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Clogging: What Is It?

by Marilyn Devin
(from an article that first appeared in Folk Dance Scene Magazine)

Also called "Hillbilly Tapdancing," clogging is an authentic and distinctive form of American folk dance. Clogging has roots that reach back to our Scots-Irish and European heritage; yet at the same time, the clogging that's performed and enjoyed across the United States today has such a contemporary feel that even teenage kids have been known to desert MTV and hustle down to the school auditorium for an evening's dancing.

What Do Cloggers Look Like?

If you've ever seen a group of enthusiastic cloggers kicking up their heels, you probably haven't forgotten it. You'll have noticed, among other things, that cloggers don't look like the little dolls that dance out of cuckoo clock windows in pigtails and aprons; unless they're performing in a show, they dress like any other casual dancer. When cloggers do wear costumes, their clothes are something like square dance attire: typical for the women are ginghams tops or peasant blouses; the skirts are full, frequently with crinolines, and somewhat shorter than the usual square dance outfits; for men, it's jeans, plaid shirts, and maybe string ties or some other such Western touch.

Another thing you'll remember if you've ever seen clogging is its most significant characteristic:
foot stomping.

Footwear - NOT Wooden Shoes!

Many people who've never seen clog dancing up close are under the impression that cloggers wear wooden shoes. Though clog dancing probably has historical antecedents in certain northern European countries where wooden footwear was common, the only special appurt- enances on the feet of today's cloggers are extra-loud steel taps, sometimes called "jingle taps." Each tap is actually a loosely joined sandwich of two metal plates, which strike each other with each step. Most of the sound produced by these jingle taps is thus generated by the two pieces of steel striking each other, rather than just by the bottom pieces striking the floor.

The taps are customarily attached to the toes and heels of leather-soled dance shoes - either oxfords or low-heeled pumps. Since so many clogging events these days are held in halls with cement floors, most cloggers either add spongey insoles to their shoes or try to find some kind of footwear that will do a better job of absorbing shock than regular dance shoes do. In the last few years, many dancers have resorted to thick rubber-soled athletic shoes - Nikes, Ree- boks, etc. They fasten their taps on with a sports shoe adhesive such as Shoe Glue or Goop.

The Leader, or "Cuer"

Modern clogging numbers are typically done as set routines, choreographed to well-known songs. Like the ethnic folk dances that readers of Folk Dance Scene are familiar with, everyone in the hall dances the same steps at the same time - this is called "precision" clogging (as opposed to "freestyle" or improvisation). Unlike most ethnic folk dancing but like square dancing, in clogging there is normally a leader who stands at the front of the hall with a microphone and calls out the steps. In square dancing, this individual is a "caller." In clogging, he or she is known as a "cuer." Cuers are almost always teachers as well; they come equipped with all the tapes, speakers and other sound system paraphernalia they need for their engagements.

Music: It Takes All Kinds

You are almost certainly already familiar with a great deal of the music that cloggers dance to. Not surprisingly, there are traditional clog dance routines for traditional old American folk tunes, such as Turkey in the Straw. Standards of a slightly newer vintage include Hambone, Jambalaya and Cripple Creek. There are also plenty of well-known clog routines done to top forty hits of recent decades: Oklahoma Swing, Cajun Moon, and Wake Up Little Susie, to name just a few.

One of the best things about today's clogging is that you can do it to so many different kinds of music: hillbilly, Cajun, Irish, boogie woogie, rhythm & blues, rock. These days, the huge success of country music has made it easy for "clogeographers" to create new dances to the biggest top 40 hits. In the clogging world new dances are being created and introduced all the time. A few of the hottest clog routines created in recent years, for instance, have been "Down at the Twist and Shout," "Bad," "Ghostbusters," and "That's What I Like About You," as well as dozens of other dances to hits by artists such as Garth Brooks, The Judds, and Paula Abdul

Newly-choreographed dances are usually introduced and taught in workshops at the annual regional clogging conventions. The various dance groups and their teacher/cuers then carry the new material back to the other local dancers. You might think this constant infusion of new routines would be disconcerting; but since clogging steps are always called out by the cuer, there really isn't a problem. During the course of the evening, it's customary for the cuer to announce whether the upcoming number will be easy, intermediate or advanced; as long as you're familiar with the various steps at that level, you can follow along even if a particular routine is one you've never done before. If there's a unique step or a tricky combination in the dance, cuers will usually raise everybody's comfort level by running through just that part of the dance before turning on the music.

