Thursday, May 26, 2011

What I Want To Accomplish Now

Well, as you can see, it is going to start with a class that I am offering beginning on June 15. This will be the first class I have taught since the mid to late 1990s. Due to a long-term illness, I had to give up dancing for a good while. I am dancing again, but I don’t have the stamina to do what I could before.  But clogging has been such a passion of mine for many years, and as you can see, if you read my previous posts in this blog, I am devoted to the traditional style of clogging.

When I looked at the “Clogging Halls of Fame,” (I think there are two of them) and noticed that they are full of modern cloggers with mention of only a few of the pioneers that they felt they had to include, and failed to mention truly great cloggers from the pre-modern era, such as David Alexander of the Grandfather Mountain Cloggers, Morris Hampton of the Daniel Boone Cloggers, Diana Embleton Callahan Hatfield of the Moonshine Cloggers or any of the Green Grass Cloggers, I realized that the powers of the current Clogging Councils do not believe that anything of significance occurred before the modern era. If the 1970s was a golden age for anything, it was a golden age for clogging.

I am so pleased to see the Green Grass Cloggers are touring at major venues such as the Merle Fest, Lake Eden Arts Festival and others during this, their 40th Anniversary year. They inspired so many people to dance many years ago. Although they were seen somewhat as renegades for dancing with high kicks and doing Western choreography, not to mention their hippie appearance, the audiences welcomed them and, in true adoration, formed well over a hundred clone teams in their footprints. That is similar to the effect that Bill Monroe had on string band music. He forged his own style and many new bands picked up in his footsteps and it became known as bluegrass music.

As for myself, as I have discussed, I wanted to emulate the Green Grass Cloggers in many ways, but I did not want to form a clone team. I had too many ideas of my own that I wanted to express. I admit that I was an intentional renegade in the world of clogging when I set out, because I wanted my routines to be Western in style, and I wanted to use high steps and high kicks. But otherwise, I wanted the footwork to be very traditional, at least with respect to what the top competition teams were doing at that time.

So the Skyline Cloggers came and went as I lived in Charlotte and danced with them for five years and then moved away. I returned to Charlotte about 12 years later and decided to do some clogging again. I did not want to play catch-up with the modern style, which did not appeal to me that much anyway. I was comforted to see that there were still some traditional teams in North Carolina and other places, so I decided to keep the old-style step. I was content with my step because I had been told early on by an old-timer at Ralph Stanley's festival in Virginia in 1977 that I reminded him of the way people danced long ago. I started teaching again and formed a new team called the Wareham Branch Cloggers. This team was an older team, as I was older too, so we didn’t dance as fast as before. The team lasted several years until attrition took its toll and I was unable to replace departing dancers with new team members. It was different the second time around. When I offered classes in the late 1970s, I had sometimes 50 or more students. Fifteen years later, I was lucky to get a dozen. Now in the present time, I don’t know what to expect.

People of this day do not have any concept of what I want to do, because it has      disappeared. That’s one reason I started writing a blog on clogging. What I am able to do will depend on what the class wants to do, and what they are able to do! If the class is mostly interested in learning a few steps so they can dance when they go to the mountains, that is fine, I can teach them. If they would like to see a monthly community “hoedown” dance happen in Charlotte, that would be even better. I would love to see the old square dances come back to Charlotte. When I say come back, you can ask Marilyn Price, founder of the Charlotte Folk Society, about that. In the post World War II era, there were frequent square dances at many schools in Mecklenburg County doing the Appalachian style Big Circle Square Dance as a fund-raiser event. That is where Marilyn Meacham met her husband, Jim Price, at a Woodlawn Elementary School square dance.

If the students want to form a team, then that is better still. Teams are what I am most interested in. If I can attract enough young folks then I will challenge them to perform the kind of routines that electrified and thrilled me when I first witnessed them so many years ago. If it’s an older crowd, then we will do what we are able to do and have fun. One thing is certain though, I won’t be dancing on the team. Due to the effects of my illness and age, I can do a rise-n-shine, but that’s about it. But I am full of choreographic ideas and would love to direct.

