by Leanne E. Smith
Leanne E. Smith is editor of the North Carolina Folklore Journal. She has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Her writing has appeared in Flannery O’Connor Review, North Carolina Folklore Journal, Encyclopedia Virginia, and NC Food. Several of her photographs have served as cover images for Tar River Poetry. Leanne teaches writing at East Carolina University, is active in the Folk Arts Society of Greenville (NC) and the Green Grass Cloggers, and plays fiddle for square dances.
In the realm of folk arts, history often grows as narrative details pass forward through generations like a game of telephone. For the American team dance form called clogging, eighty years is a fairly short history compared to some folk traditions. The roots of this dance style—in which groups wear costumes and execute figures and steps that are amplified by the dancers’ tap shoes—are traceable to a particular time and place widely accepted as the genesis: the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (MDFF) in Asheville, North Carolina, in the early 1930s. In her book Appalachian Dance: Creativity and Continuity in Six Communities, Susan Eike Spalding’s observations from the communities in which she conducted her research—particularly the “dynamic nature of tradition as it continuously evolves, and the individual and group creativity involved in shaping that evolution”—also apply more widely to the development of clogging. [Spalding, p. 7] Older forms of social group dance and casual solo percussive dance merged in the MDFF’s performance-competition environment, and ever since then, the performers’ desire to appeal to an audience has been the strongest influence in the emergence and evolution of clogging from an improvised pastime to a prescribed system of choreography and competition.
Clogging stems from the American tendency to blend, and it persists amid enduring conundrums about tradition and stylistic ideals in relation to figures, footwork, and music. The MDFF’s first forty years, and by default, team clogging’s first forty years, saw a generational turnover in dancers as the early ones retired and newer ones took up the dance, which over time led to stylistic changes and divides. Some early-style teams would not use unison footwork, and their freestyle percussion came to be called “traditional” in competition categories. Eventually, some groups pursued unison footwork, which became termed “precision” clogging. Both the more freestyle traditional dance and the precision style involve routines consisting of partner-based circular, square, and line figures. Those first forty years also coincided with technological advances that allowed for easier travel, enabling groups to share the dance form beyond local venues, the electronic amplification of instruments that prompted the use of taps on shoes to make the steps more audible, and socioeconomic changes that prompted multiple waves of public gravitation towards real or imagined pasts, which helped fuel interest in the clogging dance form that many people thought of as traditional.
Then in the 1970s, halfway through team clogging’s first eighty years, there came a surge of interest from young counterculture college students from Eastern North Carolina that coincided with ongoing innovations and trends towards standardization in competition clogging, and that further contributed to the spider-web fracturing of style in the clogging community that continues today in both competition and performance contexts. Historically, costuming for team clogging was rurally-inspired, and the music was live old-time or bluegrass. Increasingly, however, choreography for groups doing what is known as “contemporary” clogging has become less partner-based and less figure-oriented. Some contemporary groups never dance to live music, just recordings of country and even hip-hop music, and spandex and sequins are as prevalent as western-style shirts and billowing crinolines used to be. The forty-year co-evolution of separate strains has resulted in disparate, though all performance-driven, percussive dance forms that now share the term “clogging.”
The Parents: Group Figure Dancing & Solo Percussive Dance
The parents of team clogging—group figure dancing and solo percussive dance—have long histories in the cultures that mingled in Colonial America. Square dance historian Dorothy Shaw mapped the genealogy of American square dancing from the fifteenth century to the twentieth, showing modern square dancing’s descent from British and European continental solo and group dances, country dances and court dances, dances in rounds and squares, and quadrilles with offshoots in New England and the Southern United States. [Casey, p. 2] The lineage in Shaw’s chart is a New World continuation of Old World dance documentation. Historically, dance documenters recorded more about court dances rather than folk forms. Today, centuries later, dancers can interpret period notation to recreate historical dances such as Italian and French court dances from the 1500s and the English dances published by John Playford’s press in the various editions of The Dancing Master. In contrast to these dances of the European upper- and middle-classes, the percussive dance forms that came to and evolved in the United States experienced what Mike Seeger described as a “long period of development devoid of sufficient documentation.” [Seeger, p. 12]
In Talking Feet, Seeger’s landmark collection project of the 1980s, his observations about dance influences on Southern clogging are still accepted as the general history:
There has been virtually no visual documentation, and very little written description, of traditional Southern solo stepdancing, so that any “history” of its origins and development will have to consist largely of continuing, interesting conjecture. I hesitate to add to the existing folklore about the origins of solo Southern foot dance but will make a few basic observations. I believe that to get some idea of the process of Southern vernacular dance development, we must consider it in parallel with its companion music and the dominant cultures that have mixed to produce it: British, African, and to some extent, Native American. [Ibid., p.10]