The Clogging Steps

At the heart of virtually all of today's clogging steps is a simple two-tap movement called the double toe. You execute a double toe by quickly kicking forward from the knee, then allowing the leg to fall back naturally. Because you don't lift the foot very far off the floor, this kick forward and back makes two quick sounds: a tap as the ball of the foot brushes foward and another tap as it brushes back. The double toe is then usually followed by stepping onto the ball of that foot, which also makes a sound. Together, all of that makes a "double toe step." The first two sounds of the "double toe step" fall on the upbeat ("and a"), and the step falls on the downbeat. (In tap dancing terminology, the double toe step would be a shuffle-step.) A double toe step is also called, simply, a "run." Dance sequences often contain several runs in a row (in which case the cuer might say, for example, "Run three.").

The basic step (The Clog) consists of a double toe step, a rock or brief transfer of weight to the other foot, then a step back again. (In tap dancing terminology, a clog would be shuffle step ball change.) With the counts, the notation of a basic clog (also called a "basic") looks like this:

DTS Rk S (Double toe step, rock, step)
L R L (Left, right, left)
&a1 & 2

If you do a series of these clogs, you'll notice the rhythm and weight transfer is similar to a two step (with the addition of the preliminary shuffle, of course). But the characteristic of clogging that you can't see from the written-out steps is its up and down movement. This relaxed, bouncing motion is the other essential of clog dancing: the knees must bend slightly on the downbeat and straighten on the upbeat. Both knees bend and straighten simultaneously: on the downbeat both knees are bent, on the upbeat both are straight. Naturally, the extent of this vertical movement varies with the style (and knee power) of the individual clogger. Some dancers exaggerate it and develop a style like a bobbing cork; with others it remains subtle. But even if it barely shows, this knee action must be part of the "feel" of the dance - otherwise it just won't be clogging

. The "basic" clog is the fundamental building block of almost all the other steps. Other than the Double toe, Step and Rock, there are very few fundamental foot movements in clogging: the Heel, Toe, Brush, and Drag complete the list. There are dozens of well- known clog steps today (and hundreds of obscure ones!), but practically all of them grew out of some variation of these few components.

Cloggers almost always dance in the formation that's known as a "line dance." As you've undoubtedly seen in country & western line dances, everyone simply spreads out in rows across the dance floor and faces the end of the room where the cuer and music are. A couple of routines use circle formations and there are even a handful of couples dances, but these are extremely rare, particularly in California.

A line dance formation is really no formation at all; clogging is done this way because - unlike the square dance sets, ethnic dance circles, or even the closed couple formations of other social dancing - clogging historically developed more as a dance for soloists than for groups. This doesn't mean cloggers only performed one at a time but merely that each dancer was self-contained, doing steps of his own invention. The result was that one, two, or several cloggers usually danced while most of the other folks watched. Precision clogging - that is, 50 or 100 cloggers all dancing in unison - is a purely modern idea.

The Popularity of Clogging Today

A recent issue of Double Toe Times, a cloggers' magazine published in Florida, listed almost 600 dance groups in 50 states, plus Germany, Canada, Belgium and Australia. The Northern California Clog-A-Gram, another clogger's magazine, shows almost 40 member clubs in that area alone, each club with at least 100 people. Fairs, festivals, conventions and competitions are staged almost weekly, and virtually year 'round, culminating in December with the Sands International Dance Festival in Las Vegas, which hosts the world clogging championships - the last word in competition-level clogging for individuals, duets, lineteams, precision teams, and exhibition teams.

But, like other ethnic folk dancers, the overwhelming majority of cloggers aren't in it to compete or put on shows - they just want to have fun dancing. In Southern California the number of cloggers must be in the thousands, since almost that many attend the Southern California Clogging Association Convention at Riverside, held every year over the Labor Day weekend. You can also see Southern California cloggers turn out for annual get-togethers like BuckShot Shindig, held in Ventura each October, and Possom Trot, held in Victorville ever year in March. More than two dozen clogging clubs meet weekly (or more often) at schools, parks, playgrounds and recreation centers all over the Southland.

Where Does Clogging Come From?

A recent article in Folk Dance Scene referred to square dancing and contra dancing as cousins. If those dance forms are cousins, clogging shouldn't be thought of as any more than a friend of the family. Even though clogging has grown up along side square dancing, and seems to share square dancing's musical sounds, costumes, and country style, the origins of the two dance forms have surprisingly little in common.

Unlike square and contra dancing, whose lineage can clearly be traced to England and France, the dance form we know today as clogging probably springs from a blend of several sources, with very little agreement about the extent of the contributions made by different national groups. It is fairly well-accepted, however, that one of the primary roots of clogging must be the folk dance of the British Isles, starting with the Irish jig.