I would also like to find among the people who may be attracted to clogging now some who would enjoy doing the smooth dance. This is something that I can and would participate in. Kay Wilkins explained to me how the tradition started with the smooth dance, and it was converted into a clogging routine. This graceful dance is not found much outside of the Asheville area, and it is truly an original North Carolina folk dance. A dozen or so years ago, Theresa Shadoin, a current teacher at Avery County High School and former team clogger at Avery County under the direction of Kay Wilkins, brought back the smooth dance tradition to Avery County High School. While I was President of the Charlotte Folk Society, when we partnered with Central Piedmont Community College to produce an annual festival called the “Folk Frolic,” I was able to get the Avery County High School Smooth Dancers to come to Charlotte for that festival.

Here are a couple of videos I uploaded to YouTube of smooth dancers:
Pisgah View Dancers:
Avery County High School Smooth Dancers

I plan to continue teaching and hope to preserve “my kind of clogging!”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

June 2011 Clogging Class Announcement

I am offering my first clogging class in over a decade starting on June 15, 2011. Here is the basic scoop:

What:                 Clogging Class
Where:               Amity Presbyterian Church, in Johnston Hall
Location:            2831 N. Sharon Amity Rd., Charlotte, NC
When:                 June 15 – August 3 (8 weeks)
What Time:         7:00 – 8:00 PM
Instructor:           Allen Cooke, director of former Skyline Cloggers of Charlotte
Ages:                  Kids (7-ish) & Up
Price:                  $25

An 8-week class in traditional step clog dancing begins June 15. Clogging is an original North Carolina Folk Dance and is great aerobic exercise. You can get into the best physical condition attainable and preserve a NC heritage.

Contact:               704-366-3334 (Allen Cooke)


Please help me pass the word by forwarding this announcement to anyone you think may be interested!
Thank you!

Friday, May 20, 2011

What Happened to Clogging?

I was active in the clogging scene until mid 1982. I was away from it for over a decade and got back involved again in 1994. I went to a clogging workshop in Durham during the spring of 1994 to see what was going on. To say I was shocked is an understatement. I had been a clogging teacher and director of a successful team in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and now I was having trouble learning a reinvented basic step. Had they gone out in left field and jumped over the fence?

I was witness to some of the things that gave rise to modern clogging. I was absent during others, but have seen enough to be able to describe the process. Clogging was becoming increasingly popular outside the southeastern United States by 1980. The Daniel Boone Cloggers had done workshops in Utah, and skillful teams from distances further and further away were coming to the competition at Fontana. Bill Nichols, one of the pillars of traditional clogging, made a statement to the effect that the dance needed to be standardized or it would be changed with the avalanche of interest being directed toward it. The Green Grass Cloggers had lit a firestorm of interest in clogging during the 1970s and even Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, was a member of a clogging team. The Grandfather Mountain Cloggers danced on a float in Washington, DC during the inauguration of President Carter.

One of the problems that clogging faced was the paradoxical situation that men of this generation, in large part, never figured out that it is fun to dance with women. So groups would form with many more ladies than gents. Line dances started becoming popular as the girls decided to dance without the stubborn men who would rather injure themselves in various sporting activities. Here is an aside regarding fitness. After I had clogged for 5 years, I went to Tennessee and played full court basketball with fellow employees of the company where I worked. I could run up and down the court all evening, hardly breaking a sweat, while everyone else was heaving and panting. So clogging is one of the best aerobic exercises there is and can put a person in the best physical condition attainable. So the ladies started line dancing, and notable teams arose like the all-female Moonshine Cloggers from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who were very skillful and popular and later appeared on the Hee Haw TV program.

Dennis Abe, the promoter of the Festival of Champions at Fontana, which was the World Championship competition, also held a Clog College each year in the spring. He expected the top teams to have their directors come in and teach. I recall in 1981 how one of the instructors, whose name I do not recall, was essentially a tap dancer who was introducing the a cappella “syncopated steps.” This was the new fad which you had to use if you expected to do well in competition. I looked at it and the first thing that came to my mind was, "this doesn’t go with the music," which is why they turned it off. It was an embellishment to bring out the sound of the footwork. That’s OK with me if the moves were from the clogging style, but they weren’t. I have video that I made at the 1981 Clog College showing this instruction. I haven’t gotten it converted to digital yet, but when I do, I will post it on You Tube and put a link here. I am sure many modern cloggers are familiar with a cappella dancing and may find this of historical interest.

