Keeping Time with the Music. A Thriving Appalachian Tradition

Asheville Cloggers
photo credit Tim Hussey

It’s only fitting that our southern Appalachian mountains, with a strong heritage in old-time music, are also home to the mountain folk dance, clogging.

The exuberant, percussive dance – characterized by foot tapping, stomping and shuffling to the rhythm of jamming music – inspired team competitions at Asheville’s first Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in the late 1920s.  “This was the birthplace of clogging,” says Jeff Atkins, of Asheville’s Folk Heritage Committee.

Clog dancing was partly influenced by English, Scottish and Irish step dance traditions brought by early settlers to southern Appalachia. Historians say it was the Queen of England who actually spurred the name “clogging” in 1939, when she watched a Waynesville, N.C. group performing at the White House, which reminded her of clogging in England.  “English clogging goes back to the Industrial Revolution,” saysAtkins, “when the mill workers would unwind after work in their wood-soled shoes.”

For many cloggers in the Mountain South region, a tradition which started with barn jamborees has extended beyond festivals and fairgrounds to major competitions and worldwide performances.  Plenty of recreational cloggers just enjoy it for the fun and exercise (it burns about 400 calories an hour).  The common thread among them – they all love to dance. 

Different Styles

Traditional cloggers often describe clogging as a combination of square dancing and buck dancing. (Buck dancing, like flat footin’, is a solo freestyle dance, which features fancy footwork brushing and clicking the floor to make rhythmic sounds.) With a mix of cultures, clogging in the U.S. has adopted many styles, but two distinctions are often made: traditional southern Appalachian and precision. 

“Southern Appalachian cloggers typically dance traditional (square dance) figures withfreestyle footwork to live music – banjo, fiddle, guitar,” says Rodney Sutton, member of long-standing N.C. group, the Green Grass Cloggers. “Couples will feature footwork in moves like the Kings Highway and the Queens Highway. Precision clogging is more like line dancing – they got out of the big circles.”  

Precision (or modern) clogging evolved in the 1950s with a variety of music, elaborate costumes, jingle tap shoes and choreography.  Contemporary precision teams oftenincorporate hands on the hip routines, higher kicks and greater emphasis on heel tapping.  

The Green Grass Cloggers blended the two prominent styles and made a name for themselves in the 1970s. Consisting of East Carolina University students, the group combined eclectic precision footwork with western square dance figures and quickly came into the limelight becoming World Champion Cloggers in 1972 and 1974.  “We introduced a new combination and didn’t realize we were rocking the boat by putting our stamp on a new style,” said Sutton. The group went on to perform with some big name musicians including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Hartford, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, John Prine, Bonnie Raitt and Ralph Stanley. Green Grass Cloggers’ “home” team from Greenville, N.C. performs statewide, while their “road” team reunites to perform a few times every summer in Asheville.

A Family Affair

Whether traditional or precision, clogging appeals to all ages, and it’s often husband/wife pairs and sons and daughters involved.  Terry Glass, coordinator of the Tennessee Hoedowners in Surgoinsville, Tenn., says his family spans six generations of cloggers. “I married a square dancer and it goes way back.  Our kids were clogging at age three, and now four of my five grandsons are clogging.”

The Tennessee Hoedowners, precision dancers, hold twelve national titles. “We’ve auditioned for the new ABC primetime hit series ‘Dance Wars:  Bruno vs. Carrie Ann’, and we spend Thanksgiving at the Holiday Clogging Convention in Nashville,” said Glass. While serious about competition, he adds, “Its very family oriented and good, wholesome recreation. Its more than crinoline dresses – it’s a healthy outlet for the kids and they have fun.” Glass helped found the annual Tennessee Clogging Classic, an event held every spring at Meadowview Convention Center in Kingsport, showcasing various styles of clogging. March 28-29, 2008 will mark the 13th year of the event.

Mountain Thunder Cloggers, an Asheville-based precision team, is an intergenerational group with dancers from western North Carolina. The team was founded in 2003 by Kate Guzy, who previously taught workshops and danced with teams in New York and Florida. “We have a 7-year-old and an 83-year-old in one class,” says Guzy. “ We also have a lot of mother/daughter/cousin/sisters on our team.” Mountain Thunder performs at local events and can often be seen at Wild Wing Cafe in Asheville. 

Staying Alive

The popularity of country and blue grass music and the influence of faster beats, pop and even rap music have spawned new interest and led to certified instruction, weekend workshops and clogging organizations throughout the U.S.  

In addition to working with the Folk Heritage Committee, Atkins, a former dancer with the renowned Bailey Mountain Cloggers of Mars Hill College, instructs a young clogging team in Asheville. “There is a lot of interest in keeping a mountain tradition thriving,” he says. The Bailey Mountain team currently includes students from twelve states, and it has the distinction of being one of a few college-based clog dance teams with scholarships, arts/performance grants and college credit courses.  The team performs locally throughout the year and will hold a spring concert at Mars Hill College, April 4-6, 2008.

Clogging activities can be found on many weekends throughout the Mountain South, particularly during summer and fall festivals.  And wherever there’s old-time or bluegrass music, there’s usually a bit of clogging on the side.  So you haven’t come home to Appalachia ‘til you experience clogging.  Go ahead, tap along to the music …or betteryet, kick up your heels!                                  

Published in Marquee Magazine, spring 2008. 

 

 

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