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.

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