While clogging has been a part of NC mountain culture for hundreds of years, it evolved in the 1960s into a competition dance performed across the US and abroad. In recent years, viral videos, such as Zeb Ross the Clogger, have reintroduced clogging in the mainstream.
If you’ve ever seen a performance of North Carolina’s state dance (one of two state dances actually—don’t even get me started on “shagging”; that name has not aged well), you’ll probably know what I mean when I say it’s a whole mood.
I’m talking poofy crinoline skirts sewn in bright calico prints, white tap shoes moving at the speed of light, a live bluegrass band (or Usher’s “Yeah!”—thanks for that, Zeb), and dance formations that seem more like optical illusions than choreography.
But perhaps what stands out the most from this sensory explosion, says 72-year-old longtime clogger Rodney Clay Sutton, is “the pure joy, the exuberance of the people dancing.” And that’s why he was “bitten, some would say obsessed,” with clogging from the get-go.
And whether you’re watching the “Hip Hop Small Teams” (yes, that mashup does exist) at the World of Clogging Championships or old-timers tapping it out in downtown Asheville at Shindig on the Green, there’s no denying that joy. It’s hard not to join in.
Even after 50 years, Sutton, an early member of NC’s revolutionary Green Grass Cloggers (GGC), hasn’t stopped dancing yet. He likes to say that he can get anyone clogging in under six minutes. And I have to believe that’s a threat.
Sutton chatted with Cardinal and Pine to drop some knowledge about this NC tradition (and how to partake)—because even folks who are familiar with the dance may be surprised to find that the stereotypes of clogging often just aren’t true.
The only reason we weren’t clogging minutes in: a safe cross-state distance of about 350 miles between us.
Clogging came from the Southern Appalachian Mountains near Asheville, but it can include everything from French Canadian folk dance to cheerleading.
“The real root of clogging was up here in the mountains,” Sutton explains. “The first clogging teams ever recognized were from the Asheville area because of the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival that started here in 1928.” Early clogging incorporated stepdance that had been brought over to the states from England, Ireland, and Scotland as well as West African and Native American dance.
However, at the time, most cloggers were not doing the fancy footwork that has become iconic of the dance form today. “During the first few years after Bascombe Lamar Lunsford started these competitions at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, the cloggers didn’t do any footwork—ust danced in formations with a little gliding step,” Sutton says.
While this style of clogging has been preserved as “smooth dancing,” the competitions motivated cloggers to continually up their game. “They’ve incorporated so many acrobatic moves it’s like they’re cheerleading teams doing clogging steps on speed,” Sutton says.
You can clog to any song with a 4 /4 time signature.
Traditionally, clogging is performed with a live bluegrass band. Some clogging teams always worked with the same band (for example the Spooks Branch Cloggers, a team from North Asheville, always performed with the Carter Family Band).
However, live bluegrass or even bluegrass in general isn’t a clogging requisite. Which means you don’t have to imagine what Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” would look like as a clogging number. Fortunately no crinolines were harmed in pursuit of this epic cultural fusion.
The kitschy costumes, while widespread, aren’t required.
Speaking of crinolines and other clogging garb, of course I had to ask Sutton about the white shoes. Turns out, they’re intended to match with the white pants: “A lot of times men were wearing white shoes and white pants with a shirt that somehow tied into the women’s crinoline skirts,” he explains.
But why white pants? We didn’t quite get that far.
Sutton did share that these outfits are influenced by traditional square dance costumes. However, many clogging groups eschew this style, including Sutton’s Green Grass Cloggers.
“The crinoline takes away all the motion,” says Sutton. The GGC preferred something more dynamic. “We got like 10 yards of Calico in every one of those Green Grass women’s dresses. When you twirl somebody, the skirts just keep on going one way and then you throw them back the other way and they fan out.”
The GGC nearly got DQ’d for precision clogging in the ’70s. Now, it’s the standard for clogging.
Precision clogging, where all the dancers are doing the same footwork simultaneously, was banned from the earliest clogging competitions. However, the GGC didn’t know this rule because unlike most of the clogging teams based in the Appalachian mountains, they were clogging in relative isolation out east in Greenville
When the GGC premiered precision clogging at the 1972 world championship at Union Grove, they ended up winning. But, they soon faced pushback from clogging conservatives. “So we decided that we’d rather just dance for the fun of it,” Sutton says. Part of that fun was a traveling team which managed to spread precision clogging internationally.
Contemporary clogging has had a brush with gender creativity—and not everyone’s ready for it.
One of the biggest challenges facing contemporary clogging, Sutton says, is the gender gap. “It’s been a real challenge to keep guys on the team. And we’re baffled by it.” Since many of the clogging teams are based in conservative communities, they’ve adapted by keeping their teams “girls-only.”
However, GGC and other more progressive groups allow dancers to choose which positions they would like to dance and costumes they would like to wear. “And then you get into trying to be conscientious of how that can play into gender issues,” Sutton explains. “A lot of the traditional teams in the mountains won’t even go there but for GGC, we’re trying to be as aware of that as possible.”
Where to Clog
If your feet are already tapping of their own accord, check out Sutton’s website for upcoming workshops this spring and summer. Additionally, the Blue Ridge Music Trail has an interactive calendar of all clogging events and venues in the Western part of the state.