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Clog-Dancing: Tapping Into a Good Time

May 31, 1987|STEVE COHEN | Cohen is a Durango, Colo., free-lance writer.

MAGGIE VALLEY, N.C. — The biggest attraction in this little town on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a dance hall for cloggers that reeks of popcorn and chewing gum instead of stale beer.

"We're way ahead of everywhere else in this (clogging), but in other ways we're 50 years behind," says Kyle Edwards, the owner-builder of "The Stompin' Ground," otherwise known as the World's Capital of Cloggin'.

"There's no drinkin' in here. The town has no drug problem, no crime. Cloggin' is better 'n joggin'."

A corpulent, perspiring clogger coming off the dance floor proves that. "First time I ever did a day's work in seven minutes," he gasps while reaching for a frothy mug of root beer.

Edwards' barn-like edifice opened in 1982, the culmination of a 25-year dream. It is dedicated to the mountain square dance, a hybrid tap-dance called clogging, which originated nearly 200 years ago from the English reels, Scottish flings and Irish jigs of early settlers.

Whoopin' and Hollerin'

Clog-dancing evolved as a way for mountain folks to celebrate. Nowhere can you find the whoopin' and hollerin' louder, or the dance steps sprightlier, than right here in this squeaky-clean, tongue-and-groove palace.

The dance floor is as big as a bowling alley, and surrounded on three sides by seats in tiers rising to a rear balcony. The fourth side is a stage. Live Bluegrass and country music reverberates from the rafters every night from May 1 to Oct. 31.

"There's 200 people in this valley," says a man named Kyle, clad in blue jeans, flannel shirt and baseball cap. "The hall holds 2,000. Some nights the cars overfill the parking lot for a mile in each direction."

The popularity of this dance is indisputable. The United States has more than 1,000 organized clogging teams. Members dress in coordinated uniforms, colorful ruffled crinolines for the ladies, pressed cowboy-style duds for the men, and all wear two-piece staccato taps on their shoes, which jingle when they walk and tap out an energetic rhythm when they dance.

Teams come here to compete by dancing standard forms, then freestyle, much the same as competitive figure skaters.

The competition draws an enthusiastic audience, who come to watch or just listen to the music and dance. People cheer for their favorites. Around here that would be the Magnum Cloggers, the current world champs. The team is led by siblings named Burton and Becky, who also are the individual U.S. and world champion cloggers.

Burton struts about the Stompin' Ground as if his daddy owns the place, which he does. The Edwards' kids have been clogging all their lives. Burton lifts his booted foot to show me his heel and toe taps. Then he flashes his large gold champion's ring.

Good Clean Fun

"This is good clean fun," Kyle says. "It keeps families together."

That appears to be true. Kyle's wife Mary Sue helps run The Stompin' Ground. The house Cross-Country Band is led by Big John Wiggins, who was once a Texas Troubadour. The clean-cut girl-and-boy singers are his children, Audrey and John. Other families line the rows of seats. Cloggers typically range in age from 7 to 70.

Evenings of song and dance will have team, individual and open dancing, in which teams mix comfortably with audience participants.

Music fills the hall as the Magnum Cloggers step into the spotlight. It looks as if the routine has been tightly choreographed until you look down at their feet. The very best cloggers, exemplified by a near-floating Burton, move their upper body hardly at all, while their feet kick and buck in a blurring, barnyard-inspired frenzy of motion, punctuated by the clicking taps on the polished hardwood floor.

Although team members move in careful time to the peppy music, the independent mountain heritage is evident in the completely idiosyncratic steps each dancer performs. Every pair of feet stamps its own pattern by private design, and then, one by one, members step out to "hammer down" for a few measures in a solo spotlight, while the rest of the team vamps in the background.

After a round of respectful applause, the seated audience empties onto the floor. Big John calls out various square-dance routines, turning the hall into a large rhythm instrument vibrating with the cadence of the taps and fueled by the stamina of the hearty dancers.

You can count numerous out-of-state license plates in the parking lot on any given night, as well as buses from neighboring states as far away as Minnesota. Cloggers from all over the country make the pilgrimage to this site of the Clogging Hall of Fame, which is a photo and trophy gallery in the lobby.

"I've got trophies everywhere," Kyle says. "Couldn't fit 'em all in my house."

Taking Lessons

Many people come to compete against the world champs or to take lessons from them. Day-long clogging workshops are a sociable way to pass time between nighttime shows.

Burton and Becky travel around the country when the hall closes at the end of October, giving demonstrations and clinics coast to coast.

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