Another thing that came about at this time was the increased opportunities for talented clogging teams to perform in theme parks and other high profile venues including television. These programs demanded more highly choreographed "show routines" than the typical clogging team routine that reflected the "barn dance" tradition. So the Festival of Champions introduced a "Show Routine" category in their competition in order to help develop talent in this direction, and help prepare cloggers for a more professional, polished presentation through an exchange of ideas at the Festival of Champions events. I doubt that the organizers anticipated that the very nature of the basic clogging step would undergo a major renovation in the process. But more and more, what audiences experienced when they saw clogging teams was no longer a traditional style routine, but a choreographed show routine that featured mostly line dances with minimal partner interaction, largely due to the absence of men dancers. 

What occurred to begin the reinvention of the basic clogging step happened in 1980, and was the phenomenon of Burton Edwards. Burton’s dad, Kyle Edwards, I believe was the son of one of the Soco Gap Dancers, if I have it right. They maintained that Sam Queen and others of the Soco Gap Dancers were very light on their feet, often on the ball of the foot, rather than lumbering around flatfooted. Burton introduced a step that was referred to as the “pitter patter step” and it was really a captivating step that caught the attention of judges and audience alike. I also have video of Burton’s team, the Carolina Cut-Ups, at 1981 Clog College where he was doing his trademark step, and will post it when I get it converted to digital. In this step and others that he devised that followed, the heel is put down in the middle of the beat, often when the toe would go down. I did not attend any more Festival of Champions events after Clog College in 1981, so I did not see Burton Edwards win the Male World Championship three times. The clogging world at Fontana gave him a near unanimous vote of approval, and everyone wanted to learn how to do his steps. Meanwhile Kyle Edwards built the Stomping Ground in Maggie Valley, NC, their home town, which became the epicenter of the new style of clogging.

I did not see what unfolded as it unfolded, but the dance changed completely over a decade or so. When I returned to Charlotte in 1994 I visited Jean Stephenson of Catawba, SC, who was a friend from the earlier years and an expert dancer. She was telling me about the changes and said she had the hardest time until she figured out that you have to stop bending your knees. I thought to myself, “That’s when they stopped clogging!” They were trying to triple and quadruple time the steps, so they had to slow down the music to do that. In my opinion, the dance no longer accented or went with the music very well.

Then in the mid 1990s the Riverdance phenomenon arrived and became the latest fad to take over clogging. Riverdance seemed to put clogging on the defensive. I believe some of the charm of clogging lies in the fact that it developed in isolated communities where a distant memory of step dances existed. The formality of the step dance had been lost and something new was created with the indigenous music and other influences such as Native American and American Negro tap dance. Modern cloggers did not need to prove that 8 taps could be sounded per beat of music.When I had the opportunity to dance in Ireland with Bryan Craddock's Hemlock Bluff Cloggers from Raleigh, NC, in 1994, before the Riverdance invasion, I felt that the Irish genuinely enjoyed clog dancing for what it was. Something I learned from watching and listening to the Father of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe, was that beauty often lies in simplicity. Many bluegrass band members tried to put too much into their music, even competing with each other, and produced noise while Bill Monroe’s music was crystal clear and like a breath of fresh air. Likewise, the classical clog step that had developed to a state of perfection by the time of the Daniel Boone Cloggers, was crystal clear and very stylistic, though simple in terms of mechanics. The best cloggers were not the ones with the most complex steps, but the ones with the best style. Smoothness was the name of the game.

