Carrollton’s Marilyn Hill receives state award for decades of square dancing

Published 7:45 pm Monday, April 8, 2024

The rules of a circa-1876 square dance are fairly straightforward.

Music is to include a fiddle, a snare drum known as a tabor and a “hurdy-gurdy,” a stringed instrument that uses a hand crank in place of a bow.

No chorus is to be sung until the dancing is over, and no whispering is allowed. 

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“If anyone should be found to make insidious remarks about anyone’s dancing, he or she shall be put out of the room,” states an embroidered plaque that hangs in Marilyn Hill’s Carrollton home.

Hill has been practicing the traditional folk dance for 40 years. She was honored in February with the 2024 Monticello Award, a statewide special recognition given by the Virginia State Callers Association to individuals who have spent decades keeping square dancing alive.

Hill is a member of the Grand Squares of Smithfield, a group that holds dances weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. at Hope Presbyterian Church.

Smithfield resident Jim Kline, who founded the Grand Squares two years ago, serves as the group’s “caller.” The role entails directing sequences of steps, sometimes in rapid succession, such as “allemande,” when participants swing from partner to partner.

The group began when Kline and his wife, Kathie, taught a 12-week square dancing session at the 1750 Courthouse on Main Street in 2022 as a fundraiser for the colonial-era building’s upkeep, but quickly outgrew the space.

Kline, whose group was previously featured in The Smithfield Times in 2022, described American square dancing as having evolved from this area of Virginia from different dance steps settlers brought over from different countries. It’s become recognized as the United States’ national folk dance, he said.

Hill said the weekly dances at Hope Presbyterian draw at least 16 people – just enough to form two square formations, each with four couples. Sometimes there’s upwards of 70 participants.

Most range in age from 20 to 50, Hill said. There’s also a few teenagers and a few senior citizens. Participants don’t necessarily have to arrive with a partner, she said.

Hill has participated with several square dance groups over the decades. In the 1990s she was with a group that called themselves “The Hill Billies,” who would dress in costume as such during a competition between the group’s Virginia and North Carolina members at a festival in Nags Head. Another group she participated in from 1995 to 2004 called themselves “Gypsy Kids.”

“Every club has a banner,” Hill said. She still has the Gypsy Kids banner hanging in a room that houses the costumes and dresses she’s accumulated over the years.

Once there were specialty stores dedicated to square dancing apparel. Now, most enthusiasts order their costumes online, and a few, including Hill, make their own.

Hill said she got involved with square dancing when her son, Jeff, who now teaches clogging, met a woman who square danced and invited Hill and her late husband along. When they’re not dancing, Marilyn and Jeff can be found running Country Kitchens, their family cabinet business on the aptly named Grand Square Lane private road in Carrollton.

Hill recently traveled to Washington, D.C., for 1920s-themed dance that drew more than 700 people She’s also been known to dance in much more enclosed spaces, including bathrooms, elevators and even the top of the Cape Henry Lighthouse at Fort Story in Virginia Beach.

“It was a little crowded,” she acknowledged, but said she and her fellow square dance enthusiasts are willing to dance just about anywhere “for the fun of it.”