Clogging: kickin' up its heels all over the country

Now these are happy feet. They're stompin', kickin', clickin', and tappin' up one storm of a dance. It's called clogging, an American folk dance rooted deep in the Appalachian Mountains. The people who do it range from cute toddlers and rowdy teens to parents and retirees. And their numbers are growing all the time.

Sure, breakdancing gets more play in the media. But over the past three to five years, clogging has begun to take off nationwide as a popular recreational - and competitive - dance. Lucy Johnson, a veteran clogger, says that when she began dancing in California in 1975, she knew of only six other couples who were clogging. Now, she estimates, ''there are probably up to 5,000 to 8,000 cloggers who have taken classes in California.''

No one has accurate figures nationwide (clogging doesn't have much of a written tradition to speak of), but guesstimates by longtime cloggers easily put the number of Americans who clog at more than 10,000.

''People just like to make that racket with their feet, I think,'' says Kevin Sellew, a clogging instructor from Mobile, Ala., and a judge at the Hee Haw International Clogging Championship held at the Grand Ole Opry, Aug. 19-22.

''It's just an expression of the joy people have in them,'' he says. ''It's an innate desire that I think we all have to express our feelings. And there are more ways accented in our society, it seems, to express the negative. Clogging gives the opportunity to express the positive in a joyous, enthusiastic manner.''

There's no one reason for clogging's new-found appeal. Some dancers say it's due to Americans' increasing interest in recreational dancing, including square dancing. Others say it's because people are looking for family activities, or new ways to exercise. Whatever the answer, though, you're not likely to find many cloggers puzzling over it. They're too busy having fun.

At first glance - at first listen, actually - clogging seems a lot like tap. The beat is there, and the rapid clickety-clack of metal-tipped shoes. The similarities don't go much farther, however. Clogging is traditionally done to bluegrass or country-and-Western music (although Mr. Sellew says some of his students kick up their heels to the beat of Michael Jackson; and unlike tappers, who dance on their toes, cloggers dance more heavily, putting their weight on their heels.

''To begin with, our arms don't have the finesse that a tap dancer will have, '' says Deborah McCoy, one-half of the Moonshine Cloggers, who perform regularly on the television show, ''Hee Haw.'' ''We just let our arms hang loose and do whatever. Also, in tap dancing, you'll hear a melody with their tap shoes. Here, we're picking up mainly a drum beat.

''As we put it,'' she drawls with a laugh, ''we're just a little more uncouth.''

Dance historian and instructor Bob Dalsemer of Baltimore explains clogging's appeal this way: ''It's the sort of dance when you see it performed, you say to yourself, 'Gee, I could do that.' Sure, it's hard. But it's not like ballet. It doesn't take 10 years of training.''

Not a lot is known about clogging's history. Most enthusiasts seem to agree that early American settlers developed it as a hybrid dance, including shades of Irish jigging, English high-stepping, and even native Indian dancing. These days , however, it's growing increasingly complex - with gussied up steps, and more and more competitions.

Some purists worry that clogging is moving a bit far afield from its original Appalachian style. But others argue that the dance should change with the times.

''I think for clogging to continue, it's going to have to evolve with the likes and the dislikes of the population,'' says Kevin Sellew. ''It's a folk dance, so it's whatever the folks are doing.''

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