A traditional twist on tap dance
By Lea Marshall
If your studio were to offer just one dance form other than the Big Three—ballet, jazz, and tap—which do you think would be most likely to succeed? Be careful how you choose; the results could surprise you. While hip-hop or flamenco might seem like enticing elective offerings, a step dance like clogging could attract more students than you’d think. After delving into the roots of clogging and speaking to a few studio owners, we’ve discovered that this folk dance form can really bring in the folks!
From the mountains to the stage
Clogging is a particularly inclusive dance form, in both its origins and its attraction for a wide range of people. What we know in the United States as clogging actually has roots in European, African, and Native American folk dances. When Scottish, Irish, English, and Dutch settlers populated the Appalachian Mountains during the 18th century, they brought their traditional folk dances and music with them.
Imagine farmers and their families living way back in the hills, with no entertainment but what they could create themselves. Dancing to the rhythm of their own feet, perhaps helped out by the father’s fiddle, would bring a welcome change from the work of hunting, plowing, and sewing. Eventually, exposure to African-influenced step dances practiced by slaves and to Native American traditional dances began to seep into the settlers’ folk dance forms, creating something new.
The word “clog” comes from the Gaelic word for “time” or “clock” and today’s clogging keeps time with music by emphasizing the downbeat. Traditional clogging, also known as flatfooting or buck dancing, was a kind of freestyle step dancing based on individual dancers improvising their footwork in time with the music. Contemporary clogging emerged when this rhythmic footwork began to be paired with traditional “figure” square dances. That’s when it developed distinctive traits such as raising the foot more than six inches off the ground.
Contemporary clogging shoes are similar to tap shoes, but the metal tap on the shoe’s sole is attached loosely, to provide a “jingling” sound as the foot is raised and lowered. Beginning students can try clogging in tap shoes, though this will produce a different sound. According to Florida-based clogging instructor Kelli McChesney’s website, beginning students may also purchase clogging taps and fasten them to sneakers.
During the 1920s the success of a group called the Soco Gap Cloggers, formed by Sam Love Queen Sr. in Maggie Valley, NC, helped popularize what we now call contemporary clogging. They won many square dance competitions, and in 1939 they performed at the White House on the invitation of Franklin D. Roosevelt during a visit by the Queen of England. (Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth commented that the Soco Gap Cloggers’ style was similar to English clogging.)
From that point forward, clogging developed into a true performing art with its own costumes, jingle tap clogging shoes, competitions, and notation. Clogging is now the official folk dance of North Carolina and the state dance of Kentucky. If only the mountain men and women dancing on their porches 200 years ago could see it now!
And into the studio
Once they discover clogging, teachers and studio owners around the country find it to be an ever-more-popular class offering. Each teacher tells a different story about how he or she first learned about clogging and then began to spread the word.
“I had seen clogging at a national competition and knew I wanted to learn that style,” says Gina Wiley via email. She runs Dancer By Gina in Delphos, OH, and teaches tap at Ohio Northern University. In the library at ONU, Wiley discovered some instructional videos by Steve Smith, a well-known clogging champion and instructor in the United States and abroad. She used the videos to teach herself and took master classes with Rhythm-N-Shoes Cloggers so that she would have a good grip on the form before she began to teach it. “I didn’t want just tap in clog shoes,” she says.
While hip-hop or flamenco might seem like enticing elective offerings, a step dance like clogging could attract more students than you’d think.
According to Wiley, enrollment in clogging classes at her studio took off after she set the finale for her 2000 recital as a clogging piece for high school students who had taken her first introductory clogging class. The following year enrollment jumped, and it has been increasing ever since. Last year Wiley had to split her beginning-level cloggers into two classes because she had so many. “I think it’s because of the high-energy dances we do at our annual dance concert,” she writes. “We do a lot of country and bluegrass but also clog to popular songs the kids love during rehearsals. We live in an area of a lot of small towns and farms. The traditional clogging with some ‘Yee-hahs’ and country girls and boys bring smiles to many.”
