focusing on their craft while working within and building community.

Participants live on the Folk School’s campus and have access to a studio at Olive’s Porch, a new community-focused space in downtown Murphy.

The residency provides ample time for creative practice and opportunities to engage and inspire through demonstrations, conversations, and collaborations.

Building on one of the original goals of our founders, Olive Dame Campbell and Marguerite Butler, this opportunity is focused on traditional Appalachian craft, music, and dance and aims to support the next generation of tradition bearers, keeping alive time-honored practices. We hope to foster a creative space where folks can build relationships that will carry beyond their time in the studio.

Learn More

About Becky Hill

Becky is a percussive dancer, square dance caller, choreographer, community organizer, and educator.

She grew up in Michigan, spent extensive time in West Virginia and now resides in Brentwood, Maryland. Becky has worked with Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, Good Foot Dance Company and Rhythm in Shoes, and has studied with an array of percussive dance luminaries.

In 2013, she was involved in Wheatland Music Organization’s Carry It On… Project where she was commissioned to choreograph two works under the mentorship of Sharon Leahy in honor of the festival’s 40th anniversary. In 2014 and 2106, she was awarded a West Virginia Division of Culture and History Professional Development Grant to further her study of percussive dance. Becky served as the Artist in Residence at Davis & Elkins College from 2013 – 2015 where she coordinated The Mountain Dance Trail of Augusta Heritage Center and co-directed the Appalachian Ensemble. She became the Events Coordinator for Augusta Heritage Center from 2015 – 2019 organizing their summer intensives. Together with noted folklorist Gerry Milnes, she produced a documentary film on West Virginia dance traditions, Reel ‘Em Boys, Reel ‘Em. Becky has organized Helvetia Hoot, formally known as Dare to be Square West Virginia since 2013.

Becky directed her first evening length music and dance work inspired by Appalachia, Shift, with an all-star cast Nashville. Shift debuted November 2017 and it expanded for the 2018 Wheatland Music Festival. In 2018 she was selected a fellow for OneBeat, a U.S. State Department Cultural Diplomacy Program and conducted an artist residency at Basin Arts. She is currently involved in Dance Exchange’s Dance On Creative Aging Training Cohort, and is a 2021 Strathmore Artist in Residence. She can be found performing with T-Mart Rounders and  working on her M.F.A in dance at University of Maryland, College Park with an anticipated graduation in 2022.

As an avid organizer and teacher, Becky’s work is deeply rooted in the connections between music and community. She believes there is always more to learn and is dedicated to creating  innovative choreography rooted in Appalachian music and dance.

IG: @_becky_hill_

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