Born and raised in the rolling hills of West Virginia, dancer Valerie Bailey’s Appalachian heritage laid the groundwork for meaningful stories and traditions woven throughout generations.
However, upon moving to New York City to pursue a career in dance, Valerie found herself confronting the misconceptions about her background head-on, and she realized her rich heritage was largely misunderstood to the outside world.
“I remember talking to an acquaintance who had just read ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ [by J.D. Vance], and they felt that because they read that book, they now understood me and where I came from,” Valerie said. “They made a comment to me, saying ‘I’m just so glad you got out of there, that you didn’t waste your time there. You were one of the lucky ones to have gotten out.’”
At that moment, Valerie felt a switch inside of her. She’d always experienced the stereotypes with West Virginia and Appalachia, but she never used her own stories and experiences to combat them.
“I knew the best way to share my story was through dance. One of my closest dance mentors, David Dorfman, told me the best way to grow myself was to go outside of my comfort zone, and my dad also mentioned that he was always fascinated with how a dance is created from conception to performance.”
Fueled by a desire to share the truth about her heritage, coupled with support from her family and dance mentor, Valerie embarked on a creative journey. In 2016, she created Tinkered Dance, a dance company designed to make art feel relatable. With small beginnings of late-night rehearsals, trial-and-error and laughter, Valerie developed an outlet for her creative ideas.
“I created Tinkered Dance initially as a social media hub to show the behind-the-scenes of creating, which included writings, conversations, and rehearsals – and it was a way to show people who may not come from an artistic background how work gets created, and it was also an outlet for bringing my stories to life.”
Through Tinkered Dance, Valerie said she poured her heart and soul into choreographing a dance concert that would speak volumes about her Appalachian roots – and soon, the “Porch Swing Melodies” concert was born. Through graceful movement, she aimed to bridge the gap between her two worlds and to reveal the depth and beauty of her upbringing.
“I took personal family stories, drawing from both my mother and father’s background, as well as my own personal experiences growing up in Appalachia. I call myself a movement storyteller, and I took these stories and turned them into movement as a way to organically and genuinely connect with audiences.”
The stage was a canvas where she painted the stories of her people – the Italian immigrants, her mother’s memories of farm life, the family traditions. Divided into three sections, Valerie first aimed to take her audiences back to her grandfather who emigrated from Italy at 12-years-old to work in the West Virginian coal mines.
She framed the choreography on one diagonal path to represent how he left his family behind, never to return, and to emphasize that he was traveling towards a place where he could build a better life for himself and his future family.
“That piece is a solo moving from one back corner representing Italy, and the front represents America and West Virginia. The movement draws back and forth between the two — representing the tug-and-pull that I’m sure he felt internally. At the very end, as he’s walking off into the front diagonal, his focus lingers just for a moment back to where he’s leaving as he steps confidently into the next.”
The concert then transitioned to telling the stories of her mother growing up on a 200-acre farm; the simple joys of catching fireflies and playing games, translated into delicate and powerful movement and partnerwork between the dancers.
“My mom wrote down these rich, almost tangible stories of memories she had, and I was able to print copies for reference as I created the piece,” Valerie said. “It was these descriptions of fireflies in the night sky and her enjoying becoming so skilled at a call-and-response with a whip-poor-will — and we would take those and start playing around with movement that we felt was the embodiment of those words.”
In 2018, Tinkered Dance premiered “Porch Swing Melodies” in New York City where a melting pot of individuals from New York, West Virginia and beyond joined together for a night of rich conversations and celebrations of Appalachian culture. Along with the dance concert, audience members listened to a writer from southern West Virginia and took part in a moderated discussion following the performance so that the dancers could dive into what the work was meant to convey.
“Following the discussion, we performed the dance again so that the audience could perhaps see it in a different way, connect with it differently and even see themselves in this work,even though some had never stepped foot in West Virginia. I felt like we were able to create a space where everyone came into it fully open and ready to share, learn and question in a unifying way.”
It wasn’t long before Valerie found a calling to return to her roots. She longed to share her creative work with the community that inspired it. When she moved back to West Virginia in 2019, she brought Tinkered Dance with her. She soon found herself recreating “Porch Swing Melodies” with an even stronger connection to her heritage. This time was not just a performance, but a homecoming.
“I was excited to approach it in a different setting because the New York audience was likely much more familiar with viewing dance concerts but less familiar with Appalachian heritage, and the West Virginia audience would be the opposite. A core part of Tinkered Dance is pairing the familiar with the unfamiliar, and I got to achieve that goal in both performances — just in different ways.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Valerie and her team of West Virginia-based artists to shift to a virtual livestream format. While they cut the performance down to a “sneak peak” so as not to take away from the future in-person experience that would eventually come, Valerie knew she wanted to share something in a time when art was needed the most.
“There were multiple iterations of rethinking how we could bring the performance to people,” she said. Everything was shutting down, but in my mind, art was what helped us stay connected to ourselves and each other, so I very much wanted to keep sharing during that time.”
In 2023, Valerie felt compelled to revive the piece once more for an in-person setting, one in which other Appalachian artists gathered to share what Appalachia meant to them. Additionally, just a year after the 2020 virtual performance, Valerie gave birth to her daughter, Lottie, giving “Porch Swing Melodies” an entirely new meaning.
“Because the piece is built upon family stories, I now see the continuation of my story and how these stories will be passed down to her. She will go on to create her own stories, but she will always have this piece of history, just as I had my family’s history.”
She hosted “Porch Swing Melodies” in April 2023 at the West Virginia University Art Museum, where the company performed the piece, writer Natalie Sypolt shared poetry, quilter Elizabeth Slavensky exhibited a quilt that portrayed a mountain landscape, and musicians C.E. Jones and Jake Kerch performed bluegrass music. Valerie said that presenting to her community made the event a profoundly celebratory experience.
“It was always a goal of mine to bring “Porch Swing Melodies” back home because I knew I could reach people who shared similar experiences. It was so fulfilling to finish the performance and immediately have individuals share how they resonated with the dance and began to tell their own stories. It was this humming of individuals who were so excited to see themselves through dance.”
Since its conception in 2016, Tinkered Dance has evolved into an adult-based performance company, allowing dancers who are also parents, full-time employees or graduate students to continue giving back to an art form that grounds them.
“I love working with adults so that I can provide that outlet and opportunity to perform and be creative, so they can still enjoy that artistic side of themselves. When I brought ‘Porch Swing Melodies’ back to West Virginia as a working, dancing mom, I felt so embraced and able to share that moms can dance ,and that was so cool to give other working moms and adults the chance to do the same,”she said.
Tinkered Dance focuses heavily on community and breaking down barriers that some may feel between themselves and the dance world. One example of this is a recurring social media experiment in which Valerie provides polls where the audience chooses the location, movement style and prompt for an improvisation piece called “Improvs Designed by You,” allowing the audience to ultimately create the type of piece they’d like to see.
“I want individuals who may not feel like they have a lot of experience in the art to still take part, and this social media method allows people to virtually collaborate while feeling comfortable.”
Valerie said that while she does not know what the future holds for the company’s artistic endeavors, she said that who she is and where she comes from will always inspire the work she creates. Click here to explore more of Tinkered Dance’s latest work.