From son to mother
Jeanine Baxter runs Catch A Star Performing Arts Center (CASPAC) in Seymour, IN, and she credits her son, Chris Baxter, with getting her into clogging. When Jeanine opened her studio 13 years ago, she offered rehearsal space to a local clogging group she had seen rehearsing in a park. She watched their rehearsals but wasn’t that interested in clogging herself.
When Chris, who had grown up dancing in his mother’s studio, came home from college to teach dance for a while, he watched the clogging class and began comparing it to tap, a form he knew well. Eventually, says Jeanine, he began to teach classes and started his own recreational group, the Columbia Cloggers. Jeanine had watched all of this unfold, attended his rehearsals and performances, and had picked up most of the basic steps along the way.
Then, about five years ago, an injury and a bout of bronchitis sidelined Chris and the Columbia Cloggers grew restless without their leader. Jeanine got roped in, and she laughs about taking class from her son. “I had taught him dance all of these years, and I’ll tell you what, he had me in tears. He was like, ‘Mom, you’ve got to be able to pick this up faster!’ ” Once her technique was up to snuff, Jeanine began performing with the group.
Clogging is now a regular offering at CASPAC, with Chris teaching the adults and Jeanine taking on the children’s classes. The studio’s clogging students perform at competitions, while the Columbia Cloggers perform at local fairs and festivals.
Jeanine believes that dancing to various styles of music, not just country, draws in more people than strictly traditional performances would. The first time Chris took a group of CASPAC students to a national competition, they won with a clogging piece set to Michael Jackson’s “Working Day and Night.”
When the Columbia Cloggers perform at an event like the Indiana State Fair, says Jeanine, “people will come over and see what’s going on, and then they get fascinated.” Then, she says, “we go out into the audience and each grab someone, and they’ll come up and participate. And that way we have acquired new members for our group, from just going out and saying ‘Would you like to come up and try it?’ ”
A Caravan clogger taps in
At age 19, Holly Dawson of Springfield, IL, toured as a demonstrator with Dance Caravan Kids, and that was when she took her first clogging class. “I had heard of clogging before but had really never experienced it or taken classes in it,” she says. “There was nobody in this area who did that. I had always just done the basics: tap, jazz, and ballet.”
As a Caravan Kid, Dawson took class with Jenny Ruth White. “I can still remember the class, like I was there yesterday. [White] was from South Carolina and she had that real Southern drawl, and I thought she was adorable,” she says. “I was hesitant because I’d never done clogging before, but when I started doing [White’s] routines I realized it was just a tap background. As long as you had good tap skills, you could do clogging. And I found that it was a lot of fun and really good exercise.”
When Dawson opened her own studio, Footlights School of Dance Inc. in Springfield, IL, in 1996, she didn’t offer clogging right away. “I introduced clogging probably three or four years into running the studio. I had always wanted to expose my students to it, but I didn’t know how it was going to fare.” So she offered a clogging class for adults during her summer session, typically a slower time of year, when it’s easier to try out new classes. “The [students] were just over the moon,” she says. “They absolutely loved it. It has turned out to be one of my most popular classes over the years.”
Like Baxter, Dawson found clogging to be an easy crossover from tap. “I think that anybody who loves tap would love clogging as well.” Because she finds it helpful to use the tap foundation when teaching clogging, she requires one year of tap experience for students who are interested in clogging. “It’s a different rhythm, but so many of the steps are so similar that with my tappers I can just say, ‘OK, this is called the basic in clogging, but in tap it’s the shuffle step,’ ” she says.
Dawson was delighted by the success of her clogging classes and by her adult students’ eagerness to perform. “The most memorable year,” she says, “was the year that we had 16—I couldn’t believe it—16 people in the adult class who did the clogging routine. And it turned out just fabulous.”
Although the success of clogging may seem surprising to those not familiar with the form, apparently students of all ages fall in love with it once they’ve tried it. And the rewards for teachers are clear. Says Wiley, “As for why I teach it, it’s the energy and smiles from all my students. Clogging is a great workout and definitely lots of fun! My students get the chance to learn another style of dance and feel genuine joy when dancing.”