I wrote this several years ago for an evening class I was taking and then never found a good publication home for it (but did end up joining the Thunder and Lightning Cloggers and am still a member to this day). Tonight, on my drive home from practice — now held in Columbia, Illinois, by the way — I was thinking about what it is exactly that keeps me clogging. I don’t have a short answer. But here’s a long one, if you’re curious.
Instructor Robert Kennedy spied the clogging shoes tucked under my arm as I ventured into the old schoolhouse in East Carondelet, Illinois, that chilly Monday night. There to watch the Thunder and Lightning Cloggers’ practice session, I’d brought my old taps along just in case.
“Do you remember basics? Triples? Fancy doubles?” Robert said. I did, and after admitting as much to him, mere observation was clearly no longer an option, however rusty my memory and footwork might be. “Molly here is just back from two weeks in Ecuador, and you can learn ‘Pitkin County’ right along with her.”
I tied the dusty laces, stood up and crept as inconspicuously as possible—an exercise in futility given the steel taps nailed to my soles—onto the plywood dancing surface. A floor-to-ceiling mirror stretched from one end of the makeshift studio to the other, and as Robert called out the step sequences he kept a close eye on the movements of our feet.
“Double-step, double-cross, step-rock-step, double-step, double-cross, step-rock-step. Stomp double-step, double-step-rock-step … two rocking chairs … and a cowboy … now two turkeys!”
In just a few minutes we’d covered what Robert described as parts A, B, and C—the entirety of the routine when the three sections are performed in the order A, B, A, C, A, B, A, ½ C. To my relief, I actually managed to keep up okay. Robert then fiddled with a fancy-looking deejay machine in the corner, hopped back to the center of the dance floor, counted the introductory beats aloud and led Molly Diehl, me and the four other cloggers in the room through the routine again, this time with Steve Martin’s “Pitkin County Turnaround” banjo pouring through the speakers.
The Thunder and Lightning Cloggers are one of just two such groups active in the St. Louis region. The other is the Missouri River Cloggers, who meet each Wednesday evening at the Olivette Community Center out west of the city, in a tile-floored room that hosts an adult day care by day. The practice locations are unassuming spaces, the attire casual, alluding in a way to the inherent simplicity of this enduring folk art form that takes the ordinary sound of a shoe against a hard surface and works a kind of magic.
All told, the two clogging groups amount to roughly 20 people, ranging in age from Molly, a high school senior, to Anita, a woman in her seventies who is seen as a mentor to newer members of the Missouri River Cloggers. Local nurse Kim Evans joined that group about a year ago, and at the age of 47, she laughs that she is one of the younger ones. A relative newbie to the percussive dance form, she told me not to watch her as I observed the group moving to everything from an Irish jig to a rendition of “Gangnam Style” one night. But it was quickly obvious that she’s already picked up the basic elements and much more, and she loves it. From the moment one week’s practice ends, she’s looking forward to the next one.
“I get the opportunity to tune out the rest of the world—no phone calls, no emails, no texts—and let my body move to the music,” Kim says. “It is like my two hours of heaven every week. We do dances to traditional music, pop, country and everything in between. Now and then, I will be in the grocery store and hear a song over the store’s speaker that we dance to at class. Chances are, if you pass me at Schnucks, you will see my dancing feet moving me down the aisle.”
Clogging is perhaps best understood as “a dance of the people,” as Jeff Driggs puts it. Jeff is an accomplished teacher of clogging—he’s taught workshops in all 50 states and around the world—and has also singlehandedly written and produced Double Toe Times magazine since adopting the monthly publication in1996. He started clogging in his home state of West Virginia in1980, and over the course of the last three decades, he has seen the dance undergo swift evolution.
“All dances go through change, and clogging is a melting-pot dance that grew from other dances anyway,” he tells me over the phone one Friday evening, taking a break from packing for one of his many weekend travels. “I think the biggest shift is that because of popular culture, so many influences have crept in—Riverdance, Canadian step dancing and hip-hop.”
The choreographed, flashy and, as Jeff puts it, “strictly constructed” style of clog dancing that has become popular at competitions and captured the spotlight recently in shows like America’s Got Talent has a different look and feel than its Appalachian predecessor, where the original focus was on individual expression. Before the line-dancing craze took off in the 1970s, at which point groups began practicing and performing planned-out step sequences all together, cloggers approached the pastime in a freestyle manner. Much like a skilled musician who, in turn with his fellow players, breaks off from the standard score for a spell to contribute a set of improvised, harmonizing bars to the number, a clogger’s instrument was simply his feet.
