Winter Spotlight: Flat Foot Flatbush


The last in a series of posts highlighting new and re-imagined parades for the 2014 Make Music Winter festival, coming up on Sunday December 21. 

Spotlight on: Flat Foot Flatbush

In June, Nick Horner & co. gathered the Old Time / Americana / Bluegrass community for an epic performance that became Porch Stomp. This winter, he’s calling upon this community once again. We sat down with Nick and his co-producer, Katie Cohen to talk about their Winter plans for Flat Foot Flatbush.

When did you first come across flat footing, and what drew you to this genre? Who are your favorite people / biggest influences in the scene?

Katie Cohen:  Growing up in West Virginia, I was always aware of flatfooting.  Old-time string band music was played informally at people’s houses, and there was a weekly jam at the local brewing company. I started playing fiddle when I was six years old, but I didn’t know anyone who called themselves a flatfooter. I’d see folks do a couple steps here and there, and performers gave demonstrations in elementary school assemblies. I even remember in high school, during an AP Government class, watching a video of Jesco White dancing (aka The Dancing Outlaw). What that had to do with the US Senate is anyone’s guess…

This past summer, I had the opportunity to spend time with some great dancers, including Charlie Burton and Ira Bernstein, at Clifftop String Band Festival, an old-time music festival held in West Virginia. We’d spend 6-7 hours a day dancing. All the while, older dancers would be telling stories–about great dancers they learned from, how their daddy did this or that step, about performing with Bascom Lamar Lunsford. These stories are just as much a part of the tradition as the steps; they tell us not only about the dance, but about how people used to live, work and play, where our traditions come from and how they’ve been passed down. Whether it’s steps or stories, this sense of sharing is intrinsic to flatfooting, and one of the reasons I love it.

Charlie Burton is a big influence for me. I’ve learned a lot from him while dancing and assisting him with workshops at festivals similar to Clifftop. Not only is he a good dancer, but he also has an incredibly deep knowledge of mountain dance.The geography of Appalachia makes it difficult for people to move around much — there’s a big difference in the distance as the crow flies and driving time through the hills. Each of these isolated areas developed their own flavor. Say there’s a really good dancer from Boone County, WV, like D.Ray White, then a lot of the dancers from around that area will share a similar style. Someone like Charlie, who has travelled around and visited a lot of these people at their homes, can tell you what step he learned from whom, and you can trace certain characteristics to where people came from before they immigrated to Appalachia, whether that’s the Deep South or Ireland. 

Nick Horner: I actually first experienced flatfooting at the Brooklyn Folk Festival while watching Anna Roberts-Gevalt performing in duo with Anna Laprelle. I remember being taken aback by both the physicality of the dance and the richness of the sound. Unlike traditional tap dancing, flatfooting just seemed a little more natural to me, and I thought it merited further exploration.  However, it wasn’t until I was watching some videos of jazz drummers tap dancing in duo each other that I got the idea to seek out a stepper to work into a project as a permanent addition.

What inspired you to create a parade around this concept?

NH: I approached Katie about the idea after our first or second session making music together in Brooklyn. It was obvious we had a great musical chemistry as well as a mutual desire to bring people together through music (which is at the heart of the Old Time music tradition) and I wanted to take it a step further. Katie and I met at Clifftop while shapenote singing out in the woods.  Clifftop is such an inspiring experience; a whirl of violins buzzing through the woods from 10 in the morning until 4 the next morning for a week straight. Music everywhere you turn, and always a jam to join or a new person to meet.  It’s a reminder that community is at the heart of this tradition, and something that would extend naturally into the Make Music world.  Why not bring a little of that community to the streets of downtown Brooklyn?

What can participants expect on December 21? Why does flatfooting lend itself to the parade format?

KC: Anyone can flatfoot! If you can walk, you can dance. There’s no age limit and no experience necessary. As long as you can walk, you can dance. Once you have a few basic steps, you can create something fun and interesting. For people who come from a dance background, it’s interesting to see how you can incorporate different genres within this style- from step dancing to rhythm tap to flamenco.

NH: Flatfooting is great for this setting because it’s almost as much percussion as it is dance. In the traditional setting, the leather on wood defines the rhythmic element of the music, giving the acoustic output equal importance to the aesthetic of the dance itself. Flatfooting also makes for great parading because it’s so rooted in improvisation. Once a person has the basic steps, they’re capable of doing a lot with them just by utilizing their own creativity.  Historically, flatfooting has drawn from a number of musical traditions and continues to do so today.

KC: Yeah, at its root, flatfooting is just about the different sounds you can make and how you fit them together.

Family Close UPWhat have been the most challenging and interesting elements about working on this project?

KCOne challenge has been explaining to potential participants what exactly flatfooting is. Flatfooting, like mountain dance, mountain tap, clogging, and buck dancing, is pretty foreign to most people. People are shy to try it — but once they realize it’s just listening to music and stomping in time, we have fun!  I’m excited by the opportunity to share Appalachia’s incredible history of immigration, community organizing, and living close to the land through this project. Moreover, I’m excited to dance with my recently adopted Brooklyn community and hopefully, build new visions and stories for the future.

NH: I’ve loved thinking through the logistics of this project. Obvious issues that have come up have included how to accompany the band (for instance, how to mobilize an acoustic bass let alone make it audible out next to a busy road) and the different ways of making sure anyone can get involved, regardless of experience. But we’re figuring it out! And it’s been great to have such wonderful support for this project. Anna Roberts-Gevalt is an astounding musician and the Jalopy Theater and School of Music has been so wonderful in offering us their space to use for our after party.

Any advice for participants joining us on December 21?

NH: Dress in layers, don’t be afraid to come and have fun even if you have no clue what Flatfooting is.

KC: During the workshop, we’ll have supplies to make your own tap shoes, so bring an old pair of sneakers!