Nearly three decades after Seeger’s work, Spalding’s book adds significant context to the scholarship of regional figure dancing and percussive dancing. She describes how “the region was never as homogenous, as poor, or as isolated as was once believed” and that theatrical and social dance was available in the region from the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century when “a wide assortment of dance forms and styles were introduced to the region by various means: through community social dancing, via the stage, in educational settings, and with the interchange of the growing number of cultural groups in the region.” As industries developed, immigrants of at least twenty nationalities who brought their dance traditions with them lived in the region along with African American southerners. Spalding even points out that the “basic clogging step has a rhythm strikingly similar to polka.” [Spalding, pp. 11-24, passim]
The half-dozen decades preceding the start of the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival where team clogging began saw the development of regional dance from innate pastime to intentional performance. One of the early stages in this process was how some travel writers’ portrayals of Appalachian mountain areas influenced public perceptions of the region. Ronald Lewis argues that the characterization of Appalachia as “backward” in local color works and travel articles has “persisted in part because so little formal written history about preindustrial Appalachia exists to provide a measure of empirical authenticity. . . .[h]istorically, writers have assumed that the conditions they found in the twentieth century were held over from earlier frontier days.” [Lewis, p. 22] Spalding observes that, of the characterizations of Appalachians as “either backward hillbillies or noble carriers of pure Anglo-Saxon culture . . . . neither image was accurate, but both helped to draw a group of people to the mountains who would also contribute to the evolution of the regional culture: settlement school workers”—such as at Pine Mountain Settlement School (PMSS) in eastern Kentucky where Cecil Sharp recorded observations of dance (Kentucky set running) in 1917. [Spalding, p. 16]
Spalding further argues that, in contrast to the American folklorists’ tendencies to “discover unique American expression,” Sharp’s “beliefs were formed in the context of European folklore theory, in which customs existing in the present were assumed to be survivals from ancient times.” He had a forum for his romanticized analysis in his published works, and the directors at PMSS liked the idea of “being home to an ancient dance.” Even though he had been impressed by the local set running, Sharp taught English country dances at PMSS. Spalding notes that, as a result of the new historical narrative, “English folk dance was used to connect with a theoretical ethnic heritage and to offset and mediate with contemporary dance and music trends.” The widely distributed references to dance in the United States—particularly Sharp’s observations from his Appalachian travels and encounters with local dance at PMSS, and the marketing of festivals like the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival—helped to associate figure dancing and percussive dancing with mountain people and culture in the minds of the public. [Ibid., pp. 139, 138, 132]
Yet, prior to the increased separation of rural and urban societies and the transition in some areas from agricultural to industrial economies, people from similar cultural and economic backgrounds as those present in Appalachia could have shared some similarities in dance and music. And they did. Music associated with Appalachia, and the dance that the music inspired, did exist outside of the mountains, as the popular culture particularly of rural areas. It is a fluke of history that traditions continued in the mountains long enough for documenters to record them—and that timing has resulted in a popular misperception of old-time music, figure dancing, and solo percussive dancing as mountain dance. It was mountain dance, yes, because it was there in the mountains—but communities beyond the mountains had figure dance and percussive dance traditions similar to the forms from which clogging grew.
In fact, several communities in North Carolina’s Piedmont region in the center section of the state, the Coastal Plain in the eastern region, and on the coast were home to figure dances and people who did percussive dancing. [Carlin p. 73, Sutton, Baker, Howard, Howard “Dance.”] Even just the names of dance figures related to oysters and clams invoke awareness of lifestyles and locations closer to the ocean than the mountains. Bob Dalsemer, former president of the Country Dance and Song Society and retired coordinator for music and dance at the John C. Campbell Folk School, observed dancing on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, in 1992 and concluded “…we can no longer characterize the ‘big circle’ style of square dancing as Appalachian when it has proven to have existed on this remote seacoast island.” [Dalsemer “Old Time,” p.11] Yet, such figures became the foundation to which percussive footwork was added for team clogging in the mountains. Western North Carolina dance caller Glenn Bannerman includes “duck for the oyster” in his list of common small circle figures into which sets of two couples break within the traditional big circle dances. [Bannerman] Combinations of big circle and small circle figures for sets of six or eight couples are required in today’s “Traditional Appalachian” precision and traditional competition categories. [2014-2015 NCHC]
In the mountains, dance had long been a regional pastime, and Spalding notes that “[l]ocal audiences copied dance moves they observed on stage, taking them into local traditions, and the traveling dancers likely incorporated some local dance elements into their acts.” She adds that “[b]y the late nineteenth century, the form known today as old time square dancing, in a circle with sets of two couples forming the squares, was taking shape in the southern mountains and in the southeastern United States,” influenced by immigrants’ dances and popular dances including the Charleston, and that “[s]quare dancing and footwork dancing became a primary form of recreation for rural Appalachian people in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.” [Spalding, pp. 21, 20] While group figure dancing and solo percussive dancing existed in communities outside of the mountains, team percussive dance for performance does have mountain beginnings resulting from several decades of dance development.
