Robert Dotson, a 1994 North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient, was born in the early 1920s in the Sugar Grove community of Watauga County, just west of Boone. He, and his wife Myrtle, practiced and promoted the traditional flatfoot dancing of the region. “We had an old-time Victrola that you cranked up and put a record on that, and I danced to that,” said Robert. “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.”
Robert and Myrtle grew up living “no more than a mile or two apart from one another,” attending the same community square dances and being influenced by the same dance styles. Hosts for these square dances typically cleared the furniture out of a room at home to make space for the dancers. Dancing in such close quarters to the music of an unamplified string band encouraged the development of the relatively quiet flatfoot style. Even in their later years, the Dotsons avoided wearing the metal shoe taps popularized by clogging teams.
Robert and Myrtle Dotson made a conscious and concerted effort to keep alive the traditional flatfoot dance styles of western North Carolina. While many of their neighbors performed the latest clogging variations, the Dotsons deliberately wove the old-time flatfoot and buckdance steps into their dancing. “You don’t learn to flatfoot overnight, not a good flatfooter,” Robert said. “You go to several dances and you’ll say ‘Well, I’m getting it now,’ but it takes awhile. Sometimes I get carried away and I get my feet too high.” Robert described flatfooting as smooth and light with both feet kept close to the floor. Buckdancing, he said, is rougher and heavier, with higher steps.
Robert’s grandfather, Ab Dotson, played the banjo and could buck dance and flatfoot. Robert’s parents, Don Dotson and Bina Jane Hicks Dotson, were both well known as dancers in the community. In turn, the Dotsons’ children and grandchildren have learned from them. Myrtle remembered dancing a lot at home when she was a child, often to recorded music played on an old crank-up Victrola.
In the 1970s, the Green Grass Cloggers, a touring company that featured old-time dancing, learned Robert’s “walking” step and incorporated it into their performances. The Dotsons were Master Artists in residence during Dance Week at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia. The Dotsons built a solid local reputation for their dancing. They won first prize at nearly every dance contest in their section of the Blue Ridge. As part of their commitment to traditional dance, they drove once a week to Elizabethton, Tennessee, to lead square dances and to demonstrate their flatfoot styles.
In his final years, Robert continued to dance at home and at limited public events. “”I just love it,” Robert said. “When I hear the music, I just get the rhythm. I’ve got to get up.”
Robert Dotson passed away on January 13, 2015 at the age of ninety-one.