After the invasion of the Irish, the clogging community became captivated by the Canadian step dance and had to include that as well, even though it is contrary to the basics of clogging. Later it was the hip hop fad, which is still popular today. The modern cloggers generally do not like bluegrass music, and much less old-time. I do not fault them for creating what they created. They are having fun, and that’s what it is all about. I just wish we could call it something else, because traditional clogging has a rich heritage and is a beautiful dance in its own right. Clogging always had a slightly syncopated rhythm that sounded good with the music. The music was usually played fairly fast, from 135 – 160 beats per minute. Now, in order to get so many taps into a single beat of music, they have had to slow it down considerably. It no longer has what I refer to as a “clogging rhythm.” I recently watched the National Champion clogging team for 2011 dancing at 118 beats per minute. That is slow music. Here is a link to that performance:

In effect, what Burton Edwards did was to invent a hybrid clogging-buck dance step that had mostly the features of the buck dance style, namely keeping weight on the ball of the foot, less knee bending, and taps sounded out often to match the melody of the music, while finding a way to include the double toe, which has subsequently been double timed. Since his innovations, the clog dance underwent numerous changes by including elements of Irish and Canadian step dance as well as hip hop. As time went on, they included more and more taps per beat whether they existed in the music or not. Modern clogging bears virtually no resemblance to the original form of clogging. Burton's step preserved essentially only one element of clogging, the double toe. I recall reading a comment on YouTube about the clogging team in Bascom Lamar Lunsford's living room that I mentioned previously. The comment stated that they were not clogging at all, but flatfooting. In my opinion, that team had the most extreme clogging step I have ever seen and now people do not recognize it and are saying that they are not clogging, whereas modern "cloggers," whose step has virtually nothing to do with clogging, are in fact "true cloggers!" Competition brought about an acceptance of the new style since it gives individuals more latitude to show off fancier steps. But in my opinion, a team using the traditional clog step is more harmonious and can dance to more exciting, faster music.

My suggestion is to call this dance “American Step Dance,” and let clogging reclaim its rich heritage.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Difference Between Buck and Clog Steps

I referred to buck dance style as “out and up” and clog dance style as “down and back.” I want to provide some video links to illustrate what I am talking about. A particularly popular video on You Tube has been a film made in the living room of Bascom Lamar Lunsford by New York filmmaker David Hoffman in 1964. This team, which became called the Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers, used what I would call an extreme example of the clog step.  Here is a link:
You will notice the motion of their step is to outstretch the leg and bring it down and back. Bascom Lamar Lunsford is shown dancing at 2:36 – 2:40 in the video.

Here is a video of the Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers several years later at Newport dancing with the same stylish clog step.

Here is a video I made of Morris Hampton teaching at Clog College at Fontana Village in 1981. This shows the basic clog step as it was done by the Daniel Boone Cloggers at that time.

To illustrate the use of the shuffle in the clog step, which I believe is derived from Native American influences, I offer a video of myself doing a "rise-n-shine." The thing to pay attention to is how the foot that is marking time is moving forward and back through most of the steps. The shuffle is also evident in the video of the Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers at Newport while the gents are doing the "Flapjack" step from 1:18 – 1: 22.

Here is a link to an article about Kay Wilkins who taught at Avery County High School.

To illustrate the buck step, I have found a few videos. But first let me say that the term "buck dance" is often used to describe anyone doing a solo dance, even if they are using clog steps. I am talking about the distinct style of dance called buck that is different and opposite in many ways from clogging. Similarly, people often use the word "clogging" to represent any kind of mountain dance, clog, buck or flatfoot. Here are the Melvin Sloan Dancers at the Grand Ole Opry.
Some of the dancers are doing a clog step and some are doing a buck step. The couples come up for a “rise-n-shine” together and at 3:15 – 3:30 the gent in the first couple is basically a buck dancer with the "out and up" motion. The second couple up from 3:32 – 3:52 features a lady dancing in the style of Robert Spicer’s Dickson County Square Dancers. They used a lot of ankle moves. In the third couple up from 3:52 – 4:10, the gent is basically doing a clog step.

In this video, the Melvin Sloan Dancers are again shown on the Grand Old Opry several years later.
In this video you will notice the second and third ladies up from 2:14 – 3:00 are doing a lot of ankle moves reminiscent of the Dickson County Square Dancers. The fourth gent up from 3:03 – 3:20, in my opinion, is highly influenced by the modern styles of clogging.