Floating Dancer: The Story of Robert Dotson, the Walking Step, and the Green Grass Cloggers
In its exploration of percussive dance traditions, Seeger’s film Talking Feet includes dancers from central North Carolina in addition to the mountain dancers—though it spends perhaps more time than necessary in attempting to distinguish between flatfooting, buck dancing, and clogging when the usage of these terms changes by region or by individual dancer. Any of these terms can refer to solo percussive dance, but some generally accepted distinctions are that in flatfooting, feet are close to the ground, while in buck dancing or clogging, feet and leg movements may be higher. Spalding’s solution to this question of terminology is to refer to all forms of it as “footwork dancing,” though she does address some local terminology such as flatfooting, clogging, hoedowning, buck dancing, etc. [Ibid., p. 1] While the simplification of these terms is efficient for her discussion, some dancers avoid dwelling on distinctions that vary so much from person to person. One dancer who was casual about the terms was Robert Dotson of Sugar Grove, North Carolina, the source of the foundational Walking Step—a four-sound step that can be used to improvise flatfooting rhythms along with melody lines of tunes. To him, the local style was so prevalent that he sometimes saw no need to distinguish it from forms that were not common in his home area. He would describe his low-to-the-floor footwork as flatfooting, but other times he would simplify the label and say, “I just call it dancing.” [Dotson]
Of the variety of terms used for solo percussive dance, clogging was the word adopted for team dancing at the MDFF, but not for any particular historical or stylistic reason at the time. Yet, some dancers today claim old roots for the word “clogging,” a claim reminiscent of how figure dancing became part of the historical romanticized perceptions of Appalachia. A theme repeated in several online sources is that “clog” is Gaelic for “time,” but searches of contemporary online dictionaries based in Ireland and Scotland do not make such a linear connection: a search for “clog” in a Gaelic-world-maintained database of terms returns results for a mix of nouns and verbs related to a bell, sounding a bell, wooden shoes, and the hour-hand on a clock face. [Am Faclair Beag] Claiming that clogging is a form dating so far back is a linguistic reach for a singular ethnic heritage that is not directly connected to the style because of the cultural interchange that happened in Appalachia prior to team clogging’s beginning.
Other folk history about how “clogging” came to be the name for the team dance combining footwork and figures claims the Queen of England as a source for the term when she saw the Soco Gap Dancers at the White House in 1939 and supposedly commented that the percussive dancing was reminiscent of English clog-dance. But that was not the debut of the term, though the story was noted even in a fairly recent reference work about country music. [Hall, p. 92] Searches of nineteenth century urban newspapers reveal several advertisements, spanning at least sixty years in the 1800s, that note “clog dance” or “comic clog dance” in shows by community groups or minstrel troupes. [“Multiple” and “News”] Several ads pre-date the migration of another performance form: wooden-soled-shoe Lancashire clog dancing, from England in the second half of the century. [Dalsemer “Clogging.”] Even a 1933 New York Times headline for an Associated Press story from Asheville about the then-new MDFF also announced a “clog contest,” and the term “clogging” appears in the story. [“Old.”] Among dancers interviewed for Talking Feet, however, many of the geographically varied sources estimated that they had not heard the term “clogging” until 1970 or later. [Seeger, p. 10] So, tracing the use of the word itself does not necessarily form a parallel path with the development of the team dance form.
Flatfooting – Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Bill McElreath, and Freda Lunsford
As jazz, blues, and early country music became more widely accessible through recordings and radio in the 1920s, nationwide resistance to change pushed some people toward folk music and dancing as “a way to combat a variety of social ills from mechanization to unsavory music.” [Spalding, pp. 146-7] Mid-decade, even automotive magnate Henry Ford promoted dances popular in the late nineteenth century. Though Ford was partly motivated by racial and ethnic biases, his well-funded dissemination of folk dance manuals and records for square dances, quadrilles, etc., did accomplish the positive goal of encouraging more people to dance. Sharp’s and Ford’s projects would have been known in Asheville, North Carolina, which was reeling from its own boom-bust economic cycles. Both Sharp and Ford had visited the city, and the Pine Mountain Settlement School’s network of contacts extended into the area as well. Amid exponential local real estate development, population growth, and then a decline in real estate values, Asheville, North Carolina-based folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford was “deeply troubled by what he saw happening to his town,” and his biographer Loyal Jones notes that “[t]here are many clues about his feeling that the traditional culture must be preserved as people entered a new era of progress.” [Jones, p. 42] Born in 1882, the same year as Olive Dame Campbell, Lunsford was young enough that Appalachian-themed travel and local-color literature had been in circulation for his entire lifetime. While working in Washington, D.C., he met Maud Karpeles, who had assisted Cecil Sharp, and she connected him to scholarly folklorists—which Lunsford’s biographer Loyal Jones speculates may have been the first ones he had met since his collection work thus far had been on his own. [Ibid., p. 23]
