Whose Clog is it Anyway?

By Ian Enriquez

Folk dances are an exposition of the character of the people who dance them. Through these dances we learn about the values and culture of a people. Many European dances are performed erect with many upward movements to the Heavens while African dances are done closer to the Earth. Irish dances are filled with energy while Japanese dances are performed with total control. The elements of ones folk dance speaks a multitude about the people who do them, so what is clogging, where does it come from, and what does it say about us?


The oldest ancestor of step dancing is the Irish jig, dating back as early as the 1500s. The jig is performed with the upper body completely erect and motionless, so as not to distract from the rapid display of the feet. This was a social dance that was judged by how well the dancer was able to keep up with the music. The importance of sound was introduced later on in its evolution. It is this impressive fast and fancy footwork of the Irish that you see in American clogging today that continues to captivate our audiences.


Although the Dutch have not been able to contribute much to world dance, it is from their culture that sounds of the feet, or specifically shoes, entered the world of dance. Dancing in wooden shoes was no easy feat, so Dutch folk dances are not known for spectacular movement. However, the rhythm produced by the shoes captured the minds of dancers elsewhere. In England, clog dancing (termed “heel and toe”) was born in Lancashire. Wearing wooden soled shoes, workers in the cotton mills would dance to the sound looms. It was a dance that workers engaged in at work and on the streets. Local miners would compete in clog dancing, but it was often the canal boat dancers (who danced to the sound of the single stroke bolinder engine) who won the competitions. Charlie Chaplin, who danced with the Seven Lancashire Lads, learned to use his skills in movement and connecting with the audience to become an American icon.


American clogging was born around the Appalachian Mountains as people from all around the world shared each others folk dances and created a new one. Dances from Europe were more choreographed and included defined steps, African dances were based on improvisation, and the dances of Native Americans were more simple and ritualistic. The American tribe local to the Appalachians is the Cherokee. Their most noted dance is called the stomp dance. This is danced in a circle around a fire and consists of a stomp and drag motion. This dragging step, known in clogging as a "slur", may be considered the most truly ethnic American step. However, it is only one of the many evolutionary steps it took away from its English ancestor.

Dunsmuir Scottish Dancers

The largest immigrant community in the area were the Scottish. Their step dances were a little more subdued than the Irish and had not integrated the hard shoes that the English were using. The Scottish influences can be better analyzed by looking at the development of clogging in Nova Scotia, where the dance did not experience as much cultural mixing as it did in Appalachia. One outcome of this is that the clogging that developed in the north maintained an erect posture. The cold climate of Canada also influenced the style of movement. Canadian clogging developed indoors, where dancers did their step work with their backs turned towards the stove to keep warm. As a result, the steps tend to remain forward and do not include as much rocking back as is done in its American sibling.

Second only to the Scotch-Irish, the Germans settled in the Appalachian region in great numbers. Their folk dances did not rely on fast footwork for energy, instead they used leaps and stamps that contributed to the rowdier and bigger movements in American clogging. Shoe slapping comes from a German folk dance called the schuhplattle, which literally means shoe slapping. Such movements have permeated American country dancing and is aptly demonstrated in the clogging step known as the "ploddle".

When Africans were brought to this country, they were forced to give up all the elements of their culture: language, spirituality, music, and especially dance. Christians in Europe and North America considered dance in all forms to be sinful. The waltz, for example, was denounced by the church since its inception in Austria up until 1914. Stripped of their drums and their dance, the Africans resorted to pattin’ juba to retain their energy and passion for syncopation. Juba consists of claps, stomps, and patting on the thighs, chest, and various parts of the body. The basic pat is a triplet beat, just like the standard run in clogging.


Although clogging continued to evolve as a social dance, it took a new life on the stages of the minstrel shows. African syncopation developed the buck style of clogging which added sounds in the off-beats. One of the most famous American cloggers includes Master Juba (William Henry Lane).  Beating out the best white dancers of his time, he received top billing in a white minstrel company in 1845!

By the 20th century, clogging as a performance dance had strayed far enough from its social counterpart to earn a new name, tap. The pioneers of tap commanded respect by adopting a more erect posture and performing in the garb of the upper classes. Tap emphasized rhythm and being light on the toes, which was contrary to the African heritage of dancing with a stronger connection to the earth.

William Henry Lane

As people began to explore the unknowns of the west, social clogging evolved along the way. Social dances incorporated clogging whether it was in battling, big circle dances, square dancing, or line dances. Even the steps evolved as different cultures continued to make their contributions to the clogging vocabulary and various fad dances were translated into clogging terms.


These are the elements that have created America’s folk dance- clogging. What does this say about the American spirit?   It shows that we have a historic openness to diversity and in the face of adversity (such as the opposition towards dance) we have managed to get together with people different from ourselves in a triumphant celebration of the spirit. It is this spirit and energy that the Barbary Coast Cloggers would like to share with you. Thank you for allowing us to keep this part of our heritage alive.


Last Updated: March 30, 2007