Here is a piece I wrote for my American Studies class, Material Culture of the American South – taught by Dr. Marcie Cohen Ferris, on a hometown staple.
By: Lidia Davis
Clogging in Western North Carolina holds intricate, multifaceted roots that speak volumes to the diversity of the culture itself. No two clogging communities perform the same movements, hold the same styles and traditions—just as no two cloggers are the same. But there are certain trends and characteristics that earmark a clogging community. In Haywood County, distinctions in the movements and aesthetics—such as still upper bodies and a more traditional, old-style quality—exemplify the community’s history, personality and pride in being rural and a general rejection of modernism. The county was relatively isolated until the middle of the twentieth century—and after WWII, the county itself experienced an influx of cultural ideals–yet at the same time, clogging styles themselves evolved within the different parts of the western N.C. region. As the community itself began to change, cloggers and natives staked their claim in the Haywood County land through clogging and the Appalachian identity it provided. Clogging itself boomed during this time and transformed into a cultural staple. In fact, Western North Carolina was the first region to produce clogging teams in the 1920s that continued to expand throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. This essay includes a firsthand look into the depth of clogging culture within this part of Appalachia, with interviews from a former clogger and major clogging business owner from Haywood County.
Tucked inside the mountains of Western North Carolina lies a rich hub of Appalachian culture—both suspended and ever-changing—within Haywood County. Clogging’s extensive history in this particular area serves as a beacon for its cultural, artistic and familial ties that come together to embody a sense of community identity. Each clogging community within the Appalachian region has its own rhythms and distinctive footwork that mimic the heartbeat of the area in which they are danced.
The late Bob Phillips, an avid clogger and former mayor of Canton, N.C., described how the dance serves as a living expression for its respective communities: “Put ten teams up there, and I could pick out the ones from Haywood county. They had a characteristic beat. You have to hear it. You feel it. It sounds to-ti-di, to-ti-di, to-ti-di,” (Matthews-DeNatale, 1993).
WNC Clogging History and Cultural Meaning
Often referred to as “buck dancing,” clogging’s origins are not concretely defined, yet embody a vast mixture of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Thus, its rich background disproves the stereotypical image that often brands southern Appalachia in the United States: white, rural, Protestant culture with Celtic roots (Kader). Immigrants from the British Isles brought over their dance and musical tastes to the Southern Appalachian region—such traditions that are said to be clogging’s distant relatives, (Fairchild). Yet these styles evolved once settlers reached the New World and were influenced by other communities, such as the West African, German and Native American (Cherokee) traditional step dances, (Matthews-DeNatale). Irish step dancing, which is performed on one’s toes and requires fast-paced leg movements, is especially similar to the clogging styles that evolved within the Appalachian region of North Carolina, (Fairchild).
Clogging has symbolized racial, socioeconomic and religious status since its relative inception, but it’s also served as a unifier, especially within Western North Carolina and Haywood County. In the 17th century, Slave owners often forced slaves to perform fast-paced “jigging” (clogging) while playing the fiddle or banjo to entertain masters, their friends and colleagues (Fairchild). The 1900s brought vaudeville shows teeming with aspects of clogging, and by the rise of the Great Depression, clogging was a way to earn money on the streets. And although the dance was often considered demonic and sinful during this time (the fiddle was associated with the devil), clogging continued to thrive in the Western NC, (Fairchild). In fact, western North Carolina was the first region to popularize clog team dancing under the leadership of the father of clog dancing, Sam Queen. Queen’s Soco Gap Dancers in the 1920s started a trend that lasted for the rest of the century (Edwards). Haywood County itself was relatively isolated until after WWII—and this was around the same time the area started using its clogging history to attract tourism (Matthews-DeNatale). Later in 1773, Smoky Mountain Kids, a clogging and singing performance-based group was founded out of Maggie Valley, NC, performed all across the southeast, bringing the Haywood County clogging flare with them (thus, also attracting tourism by default).