The common perception of Appalachian culture was so strong that in 1928 the Asheville Chamber of Commerce planned a Rhododendron Festival to try to boost tourism. The members thought that they could essentially act a role as quaint rustics in order to capitalize on tourists who expected to see the world portrayed in what they had read. Jones writes that the Chamber “knew that the tourists would have read the local color novels and descriptive books that presented the Southern mountaineers as a quaint people, somehow set apart from their fellow Americans, engaged in tasks and pastimes that conjured pictures of antiquity. Those in the Chamber instinctively knew that the folk culture could be sold” and recruited Lunsford to “put together a song and dance show.” [Ibid., pp. 42-3]
Believing that his home region had been incorrectly characterized as backward, Lunsford viewed the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival as an opportunity to “perpetuate the real, true cultural worth of the mountain people” as well as to “please the patrons,” whether or not it is possible to accomplish both goals simultaneously. [Ibid., pp. 53, 56] In one of the earliest national news clips in 1928, the marketing language read, “…downtown 100 mountaineers will put on an old-fashioned square dance festival.” [Rhodendron] In local news, it was described as a “throwback from the modern jazz mad world,” and $100 in prizes was allocated for the dancing club winners. [Jones, p. 43] That amount is comparable to nearly $1,400 in 2015, so the prospect of winning must have been a draw for the competitors. However, Lunsford preferred performance to participation as a means to portray cultural art forms to a tourist public, so when the MDFF soon thereafter became a separate event, and the dancing continued to be for performance and competition, the numbers of performers increased without having to guarantee all of them money. [Ibid., pp. 53, 56, 59]
Over the years, the MDFF used recreational dancing as a way of re-creating a perceived old culture and community. Even if groups’ expenses were eventually sponsored by companies, part of Lunsford’s plan to maintain the cultural image of community that he wanted to promote at MDFF was that sponsored groups still had to be named after a place. [Ibid., p. 58] While local dance forms were part of the festival from the beginning—which was different from the conscious inclusion of English folk dance as at PMSS—the sense of representing the past was still part of the marketing. Advertising for the MDFF in 1934 claimed that the festival’s programming represented long-rooted traditions: “[d]ances presented by teams are traditional and indigenous to the mountains of this section. Thousands of visitors attend this fête each year to see folk dances that have been handed down from generation to generation.” [“Gay Week in Southern Centres.”] Considering the flux of influences in the area and the marketing desires of promoters at the time, perhaps it is more accurate to say that, rather than being “handed down” in a static form, perhaps the dances were developed there “from generation to generation,” which is also, in a way, indigenous.
1930s-1960s: Emergence & Establishment of Team Clogging
There was no highly advertised debut of a “new” dance form called clogging at the MDFF. In the performances and competitions, the incorporation of footwork with square dance figures was gradual—and eventually, unpreventable. Jones notes that “Lunsford maintained that his purpose was never to standardize folk expression,” yet his “wish to entertain, no doubt, made Lunsford vulnerable to innovations away from traditional styles.” [Jones 58-59, 58] The atmosphere of competition was a significant additional layer of influence: winners soon became the models to emulate. When one of the innovations Lunsford allowed was the regular combination of percussive steps with figure dancing, it met mixed acceptance from scholars, the public, and even his MDFF collaborators. [Ibid., p.127] However, the dancers and the audience liked it, so Lunsford was caught between two of his primary motives: preservation and performance. It is important to keep in mind, though, that by presenting dance as a performance from the very beginning, the context Lunsford had provided inherently separated the dancing from the old-time house dances and allowed for change.
Despite any questions about authenticity, groups kept perpetuating the percussive square dancing—and since thousands of people saw teams dance at the MDFF, audience members were undoubtedly inspired to join teams or start new ones. According to Jones, increasingly, “[b]ecause of the young dancers’ growing enthusiasm for the clog, many of the more staid institutions that promoted folk dancing had a great deal of trouble getting them to stick to the running step.” [Ibid., p.128] The constant use of the clog step while dancing square dance figures was shocking to former PMSS director, Marguerite Bidstrup, who had seen set running (which used only a running step) at Pine Mountain before Sharp’s visit. [Ibid., p. 132] However, to keep young people involved—a crucial means of passing on tradition—dance teachers in the western North Carolina region and organizers at the MDFF could not completely ban the form.
Then another debate arose: the question of adding taps to the shoes to make the new intricate footwork more audible. Jones notes that “[m]any who were willing to accept the clog step in dance sets were not ready to accept steel toe and heel taps…Few, aside from the dancers, supported toe and heel taps.” [Ibid., p.128] The advent of new technology amplified instruments so that they could be heard over the click-clacking of tap shoes, but then dancers wanted their feet to be even louder, which was especially cacophonous in the early years of freestyle clogging when dancers on the teams did not do the same steps at the same time during the figures. For a time, the festival organizers banned both taps and electrified instruments, but then for some years, “the ban on amplified instruments was enforced; the one on toe and heel taps was not.” [Ibid., p. 58] Flat taps—pieces of metal attached to the heels and toes of shoes—were used first, but they amplified just the sounds that dancers could make directly by striking their heel and toe taps on the floor.