“As the Appalachians were settled in the mid-1700s by the Irish, Scottish, English, and Dutch-Germans, the folk dances of each area met and began to combine in an impromptu foot-tapping style,” Jeff writes in his “Brief History of Clog Dancing,” a helpful overview that many clogging websites borrow verbatim. “Accompanied by rousing fiddle and bluegrass music, clogging was a means of personal expression in a land of newfound freedoms.”
African and Native American dance elements—such as shuffling and dragging of the feet— enriched early clogging as well, the former infusing the somewhat stiff European-based styles with a fresh combination of energy and restraint. As author Mark Knowles explains near the beginning of Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing, “Although appearing wild and full of sensual abandonment to western eyes, African dance always blended spontaneity with control and stayed firmly inside the norms set by tradition and proper custom.” The resulting quality of explosive balance has remained central to clogging as the dance form has developed, like some primal force connecting today’s clog dancers with those from decades and even centuries ago.
My own experience within the tradition began in the late 1980s, as a young kid in Alabama. Mom would pack my sister and me, nine and six years old at the time, into the Oldsmobile each Monday afternoon for the hour’s drive from Selma to Montgomery, the nearest gathering place of cloggers that she could find. Musically inclined and familiar with counting out beats thanks to piano lessons, all three of us picked the rhythmic dance up quickly, stomping out our first double-step-rock-steps to the country tune of “Amos Moses,” a Jerry Reed song that had something to do with an alligator in a swamp. We enjoyed clogging so much that when we moved to Colorado in 1991, Mom started a new group in the apparent absence of any in the Denver area so that we could keep dancing. Friends from the community and the church my dad pastored there soon joined in, along with my little brother, and we started performing at nursing homes, local festivities and the annual Colorado State Fair.
One of the reasons we first got involved had to do with clogging’s perceived wholesomeness as compared to other forms of contemporary dance. My sister and I had begun taking ballet and tap classes, but that ended after our parents were mildly appalled at the modern dance recitals: the older, more advanced girls gave scantily clad performances that Mom and Dad found to be far too suggestive. By contrast, clogging exuded a family-oriented quality, with groups comprised of all ages, costumes that stretched past our fingertips and dance movements more likely to trigger rhythmic clapping from the audience than an objectifying gaze.
This impression isn’t uncommon; in the brochure given to me by Ruth Zerface, who heads up the Missouri River Cloggers, the following lines in comic sans jump out from the pastel-colored page: “We would like to expose people of all ages to this type of wholesome, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and healthful exercising form of dance. It is an ideal activity for the whole family.”
It’s fascinating that this connotation persists, especially considering the religious contexts within which European step dancing developed. In Ireland, dancers held their arms tightly by their sides—traditional Irish dancers still do—likely because of strict rules intended to guard against licentiousness. As Tap Roots notes, “Most experts believe that the arms were held by the side by the order of the Church which wanted dancers to practice self control as well as prevent upper body movement which might be too sensual or provocative.”
Nothing about the yellow brochure’s description of clogging as a wholesome, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, family-oriented, health-friendly activity is inaccurate—the dance is undoubtedly all of those things. And yet its appeal runs deeper than that, both for cloggers themselves and the audiences that behold them. People are repeatedly mesmerized by the strangely alluring combination of sight and sound.
At the Monroe County Sheep Festival in Waterloo, Illinois, this April, a few weeks after attending clogging practice, I bounced and clapped along with a crowd of about 150 people as the Thunder and Lightning Cloggers put on a high-energy show. Robert and crew had lugged their own sound system to the fairgrounds, and instead of a stage, the dancing area was comprised of dusty gray cement—the floor of a spacious dairy and beef facility reconfigured for the festival and dotted with food and craft booths as well as small pens containing black and white goats. The nine cloggers arranged themselves inside the large circle of audience members of all ages, with a cluster of toddlers inching in towards the dancers, jumping and trying their best to imitate the movements. A core group of six cloggers danced to the fast-paced “Bit by Bit” number, their stomps and drag-slides and quick turns perfectly executed. The only people in the vicinity that did not appear transfixed by the spectacle before them were a few men unceremoniously sheering an extra-large-looking sheep sitting awkwardly on a tarp. Located not more than 30 or 40 feet beyond the entertainers, the sheep’s baa-ing competed with Robert’s remarks between songs. It was, after all, a sheep festival.
