Dance Group Celebrates Heritage on W.Va. Day

Underlying the hustle and bustle of modern life, our American heritage is all around us just waiting to be explored.

That is why members of the Heritage Dance Association turn out each year to take part in West Virginia Day, an annual observance that provides the opportunity to delve into the battles and bold decisions that made the Ohio Valley the place it is today. While the event at Wheeling’s Independence Hall typically includes a variety of proclamations, speeches, reenactments and an enormous birthday cake, the dancers play a role that often allows attendees to actually follow their ancestors’ footsteps.

“The Heritage Dance Association provides the opportunity for folks who love history to bring it back to life,” said Rebekah Karelis, a historian with the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. who sometimes dances with the group. “Those who appreciate the past love to visit historic locations, learn about those who came before and stand where memorable events occurred.

“Learning dances from the days of old with HDA gives us all the opportunity to literally dance the same steps as our parents, grandparents and generations did before them,” she added. “When the music comes on, you can envision yourself in the parlor, the grand ballroom or on the frontier fort. It can be magical for those with imaginations.”

As living historians, members of the HDA serve the community by taking part in festivals, celebrations of historic events and educational demonstrations throughout the region. In addition to participating in Wheeling’s West Virginia Day events each June 20, the group makes an annual appearance during Fort Henry Days at Oglebay Park and assists with walking tours and demonstrations each summer as part of the celebration of Mount Pleasant, Ohio’s rich history.

In recent months, the HDA worked with fifth-graders at Paden City Elementary School. They also took part in a holiday event in Cambridge, Ohio, and represented the Ohio Valley during the “Steamboats A-Comin’ Civil War Grand Ball and Extravaganza” in Louisville, Ky., in October. Plans are forming now for the group to visit Gettysburg, Pa., to take part in a Civil War Barn Dance.

But the HDA doesn’t focus solely on the Civil War. The word “heritage” is crucial to the group’s mission, which is to preserve and promote historical dance traditions. Therefore, members often abandon their hoop skirts in favor of the simple clothes that folks wore on the frontier in the 18th century or the more elaborate outfits worn during the Regency era of the early 1800s.

A recent performance at Wheeling Jesuit University’s Culture Fest explored 300 years of American square dance. Members also learn and perform dances that are specific to various ethnic groups.

For example, the group will expand its study of German dances this fall.

The HDA admits new members of all ages periodically throughout the year. Neither dance experience nor a partner is required, but the group does not provide partners for single dancers. Instead, since more women than men typically get involved, women sometimes dance together as partners. Members are expected to attend weekly sessions regularly and to take part in dance demonstrations.

Lessons and practice sessions are free, and the organization is able to help individuals with costuming. Anyone interested in joining the group should email founders Don and Angela Feenerty at hda@feenerty.com.

To get a glimpse of what the HDA is all about, visit the celebration of West Virginia Day on Saturday, June 20. In addition to other activities planned for that event, the HDA will perform at 1 p.m. in the Courtroom at Independence Hall, located at 16th and Market streets in downtown Wheeling.

“Dance is an important tradition in almost every culture of the world,” said Wheeling National Heritage Area executive director Jeremy Morris. “The Heritage Dance Association does a wonderful job in preserving and interpreting traditional dance of Appalachia and America. They are an important partner of the Wheeling National Heritage Area.”

Featured dances on June 20 will include a variety of waltzes, quadrilles, reels and a traditional Grand March.