As long ago as Saint Patrick's time - the fifth century - cultural historians believe the Irish pagans were enjoying lively "step dances," primitive versions of what came to be known as the Irish jig. "Step dancing" - a broader classification than clogging - usually means a kind of dance where attention is focused on the legs and feet, the movements of which keep time and accentuate the beat of the music. In Irish step dancing, the dancer kept his arms glued to his sides, and held his head and torso erect - almost wooden - while all the dancing took place below the hips. The feet of an expert doing an Irish jig moved faster than the eye could follow, in an intricate pattern of heel, toe, step, kick and scuff movements that are reputed to have tapped the floor as many as 15 times per second.

Although fast, repetitive tapping was an essential element of the Irish jig, it was traditionally performed with very light steps and soft shoes. Indeed, it wouldn't have been possible to execute those staccato patterns in anything but light, slipper-like footwear. Nevertheless, we know that at some point the jig gave birth to another dance performed in a heavier kind of shoe - the Irish clog dance. The same kinds of steps found in the "soft jig" were adapted by dancers with heavier, noisier, harder-soled footwear. What was sacrificed in speed and lightness may have been compensated for by the addition of the "shoe music" - the percussive use of the feet and shoes as a musical instrument. (Today, this dance is known as a "hard jig" or "double jig"; the shoes have a stiffly built-up patch of leather at the toe end of the sole, sometimes with metal nails or brads hammered in, but they don't actually have steel plates or taps like the ones cloggers or tap dancers wear.)

Wooden shoes were, of course, also worn by peasants and artisans in many parts of northern Europe - Belgium, Holland, and France. From those nations, too, came dances that create their own percussive accompaniment that may have emigrated to North America; to French Canada, for example, where clog dancing is well-known. This only leads to further speculation though, since in a general sense any historical dance involving foot stamping - the Portugese fado, for instance, or the Spanish zapateado, which were frequently performed atop the tables in cafes - could be considered a precursor of today's clog dancing and tap dancing.

Of special interest for purposes of our story, however, was a particular kind of wooden shoe that made its appearance, not in the boggy countryside of Ireland or in northern Europe, but in the English steel mills in the mid-18th century during the industrial revolution. The story goes that in Lancashire, England, dancing in these heavy clogs became a popular pastime among the steel mill workers. Competitions came to be held to see who could generate the greatest variety of sounds and rhythms in these clogs. The dance was performed on cobblestones, and was a lot like a jig in that the upper body stayed motionless while the legs and feet did all the work of the dance.

The "Lancashire Clog," as it became better known, attracted bigger audiences. The competition grew intense. The dancers finally realized that the heavy wooden clogs on their feet were a hindrance to faster footwork, so they switched to leather which provided some flexibility (and was safer, too). To make up for the sound volume lost with the wooden soles, someone came up with the bright idea of nailing copper pennies to the toe and heel.

Imported to the United States, the "Lancashire Clog" became the grandaddy of tap dancing. It was featured in U. S. theatres as early as 1840, and took American audiences by storm; there were soon as many styles and spin-offs of clog dancing as there were performers, including the variation that abandoned the percussive footwear altogether to become known as the "soft shoe."

Clogging in the U.S.A.

Irish and English clog dancing and their American derivatives continued to evolve in this country throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century, in vaudeville, minstrel shows and the various other tent shows, road shows and touring companies that travelled the length and breadth of the States.

Once it was established in this country, what had started out as clog dancing received its next biggest contributions from African Americans. The rich African dance heritage, nurtured and encouraged for the entertainment of white society during the years of slavery, blossomed anew as many more blacks headed for the cities after emancipation. The infusion of black styles and rhythms gave clogging two dance elements it had thus far lacked: syncopation and body movement.

By the turn of the 20th century, all these influences had culminated in what we know today as tap dancing. Famous early tap dancers are still among the most revered legendary figures in the history of show business: George M. Cohan, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, etc.

While clog dancing was undergoing its transformation within the mainstream of American popular culture, the same Irish-Scots dance heritage was also thriving in more remote sections of our young nation. Dance historians tells us that in the Appalachian Mountains, descendants of the Irish, English and Scots settlers kept the Irish jig, Scots Highlander and other step-type dances alive in forms that didn't deviate quite so far from the "original."

We know that square and round dancing were the most universal dances done by country folk in 19th century America, and their history is fairly well-documented. Where, then, did clogging fit in? Well, it's a common occurence at informal dances in any society for young people to want to get out on the floor and show off; in the Appalachians it was apparently no different. It seems that whenever there was a town dance - at corn husking time, at christenings, barn raisings, church socials, or whatever - during the breaks between sets or at the end of the evening when the regular guests left the floor, it was the custom for the younger, more exuberant crowd to take over. It must have been these energetic souls that preserved the old clog and jig styles, doubtlessly with plenty of their own personal touches thrown in.