Here is a web-page from the NEA web-site containing a bio of Robert Spicer, who I was fortunate enough to meet and chat with several times and even dance on stage with some of his dancers on a couple of occasions at the Museum of Appalachia Homecoming Festival in Tennessee. This describes the African-American roots of his style of dance, which is really quite fascinating.
Here is a link to a web-site devoted to the memory of Robert Spicer:

This video of Kyle and Burton Edwards shows the difference between clogging and buck styles side by side, although Burton is a modern clogger whose step is different from the classical clog step.
By comparing the basic motion between father and son, you can see that the buck step was “out and up” and the clog step, although not as evident here because Burton Edwards is a modern clogger, is “down and back.”

In addition to the "down and back" versus "out and up" motion, there is a general tendency of buck dancers to keep their weight on the ball of the foot whereas clog dancers of the traditional style transfer weight, sometimes forcefully, to the heel. The clog step is also highly stylized by a knee bending motion, whereas buck dancers, while dancing with bent knees, do not emphasize bending and straightening the knees with each step as much. Also, the use of the shuffle, a sliding forwards and backwards of the foot marking time, is a common feature of the clog step, and is probably derived from Native American influences, as I suggested earlier. Finally, the clog step is the one that utilizes the toe shuffle (called double toe), whereas buck and flatfoot styles generally do not. The double toe provides a circular motion that gives the clogger the ability to dance to much faster music. The clog step is in general a much more energy-efficient, less strenuous step than the buck step, due to a lesser amount of friction caused when a buck dancer taps out a sound for each note in the melody line, becoming in effect, a percussive musical instrument. Clog steps can be devised that do go well with the music, but not necessarily every note of the melody. There are clog teams that adopted three beat steps that in my opinion, do not go well with the music.

Now, there's a third general category more akin to buck called flatfoot dance, and the rules are much less defined. Here is a video of famous flatfooter/buck dancer Ira Bernstein. 
In my opinion, this style of percussive flatfooting is a branch of buck dance. There are other flatfooters who truly don't follow the rules of buck at all. That can lead to discussions of the dance styles of Jesco White and Willard Watson and others. But that is beyond what I am trying to talk about here! I remember seeing a flatfooter in Tennessee who kept his feet practically glued to the ground but moved all over it, his body limber and moving with the music like there wasn't a bone in his body, his feet crossing behind and in front. Now that's what I call flatfooting! Unfortunately, I can't show a video of that dancer, but I have a vivid image of him in my mind dancing in the lobby of a college gymnasium in Clarksville, Tennessee at a festival in the spring of 1982, along with Robert Spicer and his daughter who were there at the time. Robert Spicer's daughter said to me, "He's the best there is!" I had to agree, and I don't know his name. I have never seen a flatfoot dancer since then that I thought was better.

Finally I want to say there isn't any style police going around saying you can't mix things up. That's exactly what has happened to blur the lines between the basic styles. I offer this discussion to folklorists who delve into the origins of the dance. It is my opinion, but it is supported by my observations and conversations with old-timers who were key figures in the development of the dance such as Kay Wilkins and Robert Spicer. Here is an example of Carol Rifkin of the Green Grass Cloggers, starting around 3:40, doing a basic flatfoot/buck dance and then spicing it up with some clogging moves.

Later I will discuss the changes that came about to classical clogging that gave rise to modern clogging.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Introduction to Clog Dancing

The clog dance, native to North Carolina, is a true folk dance, in regard to the fact that it has no written history. It is said to be an amalgam of step dances from the British Isles, Native American dance and American Negro tap dance. This is probably true, but there is enough difference between the styles from different areas of the Southern Appalachian Mountains that different influences impacted the dance in different ways. Being a native of North Carolina, I am more familiar with the dance as it came about in this state, although I was not raised in the mountains and only became familiar with it in my 20s after seeing it performed at festivals.

I’m not going to try to provide a history of clogging during the entire twentieth century. Much credit has been given in write-ups about the Soco Gap Dancers and the efforts of Bascom Lamar Lunsford to preserve mountain heritage in the Asheville area. Rather, I am going to present my introduction to clogging and discoveries I made during my time involved with the dance.

