Anyone who happened to wander into the convention center portion of Nashville’s Opryland Hotel on Thanksgiving weekend would’ve seen carpeted ballrooms transformed into dance studios, filled with people of all ages striking the particle board flooring with their heels, shuffling their toes and executing a zillion other bits of footwork with rhythmic precision. The National Clogging Convention was in full swing, and it drew dancers from all over the U.S. and as far away as Nova Scotia and New Zealand.
That’s how big of an imprint the clogging world has. And yet the traditional folk dance form is so under-the-radar in the non-clogging world, it’s not unreasonable for the uninitiated to assume the dancers literally wear Dutch wooden clogs. (Not so, of course. Most wear lace-up oxfords with jingly, two-piece metal buck taps affixed to the soles.)
Clogging was at its most visible back when the Grand Ole Opry featured multiple dance teams and Hee Haw showcased champion cloggers. More recently, it enjoyed another 15 minutes of fame when the all-guy clogging group ALL THAT! made an impressive showing on America’s Got Talent.
Clogging has always had a close relationship with music, but the nature of that relationship has evolved quite a bit over time. In the decades between the Hee Haw appearances and the reality show competition, cloggers went from dancing to live pickers — fiddle tunes were a clogging favorite — to pressing the “play” button to cue up the latest popular recordings.
“In the 1980s, there was a pop culture movement that came about because of this little movie called Urban Cowboy,” says Jeff Driggs, a leading clogging instructor and publisher of the clogging magazine Double Toe Times.
“Lots of people on the dance floor, everybody dancing by themselves. What they were doing was called a line dance, and, of course, that’s a term everybody’s heard of today. But back then, that was kind of a new thing to see people dancing dances with that kind of structure. It wasn’t invented by Urban Cowboy, but it was popularized by it. So clogging began to recognize that too by [way of] choreographers who wrote to specific pieces of music with specific choreography that only fit that piece of music.”
It was a rare treat to have the Cobb Brothers bring some live bluegrass to this year’s clogging convention. But most of the music was supplied by the dance instructors’ iPods. A good chunk of the songs were current mainstream country hits or chart-topping pop singles. A routine might be choreographed to a ‘tween-friendly One Direction song and would still draw not only the too-young-to-drive dancers but the retirees in the crowd, which made for some pretty interesting cross-generational moments.
Just like club DJs make sure to throw on hot songs that will get everyone out on the dance floor, clogging choreographers cater to what’s popular, too.
Driggs says, with a chuckle, “I’m embarrassed to say, but I did choreograph to ‘Gangnam Style.’ There are a handful of us [choreographers] that are really blessed enough that we get hired to do workshops and get to travel around and go a lot of different places. So we like to be topical. We like to use music that’s of the moment. So that’s one that I recently did, and I don’t apologize for it. But it is a little silly.”
By no means were the song selections limited to Top 40 fare at the convention. There were routines choreographed to everything from Shovels & Rope to classic Rodney Crowell, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, New Grass Revival, the Nashville Superpickers, Neil Young and Jerry Reed.
Some of the rootsiest roots music, it turns out, is quite clogging friendly. Several years ago, Driggs choreographed a routine that’s become a clogging standard to a song called “Marry Me” from one of Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums.
He took it as a sign that the recording itself incorporated the sound of dancing feet.
“She actually included that as an instrumental line in the song,” he says. “At the end, you heard flat footing. …When artists have [encouraged dancing], they’ve realized that you have to drop down to a fiddle tune, or you have to drop the musical bed — especially Americana music — down to its bare bones so that you get that percussive feel from it. Americana’s one of the only musical styles that really can do it successfully, I think. That’s why I’m so happy to see such a revival of it and people appreciating it more. It’s something I’d love to see us do more of, more than the pop.”
Driggs emphasizes that clogging to stripped-down acoustic music just plain feels different than clogging to a four-on-the-floor electronic dance-pop groove.
“If you write to traditional music or folk or string band music,” he says, “you actually become a percussive line with your choreography. What better gift to a choreographer than to be able to interpret the music in the way you do your steps, rather than looking at it as, ‘What can I do that will show off this Lady Gaga song?’”