“It’s contagious,” fellow audience member Joe Goley told me when I asked what he finds so appealing about clogging. “I love it. It sort of reminds me of older things and small towns.”
David Foster Wallace, in his famous essay about the Illinois State Fair of 1993, described the cloggers as “erotic in a way that makes MTV look lame.” Four years later, in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, he reiterated that the live clogging performances were in his mind the unrivaled high point of the entire fair, and he was still grappling with what had transpired on that stage.
“I’d always thought [clogging] was a kind of Jed Clampett, you know, goony people in boots, real slow—and it turns out it’s much more like this thing ‘Riverdance’ which is now sort of ubiquitous on PBS,” Wallace explained to the radio host. “Very fast and very cool, and there’s no kind of hideous Michael Flatly sort of ego person at the front of it … it’s sort of like country tap-dancing on methamphetamine.”
Jeff chuckles when I suggest that last memorable line of Wallace’s as appropriate shorthand for describing clogging to the uninitiated: country tap-dancing on methamphetamine. Jeff’s own phrase of choice—“a melting pot of dances”—is another fitting, if less flamboyant, summary of an American dance form that seems increasingly difficult to pin down. But despite the widely varying styles of clogging today, a set of basic building-block steps unites them to a certain degree in the form of cue sheets, which make use of a generally accepted step-notation code to communicate routines to cloggers scattered across the country and the globe.
Cue sheets resemble crochet patterns, or the periodic table: They contain clusters of short, consonant-heavy acronyms that take practice to decipher with ease. The first line of a full page of instructions for the “Rocky Top” routine, considered something of a national anthem among cloggers, reads like so: 2 Slapbacks—DT(b) S(ib) DT(b) S(ib) DT(b) DS R S Repeat.
The letters L and R alternate immediately below this line, indicating whether the left or right foot is the one tasked with the particular motion listed above it.
Despite its longwinded opacity, the cue sheet’s methodical record of steps appears to serve its purpose of step-notation standardization within the evolving clogging tradition. When Ruth urged me to join the Missouri River Cloggers for an impromptu performance of the number at their Wednesday night practice, I was pleased to discover how consistent our geographically disparate versions of the choreography were. Where I pivoted four slur steps and moved forward during the words, “Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top/ Ain’t no telephone bills,” these cloggers performed the four slurs in place, in individual circles, making a quarter turn with each drag of the toe. Otherwise, our movements throughout the dance were in sync, even the timing of the hand claps that accompanied the chain and stomp-kick step sequences.
While most of us likely learned “Rocky Top” through observation and repetition rather than close study of a complicated cue sheet, it’s an important resource and record. Many instructors keep a folder or binder of such cue sheets close at hand, referring to the documents from time to time to resolve a small question or memory lapse among the group.
The full names of complicated clogging steps, distilled and described according to their most basic parts in the cue sheets, are something else entirely: flea flickers, rocking chairs, washboards, joeys, fancy doubles, outhouses, mountain goats. Lacking the sophisticated, minimalist nature of the terms describing a dance like ballet, these names speak volumes about both their cultural origins and the very moves they denote. Flea flickers, for instance, combine the staple double-toe move—a rapid brushing forward and then backward of the toe on the floor—with a suspension of that same leg immediately after the double-toe, holding the lower leg up behind the body for a brief moment before stepping back down onto it. It doesn’t take too wild of an imagination to conclude that a flea flicker amounts to almost exactly the sort of gesture one might perform in an effort to flick an insect from a floor.
After joining in for “Pitkin County Turnaround” at the Thunder and Lightning practice session, I was permitted to sit on the sidelines and watch the group run through a couple numbers that they’ve recently been working to perfect for upcoming shows. Several space heaters cranked away in the converted elementary classroom, which still features a pint-sized chalkboard but has otherwise been transformed by Robert, his wife Susan and other committed members of the group into a humble yet remarkably suitable studio for clogging. They rent the room from the man living upstairs, who purchased the three-story schoolhouse after its academic days had ended, and each member pays $4 a lesson to help cover the operating budget. The shows the group performs throughout southern Illinois, including frequent gigs at the nearby Eckert farms, also help defray costs.
The insufficient heat in the schoolhouse became more apparent while I was seated, and when Robert waved me back on the floor to try “The Great Defenders,” their tribute to the armed forces, I didn’t argue since I needed to warm up. But the thing about being the only person unfamiliar with a given routine is that with clogging, not only can the others see you fumbling the sequence, they can hear you. It’s a sort of drum line, in effect, with mistakes in footwork and timing easily audible, thanks to the noise-enhancing taps. Not only that, but in this case the song I was learning involved hand motions as well as the complex steps themselves.