I think the first cloggers I saw in person were probably at an exhibitor’s party square dance at the Blowing Rock Horse Show during the mid 1960s. They were locals just dancing to music that definitely had a clogging beat. They were mostly doing a chug step, nothing fancy, just having a good time. Now here is a diversion to set the stage for my entrance into the world of clogging.

It took a trip to California during the summer of 1970 to get me interested in North Carolina’s mountain heritage, as I discovered that people out there considered it “cool.” So in the spring of 1971 I went to the Old Time World Championship Fiddlers Convention at Union Grove, NC, held in the cow pasture of J. Pierce Van Hoy, brother of Harper Van Hoy who still puts on the annual Fiddlers Grove conventions. This was hillbilly Woodstock, a strange amalgam of hillbillies and hippies with an estimated attendance of 100,000, held in a huge 3-ring circus tent. I was blown away by the music. Being somewhat burnt out on psychedelic and rock music in general after the deaths of three of the icons, Jim, Janis and Jimi, I was open to something new. The music was often played at a breakneck speed but with expert virtuosity that was satisfying, and did not leave me deaf. Being from North Carolina, I felt a lot of pride for the culture and did not feel that the cultural difference between me and the mountain folks was insurmountable. I felt very comfortable there. Later that year over Thanksgiving weekend, I went to the South Carolina State Bluegrass Convention at Myrtle Beach. Everyone who was a big name in bluegrass was there. Union Grove featured hordes of amateur and semi-pro bands, but at Myrtle Beach I saw the professionals, the ones referred to when a band at Union Grove would say, “This is a Flatt and Scruggs tune.” After taking in the program at Myrtle Beach, I left with a haunting sound that would not leave my head for 10 years. It was Bill Monroe’s plaintive version of “Wayfaring Stranger.”

I left Myrtle Beach a major Bill Monroe fan and embarked to collect every vinyl record I could find that he recorded. I did not realize at the time that he was the Father of Bluegrass Music, but I came to understand that and hear and appreciate the high lonesome sound delivered by the master himself. I would have this opportunity a score or more times during the next 25 years.

The next year, in 1972, I went back to Union Grove and saw the Green Grass Cloggers, introduced as the World Champions. I went to that festival a few more times in the early 1970s and also remember seeing a team called the Oconee State Park Cloggers from Walhalla, SC. But it was the Green Grass Cloggers who were most exciting and had great audience appeal with their rambunctious high energy steps and kicks. Something I liked about them was the figures they used in their dance, although I did not know about square dance figures at the time. I liked the way they moved around on the stage. This whole scene at Union Grove was life-changing for me. I stopped listening to hard rock and became a devout bluegrass fan! I loved the clog dance teams, but never dreamed that I would have an opportunity to learn to do the dance myself since no one I knew could do it, and to my knowledge, nobody else in Charlotte was doing it either. I credit the Green Grass Cloggers for being a big part of a new awakening to the music and culture of the North Carolina mountains, something that really is a treasure. They inspired hundreds of teams to be formed copying their style across the country as they toured. That is quite a remarkable accomplishment. What’s more remarkable is that this year, 2011, marks their 40th Anniversary. Here’s a genuine heart-felt toast to the Green Grass Cloggers! May you inspire yet more generations of folks with your dance. They ignited a firestorm of interest in clogging during the 1970s and they are now making tours at major festivals. I hope they can bring back the traditional style. Here is a link to a nice article on the Green Grass Cloggers on the occasion of their receiving the Mountain Heritage Award from Western Carolina University in 2008.

Several years would go by and during the Christmas holidays in 1975 I attended a clogging competition at the old Lake Norman Music Hall. There were a dozen or so teams there and I took a date to go up there and watch this program. While the judges were tallying up the scores, the announcer, Mr. Lawing, said we would next be seeing the World Champions, the Daniel Boone Cloggers. They were from Boone, NC, and were directed by Morris Hampton, who himself won the individual male clogger world championship title 3 times. This was the most electrifying team I ever saw. They were a 4-couple team and danced very fast, flying across the stage but had a wonderful sound with their step. I have described their sound as being like a herd of galloping horses in perfect unison. I can still see their Jefferson Special before the ending and the guys landed on one knee and the girls would go around them and sit on their other knee for the final bow. I think I just about fell out of my seat watching them! Just breathtaking.

