“You got to like music and you got to like people,” Robert Dotson on dancing
By Jesse Wood
Jan. 16, 2015. Famed flatfoot dancer and winner of the N.C. Folk Heritage Award, Robert Dotson passed away on Tuesday night at the age of 91.
Dancers from as far as Japan, Australia and other regions of the world would visit Dotson at his home and “dance shack” on Howard Edmisten Road in Sugar Grove to learn what is now referred to as the Dotson Walking Step and incorporate his moves into their dancing routines.
Dotson was born in Sugar Grove in Western Watauga on May 13, 1923 to the late Don and Bina Hicks Dotson. Both sides of his family were talented dancers.
“We had an old-time Victrola that you cranked up and put a record on that, and I danced to that,” Dotson said in profile in the Blue Ridge Heritage Artist’s Directory. “And my mother was a dancer, too. And we’d have apple peelings. People would come and we’d peel apples awhile. And then, when you got through with that, we’d dance.”
He was a farmer all of his life and a skilled carpenter. When Dotson was 14, his father fell off the back of a truck and died, so Dotson, as the oldest male in the immediate family, quit school to work and help his mother raise his seven brothers and sisters, according to Rodney Sutton, a longtime friend and fellow dancer.
Sutton said that Dotson’s greatest influence was his grandfather, Ab Dotson, who also played the banjo. When he was younger, the two would hitchhike to Boone to watch a movie at the Appalachian Theatre in downtown. After a while of walking and waiting for a ride, Dotson would tell his grandpa that he was too tired.
And Ab would then say, “Let’s just dance a little bit.”
“And right beside the road his grandpa would show him the buck dance and flatfoot, which is hard to do in the dirt. This is when he started developing his own style,” Sutton said, recounting a story that Sutton has told him over the years.
In the Blue Ridge Heritage profile of Dotson it was noted that his wife, Myrtle, who also won the N.C. Heritage Award in 1994, and Robert were instrumental in keeping the tradition of flatfoot dancing styles of Western North Carolina alive.
The two grew up in the same community just a mile or two apart and attended the same square dances in their younger days. Later on, they hosted their own dances near their home in Sugar Grove.
Years ago, he built a little house – or as he called it, a “dance shack” – across the street from where he lived on Howard Edmisten Road. At the time that it was built and for many years later, it didn’t have many rooms, so there was plenty of open space to dance.
As folklorist and Cultural Resources Coordinator at the Jones House Community Center in Boone said, “He put on legendary music and dance gatherings.”
Sutton, a member of the Green Grass Cloggers, which incorporated Dotson’s technique in its routines, attended these gatherings for the first time in the ‘70s. He said that they featured a “big revival of young folks moving into the High Country and playing old-time music” – in particular the Corklickers, a band that is still around today.
Whether it was in his dance shack or at a workshop or a festival, Sutton said that Dotson was “one of the most encouraging people of his generation” in teaching others how to dance and that Dotson had never met a stranger.
“He liked people. Encouraging somebody to try dancing made his day, and you would just feel when you were around him how joyous he was in sharing it,” Sutton said.
Aside from the legendary gatherings, his box overflowing with ribbons won for his dancing and being a recipient of the N.C. Folk Heritage Award, Freed said, “Most of all, [he] was a good friend and neighbor.”
“It was a real joy to see the pleasure he got in good old-time mountain music and to watch his big farmer’s body dance with such a light gait. He will be sorely missed by the old-time music and dance community around the world,” Freed said.
A celebration of Dotson’s life will take place at 2 p.m. at Austin & Barnes Funeral Home in Boone. The family will receive friends Saturday afternoon prior to the service from 12:30 p.m. until 2 p.m. at the funeral home.
Dotson is survived by two daughters, Peggy Coffey of Lenoir and Annalee Wood and husband Edsel of Sugar Grove, four sisters, Gladyce Bradshaw and Eunice Bushburger of Wilkesboro, Lilly Speaks and Lois Nivens both of Charlotte, and a dear friend, Rodney Sutton of Marshall, seven grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren, 20 great-great grandchildren, and 22 nieces and nephews.
In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his wife, Myrtle Cook Dotson, one sister; Donnie Burton and two brothers; Charles Walter and Albert Billy Dotson.
Officiating will be Dr. Barry Whittemore. Burial will follow at St. Johns Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Robert Dotson Scholarship Fund C/O The Green Grass Cloggers, PO BOX 789, Marshall, NC 28753.