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.

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