Smooth Dance – Bailey Mountain Cloggers
Eventually, the standard in competition clogging became jingle taps, which have second metal plates attached to the first ones on the heels and toes. The second taps are loose enough to allow them to clank against the flat tap attached to the shoe. Jingle taps make the direct foot-to-floor sounds louder; they also allow dancers to make additional indirect sounds just by shaking their feet. The public’s acceptance of taps eventually aligned with distinctions that Appalachian State University professor and North Carolina Folklore Society president Dr. W. Amos “Doc” Abrams described in a letter written circa 1974 to Lunsford’s biographer Loyal Jones. Abrams reflected that he could not accept them in the “smooth dancing where the appeal comes from the swaying of the bodies and the muted shuffles of the feet and the coordinated gestures on the dancers,” and he “would not wish cloggers to use steel plates while dancing in my living room or on my brick patio”—“but on an open platform above the crowd…these steel plates attract, stir the blood, and add to the effectiveness (yes, the spectacularity) of the entertainment. I have seen their power on the spectators on many occasions.” [Ibid., p. 128]
Southern Appalachian Traditional Clogging – Carolina Heartland Cloggers
In addition to taps becoming the norm, costumes for clogging also developed standardized styles. In the MDFF’s early years, in keeping with Lunsford’s catchphrase of “[j]ust wear the best you’ve got and be proud,” teams wore non-matching clothes to invoke old-time house dance attire. But sponsorship from individual businessmen as well as companies and communities increased budgets for teams to create costumes designed for the stage. Teams could afford to have matching clothes with fuller skirts, fancier patterns, bigger crinolines, and different costume styles for different styles of dance—long skirts for smooth dance, short skirts for clogging, etc. [Ibid., p. 58]
The 1950s brought an increased desire for conformity in American culture, and whether the larger societal trend had any influence on clogging, uniformity applied not just to costumes but eventually to choreography as well. The North Carolina Cloggers, according to dancer James Kesterson, were the first ones to include lines facing forward from the stage as the last formation of a routine—an obviously audience-conscious choice—and they took their style on a national circuit of county fairs and even the televised Grand Old Opry. [Jamison 25] Kesterson’s teenage peers had been born after the founding of the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, so they were part of a generation that favored percussive dance. In 1958, the MDFF added a category for clogging that was apart from square dancing. [Dalsemer “Clogging.”] The division was comparable to fiddlers’ conventions that introduced bluegrass categories to save a place for old-time musicians in competitions.
Traditional Precision Clogging—Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s House
Kesterson recruited students to form the Hendersonville Cloggers in 1959, which Lunsford renamed the Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers in 1962 and included footage of in a documentary, Music Makers of the Blue Ridge, in 1964. Also in the mid-sixties, they danced at two Newport Folk Festivals, and some of the dancers simultaneously performed as part of productions of Annie Get Your Gun in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. For that show, the New York choreographer guided the group to include audience-facing lines during their routines rather than just at the end. The audience liked it, so the team kept the lines in their routines as they continued to demonstrate clogging across the country. Non-traditional figures and coordinated, rather than spontaneous, steps became so popular that in 1970, the MDFF felt it necessary to impose a new ban: no precision clogging in competition. [Jamison, p. 25] Factors affecting the trend toward precision clogging—that is, dancing new and fancier footwork in unison—were rooted in the same elements that had sparked the combination of footwork and figures: appealing to an audience and allowing changes that kept youths involved. But as with the initial incorporation of footwork with figures, once dancers and audiences had been exposed to the audience-facing lines, new styles could not be un-created, and competition bans could not de-popularize dance forms that dancers enjoyed.
1970s-1990s: Stylistic Divergence
The 1970s brought changes in traditional dance from an influx of counterculture youth interest in North Carolina’s music festivals and a reaction from the establishment to perceived threats to tradition. Approximately 125 miles slightly northeast of Asheville, near Union Grove, North Carolina, the World’s Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Convention began in 1924, a few years before Lunsford’s MDFF. It grew for forty years as a music contest with some dance exhibitions, and by the late sixties and early seventies, it had exploded into counterculture mania. The festival founder’s sons’ competing visions for the event’s atmosphere—enormous and boisterous versus small and quiet—led to the creation of two festivals near Union Grove. One of the smaller off-shoot events was the annual Autumn Square-Up dance competition. [Smith]
Traditional Precision Clogging—Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers at the Newport Folk Festival
In language reminiscent of the earliest descriptions of the dancing at the MDFF nearly fifty years before, Square-Up host Harper Van Hoy described clogging in 1976 as “part of our cultural heritage handed down from our frontier founding fathers,” [Keen] a statement which is somewhat true, but not simply so. The competition categories at the Square-Up were similar to what had developed in Asheville: smooth dance, a style which had become increasingly rigid in an effort to contrast with the bouncing of clogging; traditional clogging, which included improvised and spontaneous footwork; and precision clogging, with dancers doing the same rehearsed footwork at the same time. [Smith]
The emergence of the Green Grass Cloggers (GGC) based in Greenville in Eastern North Carolina starting in 1971, and other teams that soon modeled themselves after them, again highlighted questions about tradition. The Green Grass style was structurally different than the Southern Appalachian competition styles: for shorter, high-energy routines, the GGCs adapted steps they had learned from solo flatfooters, created their own steps, and combined them with western square figures because that was what they had learned in the Eastern North Carolina college town where they were based. These counterculture college students wore their hair long and kicked their legs as high as they could. They were unconcerned about stylistic limitations and uninterested in conforming by wearing identical costumes. New young dancers were attracted to their high energy, and, just as clogging had threatened smooth dancing teams’ popularity among young people, the spread of the GGC style inspired another wave of concern about the few-decades-old competition forms that many practitioners viewed as already-traditional styles. [Smith]
Green Grass Cloggers (1978)
To advocates of the established clogging styles of the 1970s, the GGC style was shocking. But did the clogging establishment have grounds for saying the GGC style was not “folk enough”? Was what they did significantly more historical than the GGC style? To answer both questions: not particularly. In both competition and performance, team clogging in any style was already presented apart from the traditional old-time house dance social contexts from which it was descended. Yet, as a form born for an audience, the stage was clogging’s own relative historical context. So, it is reasonable to argue that decisions that dancers make that are intended for personal expression or to please audiences are all part of clogging’s continuing stage tradition.