Though they had some common roots, the steps these Appalachian virtuosos did were only remotely related to the new, syncopated, sophisticated kind of dance that was coming into its own among professional minstrels and vaudeville entertainers. Compared to the new tap dancing, clogging was becoming the country cousin. (That's how clogging comes to be better-described as a relative not of square dancing, but of tapdancing.)

What we know today as clogging is the heir to these "purer," personalized and regionalized step-type dances. As recently as twenty years ago cloggers had not yet developed a common terminology - for the basic steps or even for the dance form itself. When cloggers in rural areas of the Southeastern United States travelled over the mountains or into the next state, they might or might not recognize the local steps. Clogging wasn't even necesarily called clogging in all regions; it was known variously as flat-footing, foot-stomping, buck dancing, jigging, and other local terms.

In 1927, in Asheville, North Carolina, a lawyer and cultural historian named Bascom Lamar Lunsford founded an ambitious folk arts festival - the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival - where he planned to gather and preserve Southern American music and dance. In 1938, at Lunsford's annual festival, a group with a unique style won the dance competition. This group - Sam Queen's Soco Gap Dance Team - didn't do square dance steps at all. In fact, cloggers today recognize Sam Queens team as the first official cloggers.

Sam Queen's dancers, interestingly, did not call themselvers cloggers - they most probably used the term "flatfooting" to distinguish their kind of dancing from traditional mountain square dancing. By whatever name, though, Sam Queen and his group were such a hit that it was clear a new, non-square dance category was going to be needed from then on to accommodate other groups like them - those who did flatfooting, foot-stomping, or whatever they wanted to call it.

So how and when did the term "clogging" finally catch on? According to Ira Bernstein, clogging authority and author of "Appalachian Clogging and Flatfooting Steps," cloggers have no less than King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England to thank for the currently-used term. Bernstein's research turned up the little-known fact that, during a 1939 state visit to the White House where Sam Queen's Dance Team were among the guest artists, those royal personages commented that Sam Queen's group reminded them of the clog dancers they'd seen in the north of England.

After World War II, clogging was positioned to hitch a ride on the coattails of square dancing, which became the national craze in this country throughout the 1950's. From movies to radio to the record store, and from stars like Bing Crosby to Roy Rogers, everybody was going square dance crazy. Wherever square dance festivals and jamborees were held, there would naturally be a place to feature exhibition dancers, and often as not, those fancy steppers would be doing clogging steps.

On a more local, neighborhood level, square dances were held wherever folks could find a hall, a fiddler and a caller. As the ranks of square dancers grew, there was a natural interest in expanding the repertoire of steps and styles. Like their predecessors in Appalachia, there invariably seemed to be someone who knew a few clogging steps and was only too glad to show them off during the breaks between sets. It's from these clogging interludes and demonstrations - professional and amateur, formal and informal - that today's clogging eventually spread from coast to coast and beyond.

Today's Clogging Styles

The name "clogging" may have caught on, but that doesn't mean clogging has crystallized into one common form yet. Lots of different styles of clogging still survive, and vary considerably, especially between east and west. For instance, cloggers in California are much more apt to dance in unison - the "precision" style of clogging; in the southeast, there's a great deal more improvisation, even doing a routine written to the same song.

"Buck dancing" was one of clogging's early names because it was simply a generic name for any kind of fast-footed solo (and is still used among old-time tap dancers to describe a kind of easy, flat-footed tap style). Among cloggers, buck dancing now refers to a special fancy kind of clogging in which the dancer does the basic clogging steps, but with the addition of extra little kicks, shuffles, taps, etc. to generate two or three times as many sounds per beat as the steps make when conventionally executed.

The essential characteristics of clogging - in other words, the dance elements that make it clogging even if it's called something else in a particular area or is disguised by fancy styling - are (1) the loud, fast footwork, usually with steel plates on the shoes; (2) the fairly rigid torso; and (3) the up and down knee motion.

The popularity of clogging in the Los Angeles area has never been greater. The current generation of local cloggers traces its history to the 1976 Square Dance Convention at Anaheim, where a clogging exhibition was held. It attracted a handful of square dancers who then made it their business to find out more about this exciting new (to them) kind of dancing. Those "pioneers" founded the first few clubs and became the first clogging teachers in Southern California, and most of them are still at it.

There are currently about 30 clubs and as many cuer/ teachers active in Southern California. There's always a weekly (or more frequent) dance going on somewhere in the Southland any night of the week and most Sunday afternoons.

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