Appalachia has often been stereotyped as “backwards” and uneducated, (Biggers), and clogging became associated with this as America began to face industrialization (Fairchild). But for those who actually live in the Western North Carolinian mountains, clogging is regarded with a sense of pride and Appalachian identity. In fact, clogging in WNC is branded as “country:” those of the region embrace this stereotype and use it as a unifier. It’s a way to communicate with one another, share accomplishments and enjoy traditional bluegrass music. The children of Smoky Mountain Kids in this video from 1979 sing songs of freedom and open fields–much like those in their own hometown. The movements on stage, which are marked by symmetrical lines, transitions and partner work—reveal the future of clogging, as the children are the vessels through which to carry on the traditions from the past. The footwork for each dancer is unique, which is indicative of mountain clogging unlike the more choreographed precision clogging styles of the piedmont (Matthews DeNatale). The youth performing the long-standing traditions serves as a testament to the region’s dedication to preserving its clogging style, thus, its history and personality.
Barbara Bogart, a famous precision clogger from Tennessee said in an interview: “I like bluegrass music because that is where clogging comes from—from the old Appalachian, the old bluegrass music. Clogging is country,” (Woodside, 1994). Although eastern Tennessean and western North Carolinian clogging differ greatly, the importance placed upon heritage within the dance rings true across southern Appalachia. Thus, the emphasis on being “country” and rural relates to this sense of heritage and cultural memory. Clogging has always been built around a community of the close-knit ties found in southern Appalachia, and this coincides with a general rejection of a fast-paced, modern, society (Thomas). The network of cloggers in Haywood County still embodies this ideal—every Saturday, the Stompin’ Grounds in Maggie Valley hosts a show with traditional clogging, bluegrass music and fellowship. Stompin’ Grounds owner Kyle Edwards said he likes to maintain this tradition. “There’s no alcohol. It’s clean—it’s about family, and we’ve tried to keep it that way,” Edwards said, regarding the state of the clogging hub since its founding in 1982. The physical sounds and movements of clogging encompass tradition—from the flamboyant crinoline skirts worn by the women, to the classic line-square dancing formations—clogging is a living testament to the culture and history it represents (Thomas, 2001). This culture, for Haywood County, is a focus on the traditional roots of clogging in the area. The crinoline skirts, old-style clogging and bluegrass music have remained relatively the same throughout the mid-twentieth century until now, all brand the southern rural dystopia that exists within the modern population today.
The Haywood County Clogging Aesthetic
Melinda Davis, a Haywood County resident her entire life, started clogging with the Smoky Mountain Kids in her grade school days of the early 1980s. It was her elementary school music teacher, Matricia Mise, who also coached the SMK choir, who encouraged Davis to join. But it was her mother who reminded her of the importance of her Scottish/Irish heritage and simply loved to watch. Davis would dance at saloons and other open barn-like structures, including the Stompin’ Grounds. The places in which she would dance—not just the clogging itself—embody the material culture of Western North Carolina and the rural mystique it portrays to those on the outside. Even though the cloggers in the county come from diverse socioeconomic statuses, the image portrayed with clogging expresses, or exaggerates, a reverence to the blue-collar and agrarian lifestyle esteemed to the region. “The shows and performances were the absolute highlight of my childhood,” Davis said. “My fondest memory was performing at the Cheyenne Saloon. I was ten years old, and I remember thinking that our group must be something special, because I felt like I was at the Grand Ol’ Opry.” Davis exemplifies how clogging itself speaks to the pride taken in being part of a rural community.