Green Grass Cloggers (2011, 40th Anniversary Retrospective)
In the 1970s, the formal workshops that focused on competition clogging and the informal GGC-style workshops at festivals contributed to the dissemination of the different styles. The North Carolina mountain resort Fontana Village had become a center for national square dancing conventions in the 1960s, which frequently featured Bill Nichols, an East Tennessee native whose family demonstrated clogging for the events. [Burns] Such competition-style clogging workshops included participants from various parts of the country because of the national exposure that clogging had received in television coverage as well as through the increased traveling of teams. Leaders and students found they did not have a common vocabulary for what they were doing, which made sharing it difficult. [Perry]
Thus in 1974, clogging leader Bill Nichols and proponents of the competition styles met to discuss ways to improve communication among clogging organizations and work towards developing a shared vocabulary that would help with agreeing upon and transmitting a basic hoedown step as well as with teaching other steps. Some of the square dancers who saw Nichols’ clogging were inspired to start the team named Click-n-Cloggers in Durham, North Carolina, and they, along with cloggers from North Georgia, pushed for the creation of the National Clogging and Hoedown Council (NCHC), which codified standards for competitions. [Perry] Thus, as the MDFF had formerly divided clogging and smooth dance, the NCHC created more competition categories to reserve places for the traditional and precision divisions that were no longer new forms.
The codification helped to further distinguish competition-oriented clogging versus performance-oriented clogging: a distinction that attracted different groups of dancers. With the increasing intricacy of the clogging footwork in competitions and the intense preparation needed for competition showcases, teams dancing in that competition style did not perform at folk festivals as often or as widely as they had done prior to the codification movement of the 1970s. The new scoring system—with points allocated for particular Southern Appalachian steps and figures and details for costuming—meant that groups like the Green Grass Cloggers and their offshoots would not be likely to win competitions again. [Sutton] But the GGCs had grown to prefer their appearances at festivals and clogging workshops over competition, and, starting in the late 1970s, part of the group forged a career in festival performance. Among festivalgoers, some of whom would not have seen clogging in competition settings, the performance style of the GGCs became their concept of clogging. Those festival performances often inspired dancers around the country and some overseas to form local groups for recreation and performance, which further advanced the spread of clogging descended from the GGC style. [Smith]
Eventually, competition-track dancers and performance dancers were further separated in style and community. Though both styles had geographically widespread networks of followers, competition groups practiced with hopes of winning titles from the sanctioning organizations like the NCHC. Audrey Perry—who began clogging in 1972 with the Click-n-Cloggers, later served as NCHC treasurer, and has been judging competitions since the later 1970s—remembers that for several years, teams would accrue points through a year, and then the teams with the most points at the end of the year would be winners. However, there were so many competitors that more events had to be organized so teams could qualify for dance-offs, which still ran for long stretches of weekend hours. Competitions could be chaotic, having multiple stages with different judges and sometimes even different competitors dancing to different music within earshot of each other. [Perry]
Concurrent with the expansion of competitions sanctioned by the NCHC in the 1970s, disco and country-pop music also became popular, and dancers started writing clogging cue sheets for individuals and groups to use clogging steps with the new music. Unlike the folk festival cloggers who danced to live music, some competition cloggers had already grown accustomed to dancing to recorded music—much as many square dance clubs did. With the change in music came new formations. By the beginning of the 1980s, some of the same dancers who had supported the establishment of the NCHC felt that even more codification was necessary; as non-partner-based routines using various forms of pop music became more common, they wanted to sustain the pre-1970 competition forms. The American Clogging Hall of Fame (ACHF) was established in 1981 to sanction competitions that would promote styles labeled as “traditional”: Southern Appalachian traditional, precision, running set hoedown and precision, country hoedown, and smooth mountain square dance. The ACHF chose to be based at Maggie Valley, North Carolina, where dancers Kyle and Burton Edwards, descendants of one of the Soco Gap Dancers, had already hosted conventions. The clogging that developed outside of the “traditional” forms became known as “contemporary” in competition terminology. [Information comes from Perry, see also Seeger 44]
Fiddle Puppets (1986)
For the most part, clogging in competitions versus performances at festivals did not have many crossover dancers to promote familiarity with these different approaches, and they continued to evolve separately. For the Fiddle Puppets, a team formed in 1979 by members of the GGCs who had relocated to Maryland, the historical separation led to at least two almost surreal encounters with contemporary cloggers in the 1980s. After one performance, the troupe’s encouragement to get dozens of dancers in attendance to square dance to live music did not work until a contemporary clogging teacher played a recorded track of a then-new country-pop song. Dancers filled the floor to perform, in unison, step sequences they had memorized from cue notation for that specific song. Later at a workshop at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia, the Fiddle Puppets were surprised to hear a contemporary clogger announce, with negative connotation, that they were not “certified teachers.” To them, as dancer Rodney Sutton remembers, the idea that they should not teach if they were not certified was bizarre. They felt that they were passing on what they had learned from old-time flatfooters who had grown up dancing in their home communities. [Sutton] Though they were not certified in contemporary clogging, they were certainly qualified to teach their tradition-based style.
