Will Warren Published

Ball Gowns, Curtsies And A Queen: Pineville, Kentucky Hosts Elaborate Dance Tradition With Polish Roots

More than two dozen young people stand on a floor covered in green carpet. Above them is a canopy of pink and white fabrics. All of the individuals are dressed formally in colorful, spring dresses or button up shirts and khaki shorts or pants.
Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival queen candidates and their escorts start the four-day event by practicing the Grand March in the Pineville High School Gym.
Will Warren/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the May 19, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

In eastern Kentucky, the town of Pineville has the oldest festival on record in the state. The Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival happens every Memorial Day weekend on the grounds of a scenic state park. 

It’s a four-day celebration that culminates with an exquisite tradition: the Grand March, a dance that has been taught to Kentucky college students in Pineville since the first festival in 1931. Its roots go even deeper, though, to 16th century Poland.

Folkways Reporter Will Warren was born and raised in Pineville and grew up taking part in the festival. In 2023, he went back home and reported on the Grand March as part of our Folkways Reporting Project. 

Editor’s Note: Will Warren is also an affiliate director of the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival.

First Step: A Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival Queen Is Crowned

The Grand March is the finale of the festival. The dance takes place in a high school gym that’s transformed into a pink and green wonderland.  

Earlier in the day, women representing Kentucky’s colleges (known as “queen candidates”) are introduced in a ceremony at the Laurel Cove, a natural amphitheater carved out of the side of a mountain in Pine Mountain State Park.  

A wide shot of several people standing on a small hill. They are dancing and wearing a mixture of pink and blue outfits.
The queen candidates and accompanying court take their positions in the Laurel Cove Amphitheater.

Photo Credit: Will Warren/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The ceremony begins with the introduction of the queen candidates. Each performs a curtsy before Kentucky’s governor, who attends the event every year to crown the new Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival queen.

A young woman wearing a white ball gown curtsies for the audience. She is outside, and surrounding her are green trees and green grass.
A queen candidate performs the tradition of the curtsy as the crowd looks on in anticipation.

Photo Credit: Will Warren/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In 2023, Gov. Andy Beshear crowned Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College student Paige Smith. 

“I was definitely shocked,” says Smith. “I didn’t think I was gonna win. Because after being there the whole week and seeing how seriously they take it, and how big of a tradition it is, and how involved everyone gets, the fact that I was picked as the representative was a huge deal. I was honored.”

Smith was one of 18 candidates from across the state. She says she was surprised by the amount of detail and preparation that goes into the ceremony. She received both a handmade flower crown and a one-of-a-kind pearl crown.  

“The amount of tradition and planning that goes into that – it’s ridiculous. I had no idea it was that grand of a thing.”  

Three people smile for the camera. One man and two women. They are all dressed formally. The women are in white ball gowns, while the man wears a white suit with a black bow tie. One woman is seated, and a crown is being placed on her head by the man.
Paige Smith, the 2023 Mountain Laurel Festival queen, gets crowned by Gov. Andy Beshear while the previous year’s queen looks on.

Photo Credit: Will Warren/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Dance’s Roots And Evolution

Following the ceremony, the focal point of the night is the Grand March. It’s a 93-year-old tradition of couples dancing.

Phil Jamison, an author, professional dance caller and expert on Appalachian dance, says the Grand March is a variation on the promenade. 

“The simplest form [of the dance] is promenading around the room,” Jamison says. “And then up the center, and they split off – one couple goes one way, one goes the other – and they come up the center four by four, and then four go one way, four go the other way, and come up the center eight by eight.”

A wide shot of individuals performing in a formal dance. All are dressed formally, the women in white gowns, and the men in white suits, black slacks, and black bow ties.
After splitting off, the candidates come back together four by four, then eight by eight.

Photo Credit: Will Warren/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A closer shot of individuals performing in a formal dance. All are dressed formally, the women in white gowns, and the men in white suits, black slacks, and black bow ties.

The couples form a snake around the room and end with a human tunnel of candidates and their escorts that the queen shuffles through.

A close up shot of young people doing a formal dance. The group have their hands raised in a bridge style. The women wear white gowns, and the men wear white suit jackets and black slacks and shoes.
The candidates and their escorts form a human tunnel that the queen shuffles through.

Photo Credit: Will Warren/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Grand March is a type of dance that’s descended from a formal ballroom dance called the polonaise, originating in Poland as far back as the 16th century. 

“All the couples will be promenading around the room showing off their fine clothes and dignified style,” Jamison says. “And that was the way that a lot of balls opened in Europe, and then in this country, too, well into the 1800s.”  

The dance itself is part of a living tradition that has evolved over time, inspiring other forms of dance along the way. One of those dances is the cakewalk. The cakewalk is a pre-Civil War dance form originally performed by enslaved people on plantations as a mockery of the Grand March.  

“The Black folks would parody that and mimic it back in their own dances and put on ridiculous airs and high-stepping stuff, which eventually evolved into the cakewalk.” 

Passing On Tradition

Decked out in white ball gowns, the candidates with their escorts make the Grand March look easy. For the festival organizers and candidates, however, perfecting the Grand March is a labor of love. 

Taylor Thomas from Pineville, grew up with the festival. She’s now on the committee that teaches the dance to the candidates and their escorts.  

“It sounds kind of hard,” Taylor says. “But once you’re actually standing there and doing it, it all comes together pretty seamlessly.”

Her mother, Prudie Thomas, was once a candidate herself and taught the Grand March for decades before passing the tradition on to Taylor. 

Part of what makes the dance work so well is that there’s a manual that has also been passed down for generations. This manual has detailed notes, diagrams and pictures of exactly how the dance should be performed. 

“Because you know that those diagrams and that handwriting is of someone who took such pride in the Mountain Laurel Festival,” Prudie says. And it’s also so detailed that we can’t mess it up today.”  

A Living Heritage

While steeped in history, the Grand March remains a living tradition. It’s part of why Pineville takes immense pride in hosting the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival every year.

“That little town sparkles that weekend,” Prudie Thomas says. “Everybody is out mowing grass and planting flowers, and the high school kids are painting the corners of the streets with the Mountain Laurel [Festival] logo.”

The festival weekend is a moment in time that draws people back to the town year after year. 

“People just want to come back and be a part of it,” Taylor Thomas says. “I don’t know of any other thing in the world that would compare to something like this. It’s like stepping back in time, and everybody needs to come experience it at least once.”

That experience includes one-of-a-kind art pieces and heirlooms, like the scepter and the cape train awarded to the queen, and the tradition of the curtsy, which might be unfamiliar outside of Pineville, but is well known to the community.  

“As soon as you can walk in Bell County you know how to do a curtsy, because of the Mountain Laurel Festival,” Taylor says.

The Grand March is the culmination of another successful year of the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival. For Paige Smith, the 2023 Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival queen, the dance is a fun time at the end of a long weekend of festivities.  

“Just because after that, everyone’s just kind of relieved. [The Grand March is] the last thing you really have to do. Everybody got to enjoy themselves after that. And the Grand March was fun. I had a good time. It’s a cool tradition.”

Young people in formal dress dance together. The women are in white gowns, while the men wear white suit jackets and black slacks and shoes.
The 2023 Mountain Laurel Festival queen leads the Grand March through the pink and green decorations.

Photo Credit: Will Warren/West Virginia Public Broadcasting


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.