Happy Feet

Photo by Brent Fleury.

Photo by Brent Fleury.

Clogging has been as much a part of Appalachian culture as bluegrass music and family feuding, but for the Orr family of Mills River it’s become a family tradition.

“Clogging was not part of my childhood,” says Melissa Orr, a Virginia native, “but I saw clogging in my early adulthood. Then my daughter and I were looking for something to do together, and we fell in love with the dance.”

Now, all five Orr family members (husband Bob, a Hendersonville native, and sons Levi and Rudd, round out the Orr household) have taken up clogging with such enthusiasm that they form the nucleus of The Forge Mountain Cloggers, a fixture at events like the Apple Festival in Hendersonville and the Mountain State Fair in Fletcher. The group, Melissa says, is one of the largest recreational clogging groups in Western North Carolina with more than 90 active members.

Clogging has a hoary and appropriately foggy history, although there is general agreement that its origin is in the folk dances brought to the Appalachians during the 18th century by Irish, Scottish, English and German-Dutch settlers, mixed together over the decades with other influences that may have included traditional Cherokee dances and African-American motifs.

Asheville figures prominently in clogging lore, as it was the home of the euphoniously named Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a connoisseur of mountain culture in the early 20th century who added team clogging to the city’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival of the 1920s. The grandfather of modern clogging was South Carolina’s Bill Nichols, who took up residence each year at the Fontana Resort in the North Carolina mountains and developed the first nationally-based teaching system to preserve the tradition. While styles and steps have come and gone over the years, the basic downbeat-driven, heel-to-the-floor foundation remains the same, with the same repertoire of foundational steps taught by Nichols.

Clogging, though, is hardly a folk tradition preserved in amber, with the Forge Mountain Cloggers an example of clogging’s rapid adaptations to modern culture. It was born five years ago when Melissa and her daughter began taking lessons together. Melissa, herself now a certified instructor of the dance, had earlier begun a home school and began thinking of clogging as a kind of physical education class to add to her curriculum. “We had heard stories that clogging used to be done in schools as part of exercise for the students,” Melissa says. “There are so many benefits to clogging and we wanted to provide something to the community that would involve all ages and all types of people. So we started in the bottom of our barn with a handful of homeschoolers.”

The hardy band of young cloggers was soon joined by others outside Melissa’s classroom, many of them adults looking for an aerobic exercise outside the usual health club offerings. When there were too many cloggers to fit in the barn, the group moved to the Orrs’ larger garage; and when they outgrew that space, The Forge Mountain Cloggers found a permanent home at Mills River’s Old Homeplace.

By then, Melissa’s marketing instincts had been stimulated. “We were looking for a way to be different and stand out in the community, and we came up with the idea to clog in Converse tennis shoes. Each dancer picks his or her own favorite pair of shoes, and then we put taps on them. We also decided to clog to all types of music, so that there would be something for everyone.” The group clogs to music ranging from country to pop and gospel, and performs routines choreographed by Melissa, Kendra and oldest son, 15-year-old Levi, who represents another genre-busting characteristic of contemporary clogging. “In the beginning there were mainly women and girls,” Melissa says, “but the men have seen that clogging isn’t ‘girlie’ and that men and boys can clog and look cool doing it.”

The group learns a new routine by working from cue sheets listing standard steps familiar to all cloggers, some named after the instructors who developed them, along with new steps that Melissa and family create themselves. Other routines created and notated by Melissa’s peers in the clogging world are also imported into the group’s repertory.

“You can clog to any music that has a strong beat,” Melissa says of her group’s reputation for using non-traditional music that appeals to a wide variety of age groups, both in terms of dancers and audiences. But performing isn’t mandatory, and some of FMC’s members clog just for the fun of it. “We have some dancers that just enjoy clogging for the exercise,” Melissa points out. “People take up clogging for a lot of reasons — the exercise, the fellowship, even to serve as a memory builder in learning routines. And you get to wear really cool shoes.”

To learn more about clogging, visit doubletoe.com, the website of the national clogging magazine Doubletoe Times.

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