Mitzi Tessier, who managed Mama T’s dance hall in Asheville and led school clogging teams for many years, observed another shift in social dance from the 1970s to 1980s: as male students gravitated towards sports there was a decline in school-based, gender-balanced dance teams. [Tessier] With more women eventually dancing than men, the question of gender and costuming caused disagreement among organizational officers: the ACHF wanted to require women dancing as men in partnered figure dancing to dress as men, while the NCHC wanted to allow women to wear the women’s costume despite the gender role they were dancing. Ultimately, the solution was to create separate categories according to whether the women dancing as men wore the men’s costumes. [Perry]
Another driver of change in the world of team clogging were the workshops that teams and teachers held for the general public. Footwork like the simpler basic step of the GGCs is conducive when holding beginner workshops for the general public. But as contemporary clogging became increasingly complicated, an industry had become entrenched: in order to have chances to win titles, dancers had to be very familiar with competition parameters; and to teach the correct steps and figures for competitions, clogging instructors had to be certified so their students could know they were reliable sources of competition-style dance knowledge. In part because of the far-reaching traveling, teaching, and promoting that Georgia-based dancer JoAnn Gibbs did for competition clogging from the 1970s into the 2000s, the Clogging Leaders of Georgia organization she directed grew so much that it became CLOG, Inc., now an abbreviation for National Clogging Organization, which certifies instructors. [Perry] Clogging conventions gave students exposure to new steps and related styles, and with the shift from school-based teams to formal dance studios, students often took clogging classes along with tap and jazz, which inevitably influenced their clogging styles as well as propelling some of them to contemporary, even sparkling, costuming. Such changes in contemporary clogging led early precision clogger James Kesterson and early advocates of footwork standardization Violet Marsh and Sheila Popwell of Georgia to later lament some stylistic progression when they were interviewed for articles in the late 1980s and mid-2000s. [Jamison, p. 25; Carolan, p. 17] Ironically, however, this evolution has continued as a result of their contributions and through new dancers’ interpretations of their contributions.
1990s-2010s: Continued Innovation
Evolution and innovation caused competition organizers to create new categories for the new forms of dance—like the now-older style of lines of dancers without specific arm motions versus, a more recent trend towards lines with choreographed arm movements that are reminiscent of cheerleading combined with tap-shoe footwork. Competition even spread in the early 2000s to the American Athletic Union’s Junior Olympics. [Driggs] Today, NCHC is a competition-sanctioning branch within CLOG, Inc., often promoting contemporary forms. Additional organizations have also formed, while ACHF continues to specifically promote the traditional categories, selects inductees with at least twenty-five years of influence on the “preservation of the dance” for inclusion in ACHF, and offers an opportunity to dance at the Grand Old Opry as one of the top annual prizes. [Perry, “About” American] After numerous qualifying competitions through the year, the narrowed-down competitors for the ACHF Annual World Championships in October 2014 still numbered more than one thousand groups and individuals competing in just three days. [“Hundreds.”]
In the short time, the numerous competitors participate in twenty-one NCHC-sanctioned categories: Traditional (Appalachian) Categories—6 or 8-Couple Precision Team, 4-Couple Precision Team, Southern Appalachian Traditional Team (6 or 8 Couples), Running Set Hoedown Team (4 Couple), Running Set Precision Team (4 Couple), Smooth Mountain Square Dance Team (6 or 8 Couple), Country Hoedown Team (4 Couple); and Contemporary Categories—Line, Formations Line, Small Team, Exhibition, Show Team, Precision (4 or more couples), Hoedown (4 or More Couples), Traditional Line, Acapella Team, Formations Traditional Line, Contemporary Duo/Duet, Traditional Duo/Duet, Show Duo/Duet, Short Duo/Duet. Categories can be subdivided into Amateur and Masters skill levels and at least seven divisions according to average age: Tiny Tot (6 and under), Pee Wee (7-9), Elementary (10-11), Junior (12-14), Senior (15-18), Young Adult (19-29), and Adult (30 and over). [“2014-2015 NCHC]
That competition structure can sound staggering to dancers accustomed to improvising dance at social gatherings and jam sessions. Initially, old-time flatfoot dancers in a social context would improvise rhythms to complement, or even match, the melody of a tune—a skill that required intimacy with the music from growing up surrounded by it. Their style of dance required only moderate physical agility. While dancers today may pursue competition forms for fun and fitness, or because their parents enroll them in classes as toddlers, preparation for competition is a priority in instruction so students can correctly execute codified movements. Polishing that execution takes a greater physical commitment and rehearsal time than occasional social dancing.
