Students learn about flatfooting at Common Ground on the Hill. (Jacob deNobel / Carroll County Times)

As students learned flatfooting techniques to bluegrass originals, some soon recognized the movements as similar to The Running Man, as half the class transitioned into that class 1980s hip-hop dance.

It's this transition that instructor Emily Oleson was trying to get at during her American Vernacular Dance Remix class being taught at Common Ground on the Hill, a two-week series of classes focusing on art, music and culture that is held annually at McDaniel College.


Vernacular dances are those learned and developed socially, cultivating in group dance spaces rather than in professional spaces. During the weeklong course, students are exposed to a variety of vernacular dances from Appalachian flatfooting to contemporary urban dances to jazz dances like the Charleston.

Oleson said she's always had a passion for history, and while studying dance in graduate school at the University of Maryland, she began to discover the connections and unsung similarities between many of these forms.

She said one of the problems of the lack of discussion of the common forms and origins of many of these dances is the removal of nonwhites from the narratives of many of the forms that they helped develop or create.

"When I started studying tap history, I was depressed by all of the racism and appropriation in the history of tap," Oleson said.

"I started thinking that maybe tap wasn't my form, but what I quickly found studying other American dance forms is that none of them are safe from that narrative of racism and exploitation. All of them have huge contributions from people of color and there's a lot of work to do in acknowledging that context."

Tuesday's session was dedicated to Appalachian flatfooting, a percussive dance where the tapping of the dancers' feet is used as the drumming for old time and bluegrass music. During the session, Oleson worked to teach the social aspects of the dance, from the way dancers communicate with their bodies to sharing how best to dance when the dance itself serves as accompaniment to the music.

"You have to force yourself to not make it interesting," Oleson said. "You're just the drummer. You're not writing a short story. Find one thing that works and hold it down, and realize that this is enough."

Beth Robert said she teaches dance and is interested in passing down the lessons she's learned in the Common Ground class. One of the key aspects of teaching, she said, is mindfulness, and knowing the history and connections behind a particular style of dance can be a huge aid in fully understanding it as a student.

Oleson said stepping into a dance is an easy way to step into the perspective of another person.

"I believe when you embody a practice, you gain a lot of knowledge and understanding, not in a verbal way, but in a real way of someone else's point of view," Oleson said. "If you don't think of yourself as rhythmic, but you can hold down a flatfooting beat, then you've changed your mind about yourself, but you've also changed it about other people."