About a year later in the fall of 1976 I finally took a class in clog dancing offered by Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. It was taught be a fellow named Mel from Shelby. I must have done OK because I was recruited to join a local club called the Cripple Creek Cloggers that met at Spirit Square in Charlotte, directed by a total Western Square Dance fanatic named Nancy Trexler! From Nancy I learned a good bit of Western style square dance choreography. During the year that I danced with the Cripple Creek Cloggers, I saw some more teams and began to have aspirations of forming my own team. So in the fall of 1977, I offered a class at Spirit Square and taught a group of people. I asked Olin Edwards, who had experience with the Lake Norman Cloggers and had come by the Cripple Creek Cloggers meetings on a couple of occasions, if he would like to join me with a new team if I could get some students to join. He said yes, and the first two ladies from my class were Thelma Houck and Cindy Seaford. I called the team the Skyline Cloggers after the skyline of the city of Charlotte, but conjuring up images of the skyline of the mountains. I continued to teach and added 2 more ladies, Lou Self and Vicky Conrad. Vicky still teaches today and is director of Clog Carolina out of Mooresville, NC. She was “always there” throughout my association with the Skyline Cloggers. Before long I added yet another lady, Bonnie Stafford, a truly great dancer, and 2 gents, Jack Blanks and Gary Morgan. Once I had a 4-couple set, I started feverishly working on a 4-couple routine. We had been doing a 2-couple routine up to that point.

About this time I also had an opportunity to see the third team that made a huge impact on me, the first two being the Green Grass Cloggers and the Daniel Boone Cloggers. I saw the Avery County High School Cloggers at Denver, NC, where they held the North Carolina State Clogging Championship contest. My favorite team at that festival was the team from Avery County, and they won first place. It was later that I came to understand the role of this team in the history of clogging, and compare it to seeing and liking Bill Monroe before I realized his role in Bluegrass music.

Something I realized about all three of my favorite teams was that they moved their sets in a different way than the traditional teams did. After dancing with Nancy Trexler’s team, I understood that they all used Western choreography to varying extents. The Green Grass Cloggers had 8 couples yet danced in 2 squares doing figures like the teacup chain, which comes straight out of a Western caller’s manual. The Daniel Boone Cloggers were more traditional, using standard figures like Chase the Rabbit, but they used California Twirls and were a 4-couple team, so they moved their set more in the Western style than would an 8-couple team. The Avery County High School Cloggers, under the direction of Kay Wilkins, was THE pioneer precision clogging team. Kay started teaching at old Cranberry High School in 1948 and began the clogging program, starting with smooth dance and expanded to clogging. This was soon after World War II when Western square dance was becoming popular, and she decided to incorporate a few Western figures into her routine. She included a figure called “Ocean Waves” which was composed of a couple of Western figures called “Spin the Top.” The Avery County High School clogging routine, done by 8 couples was the most interesting routine for 8 couples I have ever seen. She told me that after she saw the Green Grass Cloggers, she liked their high kicks and wanted to use some. Her style was a more “on-beat” style, which I also adopted. I vividly recall seeing the Avery County High School Cloggers in their beautiful costumes at Fiddlers Grove doing those wonderful high kicks after coming out of their Ocean Waves figure. They were as graceful and beautiful as any ballet dancer and leaped like gazelles across the stage.