Contemporary Clogging—All That! (Promotional Video)
Some dancers with successful backgrounds in competition clogging have continued their years of practice by participating in performance teams that fuse styles. The Bailey Mountain Cloggers (BMC), formed in 1974 and based in the college town of Mars Hill, North Carolina, claim the Green Grass Cloggers as an early influence—but they have expanded to be adept at multiple traditional and contemporary categories, a perennial winner of national championships, and representatives of American clogging styles at international folk festivals. [Bailey] In 1999, young men who had danced with BMC as students, or knew each other from years of competition, formed another team—All That!—for which they have used the dance skills that won them numerous solo competitions to experiment with athletic techniques and hip-hop music. For their crowd-pleasing incarnation of clogging—which they have shared through national television talent competitions, international travel, and in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, stage productions—they received the 2003 and 2012 Pioneer Award from CLOG, Inc. [“History” and “About” All]
Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble (2011)
A trend towards intricate and hyper-choreographed footwork has also happened among the festival circuit and theater-stage performance teams descended from the GGCs. While the evolution of competition clogging resulted in embracing popular music and dance styles, the evolution of festival performance clogging incorporated a combination of vernacular styles. Folk festivals drew together dancers from different traditions with the intent to showcase distinct styles that evolved among separate communities—such as tap dance, and Irish, French Canadian, and Cape Breton step dancing—but the contacts facilitated at those festivals often inspired groups to expand their repertoires, much like in the century leading up to the early MDFF.
Rhythm in Shoes (2007)
While the GGCs and numerous recreational offshoot performance groups essentially maintained the style with which they started, some groups diversified as dance companies. The Fiddle Puppets studied other forms of percussive dance found in America and around the world and, in the mid-1990s, adopted the broader name of Footworks. [“About the Company.”] Former GGC Sharon Leahy founded Rhythm in Shoes in 1987 and, from Dayton, Ohio, focused on “swing tunes & tap, hoedowns & clogging…infused the spirit of traditional dance and music with a thoroughly modern sensibility” before the group disbanded in 2010. [“Rhythm.”] One of the groups continuing the trend of showcasing American vernacular dance is the West Virginia-based Davis & Elkins Appalachian Ensemble (DEAE). [Hill] Like Kesterson’s dancers who had grown up with the combination of percussive steps and figure dancing, the young DEAE coordinators are of a generation that has grown up with an awareness of such folk-form amalgamation groups as Fiddle Puppets/Footworks and Rhythm in Shoes at music festivals and dance camps.
Davis & Elkins Appalachian Ensemble—Rager, A Tribute to the Green Grass Cloggers
Internet technology now provides access to many styles of music and dance beyond one’s home community. As in the past, when folk culture incorporated what was useful and interesting, the same process happens today, albeit from a wider body of material that inherently fuels stylistic evolution. Some dances are fads, but in the case of competition clogging and the organizational structures created to perpetuate it, specific forms in vogue for the stage at different times since the 1930s have not died out. In much the same way that modern club square dancing grew away from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century house dances in rural areas, the competition context has preserved, but simultaneously transformed, clogging from its roots in old-time flatfooting. While standardizing square dancing and clogging has allowed for increased participation and preservation of dances—both of which have positive results for individuals and communities—standardization has simultaneously overshadowed regional differences. The same conundrum of preservation and elimination happened in clogging as a result of teaching and competition networks. Now, though recreational performance teams still exist, most clogging is not a casual social form.
Davis & Elkins Appalachian Ensemble—Promotional Video
Today, cloggers can be distinguished, sometimes jokingly, just by shoe color: competition-branch cloggers historically wear white shoes, and performance-branch cloggers typically wear black shoes. But, of course, distinctions in style and purpose are more complicated than that generalization. Teams descended from the Green Grass Cloggers focus on the performance of and education in various forms of vernacular dance. Some competition teams focus on old-time Appalachian figures, while some pursue standardized steps and flashy showmanship. Though dancers in either branch are likely to refer to theirs as “traditional,” in reality, all of the styles are derived from combinations of influences. Reporter John Harmon was exactly right when he wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1988 that “[s]ince its evolution, clogging has always been molded by those who practiced it.” [Harmon] In some cases, innovations in particular directions happened as a result of a few people who had the time, energy, and social platform for sharing what they knew of clogging and what they thought it could become. The various styles of team clogging share roots and have histories of person-to-person learning over several decades—but the performance and competition elements have made the dance form one that, while it appears to be participatory, actually requires considerable practice, and one that is always intended for an audience, never just for the dancers themselves. Ironically, team clogging’s longest tradition is competition itself. With nearly eighty years passing since the first competition among teams who incorporated percussive steps with figures, relatives in the amalgamated dance style called “clogging” can look perplexingly unrelated. But it is difficult to say this or that is or is not clogging. Until the branches take on new genre labels, it is all clogging—just different.
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