The girls of Smoky Mountain Kids would wear handmade, fitted dresses and skirts that could accommodate a full crinoline underneath. The boys would wear jeans with a white shirt and suspenders—both male and female costumes mimicked the trend in which all clog dancers were outfitted. This particular type of handmade crinoline—the casual blue jeans—all represent this laid-back, rural mystique of Haywood County and the Appalachian identity through the specificity of the style. Just as the traditional costuming has changed little since the mid-twentieth century, other forms of change in the dance are also not as welcome. Clog dancers of this region often feel very strongly about the styles they choose to dance and are often critical of those who do things differently (Matthews-DeNatale)–as the dance is an extension of their own identities. “Most people in our area like to think they can clog or buck dance, but I’ve seen some pretty awful dancing that people like to call clogging,” Davis said. “Clogging isn’t just shuffling your feet around to bluegrass music—it takes skill and dedication.”
Clogging in Haywood County is distinct, Edwards said. It utilizes a lot of the geometric formations from square dancing. Old style buck dancing in Haywood County is known for keeping dancers on their toes—in fact, Edwards said those who put their heels down during the dance were disqualified (Edwards). Haywood County clogging is different than the flamboyance and high kicks known to the Green Grass Cloggers on the eastern part of the state (Thomas). Old-style involves a stillness of the upper body and little to no arm movements. The combination of precision and dedication to the aesthetic of mountain-specific clogging also embodies this sense of rural nostalgia present within the area. Edwards himself said that the dance isn’t as popular as it once was, and that the young people seem to have forgotten out a lot of the “basics” and tried to compete with the flashy show routines present in other parts of the country. Davis, too, feels this way: “I do worry that it’s a dying art and we’re losing our traditions, because I just don’t see or hear much about it anymore.”
Although popularity may now be waning in Haywood County, the activity has nonetheless maintained its vivacity for those who continue to participate and engage. Part of what makes clogging such a rich form of folk art in western North Carolina is its ability to bring the community together. Edwards said he welcomes all people to the Stompin’ Grounds, and that there’s one particular dance that gets everyone—from performers to spectators—involved and engaged. It’s called the broom dance—a couple starts dancing in the middle of the floor with a broom, and when they drop the broom, all dancers have to find a new partner. “Everybody loves watching their friends dance at the Stompin’ Grounds—and that, to me, is what it’s all about; getting people interested in doing it,” said Edwards.
Biggers, Jeff. “Shattering Stereotypes: ; Appalachia is Vanguard of American Heritage.” The Charleston Gazette, Mar 24, 2006, pp. 5A. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/331387934?accountid=14244.
“Chapter 9 – Carrying on the Old Mountain Clog Dance Thoughts about Freestyle Clogging: An Interview with Bob Phillips; by Gail Matthews-DeNatale.” Communities in Motion: Dance, Community, and Tradition in America’s Southeast and Beyond, by Susan Eike Spalding and Jane Harris Woodside, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 127–131.
“Chapter 10 – ‘Clogging Is Country’ A Precision Clogger’s Perspective: An Interview with Barbara Hogart – Jane Harris Woodside.” Communities in Motion: Dance, Community, and Tradition in America’s Southeast and Beyond, by Susan Eike Spalding and Jane Harris Woodside, Greenwood Press, 1995.
“Chapter 8 – Wild and Yet Really Subdued: Cultural Change, Stylistic Diversification, and Personal Choice in Traditional Appalachian Dance by Gail Matthews-DeNatale.” Communities in Motion: Dance, Community, and Tradition in America’s Southeast and Beyond, by Susan Eike Spalding and Jane Harris Woodside, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 111–125.
Davis, M. (2018, May 18). Personal interview.
Edwards, K. (2018, May 20). Personal interview.
Fairchild, Annie. Appalachian Clogging: What It Is and How to Do It. A. Fairchild, 1984.
Kader, Emily. ““Rose Connolly” Revisited: Re-Imagining the Irish in Southern Appalachia.” Journal of American Folklore, vol. 127 no. 506, 2014, pp. 425-447. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/560386.
Thomas, Anne Elise. “Practicing Tradition: History and Community in an Appalachian Dance Style.” Western Folklore, vol. 60, no. 2/3, 2001, pp. 163–181. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500375.