When I embarked to choreograph a 4-couple routine, I wanted it to be Western in style, but still “cloggable.” By this, I mean I wanted to pick out figures that displayed unusual geometric patterns that would look good on stage and be reasonably repetitive so that the dance did not have an overtly Western cadence to it. I purchased Will Orlich’s Square Dance book with over 2,000 calls including many experimental figures and went through the book taking notes regarding possibilities. It is a challenge to find a Western figure that will have a good appearance in a clog dance, and also keep the dancers with their partners and return them to home position from time to time! I also wanted to incorporate features from my favorite teams. As you know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But I did not want to copy anyone, and I feel that our choreography was original. I wanted the team to step high and use high kicks like the Green Grass Cloggers.  I wanted to dance fast like the Daniel Boone Cloggers. When we did our sound checks, the audience was already in a frenzy because they knew that something exciting was going to happen, and it did. Finally, I modeled my step mostly after the Avery County High School Cloggers, but faster. We adopted the more on-beat style kicks used by the Avery County team rather than the sycopated kicks used by the Green Grass Cloggers because we felt they worked better with a faster speed routine. But our selection of figures was very original. Another thing we introduced to the world of clogging was dispensing with calling. Until the time of the Skyline Cloggers, most teams had a caller dancing among the team. Traditionally, Appalachian square dance and clogging is danced spontaneously to the music, which is usually highly rhythmic. I choreographed all the routines to transition exactly with the music, much as a contra dance does. In this way, the music signaled the time to change steps or figures. The dancers were expected to know what comes next, and if the music tells you when to do it, then there was no need to call. So the style of our routine was that we used more complex figures danced fast without any calling.

By August of 1978, the team had learned our first 4-couple routine, danced to Little Liza Jane, and we gave a performance at Spirit Square and then another at the Festival in the Park in Charlotte in September. This was followed by our first appearance at the NC State Fair Folk Festival in October 1978. We came in 3rd, and this was a time when there were many legendary teams like the Grandfather Mountain Cloggers still performing. We soon began working on a second 4-couple routine danced to Foggy Mountain Breakdown. When 1979 rolled around, the team was clicking better and started winning nearly every contest they entered including the Denver contest for the NC State Championship and the NC State Fair Folk Festival. The Skyine Cloggers had arrived! Here is a link to a rehearsal of the Skyline Cloggers doing their more traditional Foggy Mountain Breakdown routine, experimenting with a new ending. This is the only existing video of the team that we know of.

I’m not going to give a detailed history of the team for the next three years, which is how much longer I danced when I moved to Tennessee with a job opportunity in December, 1981. But it was the most memorable experience of my life to form a team and teach many of the dancers, and achieve what we were able to achieve. This is especially valuable to me because I did not know anything about clogging until I was in my mid 20s.

Once I got to Nashville, Tennessee, I took a class in Buck Dancing taught by Jackie Christian, a protégé of Robert Spicer, an NEA Heritage Award winner for his buck dance team, the Dickson County Square Dancers, and contributions he made over his long life. Jackie showed me the difference between the classical buck and clog steps. She described buck as “out and up” and clog as “down and back.” There are some videos which I will soon post links for to illustrate what is meant by this. Robert Spicer became enamored with Negro tap dancers who he saw dancing on a horse-drawn wagon at a festival he attended as a youth and wanted to copy that style in his dance. This is described on the NEA web-site. This is why I maintain that buck dancing, which was more the Tennessee style of dance was probably influenced by Negro tap dance. Over in North Carolina, Kay Wilkins explained to me when I visited her in her home in Plumtree, NC, that she visited Cherokee for summer camps as a youth and would learn some dance there. With the presence of the Cherokees in the North Carolina mountains and the degree of shuffle in the clog step, which is reminiscent of Indian dance styles, I believe that the clog step, more popular in North Carolina, was more influenced by the Native American style.  In fact there is a popular clogging step called “The Indian.” Add to this the step dances and figures from the British Isles, you have the ingredients for clogging to emerge. But in clogging and buck dancing, people added elements of each others style, so some buck styles became popular in North Carolina clogging and clog steps were included in Tennessee buck styles.

As far as the figures go, Bill Nichols and Garland Steele cataloged all the traditional figures they could discover into a 2-volume encyclopedia. They wrote that the use of the Sicilian big circle and party game figures used by the traditional 8-couple dance team was a form of rebellion against the mother country, which mainly danced in contra and quadrille sets. I personally have my doubts that the isolated communities decided, “Confound you British, we’re going to use the Sicilian Circle and rid ourselves of your dance style!” In the old days dances were fairly complex using contra and quadrille formations and dance masters went about to teach the dances that had to be done just a certain way. I think the big circle and party game figures emerged more due to the fact that there were no dance masters traveling through the remote mountain regions, so they made simpler dances that they could do without a need for dance masters.