“Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” Martha Graham
“Dancing is surely the most basic and relevant of all forms of expression. Nothing else can so effectively give outward form to an inner experience.” Lyall Watson
“It doesn’t matter if I’m off the beat. It doesn’t matter if I’m snapping to the rhythm. It doesn’t matter if I look like a complete goon when I dance. It is my dance. It is my moment. It is mine. And dance I will..” Dan Pearce
The expression of feelings and how one’s emotions are affected by Americana string music is an interesting study. On occasion, some of the staff here at the magazine trek to Floyd, VA to catch a session of the Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store. At these sessions, an Appalachian string-band holds court on stage while the dance floor vibrates as folks engage in some rousing Appalachian clog dancing or one of its variants known as flat-footing. I must admit, it is an intoxicating experience.
For as long as I’ve been in tune with this music of my heritage and more so lately since I’ve been chasing story ideas and bluegrass festivals up and down the great wagon road, I have been aware of this dance form yet never paid much attention to its details. The string music that my mother played on our home radio did greatly entertain her; however, being the good old-school Methodist that she was, any dancing to express her enjoyment of that music was not a consideration. Recently, though, it is a treat to watch one of our AR staffers immerse in the dance tents that seem to be a part of every festival.
It is a rare person who can not hear and feel the rhythm and the beat of Appalachian string music and not suddenly notice their shoe toe tapping the floor or their hand slapping their leg in time to the music. On that note, it seems time to introduce you readers to this unique part of Appalachian culture.
The mountain dance that makes folks’ toes tap, hands slap, and feet move every time the fiddle sings and the banjo laughs is accurately defined as clogging; however, over the years it has splintered off several variants such as flat-footing and buck dancing. Watching people dance, makes us realize how important clogging is to Appalachian culture and to its people. We also note that it spans the entire Appalachian region. The dance form commonly on display at the music festivals is usually done for the dancer’s personal enjoyment and more accurately described as flat-footing. When the dance form is performed as a choreographed group, it is most commonly referred to as clogging. What is the difference, you may ask? Simply put: clogging is group dance performed as an organized unit whereas flat-footing is a solo folk dance expression. This is all very academic but where did clogging dance originate?
Much of the traditional Appalachian family linage has a strong Scotts-Irish heritage thus it is easy to make a connection that clogging had its roots in Scotland, Northern England, and Ireland—fifth century Ireland to be exact—where Irish pagans created a type of step dancing called a Soft Jig. In the 1700’s, people in Northern England evolved a type of step-dancing known as the Lancashire Clog. As Europeans from these regions immigrated to the new world, they brought these forms of clog-dance steps with them to America where many Scotts-Irish families settled in Appalachia.
Before I allow folks of this linage to get a bit haughty, let me remind us all that European immigrants were not the only folks to influence this mountain clogging dance form on display at Appalachian string-music festivals. Enslaved Africans brought their dance traditions with them; and those traditions became woven into the dance tapestry of the mountains. (Experts of clogging dance hold that the African American influence on the dance is easily discerned when observing that variation of clogging dance, referred to as buck dancing.) Further, many researchers believe mountain clogging dance traditions were influenced by dance steps common to the folk-life of the Cherokee nation—the original inhabitants of the southern Appalachian mountain regions.
Late 19th century traveling vaudeville show dancers helped develop clogging dance by exposing it outside of Appalachia. The mention of traveling shows makes one think of tap dancing. Tap dance has similarities to the mountain clogging variants of buck dancing and to a lesser degree flat-footing. In fact vaudeville minstrel performers are credited with popularizing buck dancing to a regional audience. Of course, tap dancing is a flamboyant, urban art form while flat-footing has remained a more subtle rural based dance and thus has remained less evolved from its root sources with buck dancing falling somewhere in between.
We told you that some sources interchange the terms flat-footing, clogging, and buck dancing while other sources insist that these dance forms are very different. After personal observations and interviews with dancers, I place myself in the latter camp. Different or not, the feature that sets all clogging variants apart from other dance styles is the lack of much or any upper body movement used by the dancers during performance.
Clogging in current-day settings is usually performed by a choreographed group of dancers and often in competition with other groups. The steps are loud and extroverted with much clattering and foot and leg movement. (Team clogging began at the Ashville, NC, Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival in 1927. By 1938, team clogging had its own competition at the Asheville Dance and Folk Festival, which was also organized by Bascom Lamar Lunsford—who AR profiled in issue #83 of this magazine.)
In the case of buck dancing, it is loud and extroverted with clattering foot strikes and lively leg movement It is performed solo and originally by male dancers. The buck dancing deviates from clogging and flat-footing by the dancer’s use of steps higher off the floor with an emphasis on steps that put the dancers on their toes rather than heels. Buck dancing originated among the enslaved African Americans during that shameful era of history. Most references place its origin in mid-eastern NC with an early association with the piedmont blues genre of music although modern buck dancing contains a broad variety of improvisational solo step-dance moves done to fiddle music.
The most commonly observed variant of clogging on display in the festival dance tents is the flat-footing form. This dance step, again a solo performance, is a much more sedate dance step where the dancers keep their feet very close to the floor and generate very little sound. Unlike other forms of clogging, Flat-foot dancing is a soft, quiet, solo expression of how the dancer feels the music. The steps are neither fancy nor standard and are improvisational and unplanned. When dancing in the flat-foot style, dancers feel the steps and simply create the dance as they go along. Every flat-foot dancer tends to do it a little different. It is the expression of how that particular dancer feels the music. Ruth Alpert, a North Carolina dance teacher said, when describing flat-foot dancing, “The dancer’s feet are a rhythm instrument, keeping the downbeat for the musicians with much room for personal expression and style.”
Many referenced sources quote Robert Dotson, a renowned flat-footer from NC, who said: “If you are making a lot of noise, you’re not a flat-footer”. Also widely quoted is a statement made by an elderly West Virginia flat-footer who said, “The music just goes in your ear, down through your soul, and comes out through your feet”. Mark Samples, in an article on flat-foot dancing published at www.wvencyclopedia.org said, “Flat-foot dancing is hard to define. Perhaps we can say that flat-foot dancing is the mountain artistic reaction to hard-driving fiddle music. Good flat-foot dancers feel the hard drive of a fiddle deep in their spine. They put their soul on display and proudly demonstrate with the movement of their feet the good things about living in WVA.”
In conclusion, dear readers, if sometime you find yourself at the edge of a dance floor at the next festival you attend, listen closely to that hard-driving bluegrass band or the lively fiddle driven old-time group. You might just feel the beat deep in your spine and then feel it affecting the action of your feet. This feeling might drift deep into your soul, and if so, you will let yourself go. You will dance to the music; the experience you encounter might even be a spiritual awaking for you, and it will be good.
By Edward Tutwiler