“Don’t forget to salute!” Robert said as I failed to do so for perhaps the 15th time. It had been about five years since I’d clogged more than a few steps around my apartment, and while much of the mechanics came back like riding a bike does, my brain struggled to grasp which step should happen when, let alone the accompanying hand motions, especially these military-esque ones.
That wasn’t my only issue with the hand motions, however. Something about them has always made me cringe a bit, wishing we could just let our impressive feet have all of the focus. JoEllen Hamilton, a lifelong clogger who attends both St. Louis clogging practices most weeks, knows what I mean. She’ll put up with some “silly hand gestures” to keep the peace, as will I, but they do strike some of us as unnecessary or aesthetically problematic. Equally debatable are some of the costumes clogging groups choose, involving anything from sequins and vests to billowing skirts.
“I think in a lot of cases clogging groups fail to make the dance form appeal to today’s more sophisticated audience,” JoEllen says. “My personal preference for shows is to dress very simply and let the dancing do the talking. A couple of my most favorite performances were done in a black T-shirt and jeans or black pants. That way, the audience has to sit down and take the dancing in before they write us off as dorky and throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
On the opposite end of the perceived-coolness spectrum are competitive clogging teams such as All That, an ensemble of five young men whose top YouTube clip invites viewers to “check out what All That is doing for the clogging industry!” The popular America’s Got Talent contestants traipse down to the stage amid wild cheers, wearing black T-shirts and ripped-up jeans. In another clip they begin the dance in black blazers and pants, only to rip off these outfits partway through, revealing army fatigues underneath. The televised crowd goes crazy. It’s like a trendy boy-band extravaganza, except that these are cloggers—cloggers who are, as they say, “trying to change the stereotype” of clogging, and stunning audiences as they do it.
Watching the videos of All That, I’m amazed by their incredible footwork and flawless delivery. They dance in machine-like unison. I feel proud to be included in the same dancing tradition, and if someone unfamiliar with the art form asks me what it’s like, I might be inclined to have them simply search the web for these impressive All That clips. But a better answer would take them right to the heart of clogging—to observe a practice or see a show performed by a local recreational group whose infectious love for clogging keeps the tradition alive in less glamorous, more grassroots ways.
Robert struck a helpful balance between having fun and dancing to the best of our abilities as he led the practice session. Sporting a purple Property of Clogging sweatshirt, this co-president of the Illinois Prairie Clogging Association kept the energy going—and us on our toes—while maintaining a relaxed atmosphere among a small community of people who are almost like family.
“I’ve danced with the same people, for the most part, for the past nine years,” says Molly, who is currently deciding between colleges for this fall. “I do worry about my future in clogging—by the time I return from college, I don’t know if the older adults in our group will still be doing it. I know there is a lot of work that goes into forming a team and keeping it running, and I’m not sure if the Thunder and Lightning Cloggers would still exist without Robert Kennedy.”
On the one hand, it does appear as though clogging may be past its peak in terms of recreational popularity, despite the publicity that All That and other highly competitive clogging teams have attracted. Jeff remembers national clogging conventions numbering somewhere around 10,000 people in the 1980s, and now those conventions draw roughly 1,000. His Double Toe Times once boasted 3,000 subscribers, and now that base has shrunk to 1,700. There’s an emerging divide—often generational in nature—between those interested in clogging for fun and those focused on mastering the most difficult steps and competing on the national stage.
“It’s hard to have both in one group,” Jeff says, “and that used to not be the case.”
Even as clogging evolves and experiences ups and downs, one by one people continue to be drawn to the percussive dance, often after a serendipitous experience of a live performance. And once the music gets in your feet, it’s a hard habit to shake. In Robert’s own case, it was his five-year-old son’s awe at the sheer sound of the dance that spurred him to enroll the boy in a class and then give it a try himself since he was driving to the lessons anyway. Twenty-three years later, clogging has become a central part of Robert’s everyday life.
Changing out of my taps and back into my tennis shoes at the conclusion of the practice that Monday night, one of the older women in the group told me I’d done a great job picking the clogging back up. I thanked her and said how much this had made me miss it.
She, Robert, Susan and I were the last to leave. We walked out of the cold brick building into the yard, where Luna, a large white dog, greeted us gently at the door. I knew I’d be returning soon.