Chase That Rabbit

Black and white photo of men and women dancing on a street outside

Stephen March

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 2, "Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South." Find more from that issue here.

It's Saturday evening on the green in front of the Buncombe County Courthouse in Asheville, North Carolina, and the people are sitting on the grass facing a roped-off area of the street. Beyond are two wooden platforms, one for the band and one for the dancers. A man on the band platform welcomes everyone to the weekly Saturday night "shindig" while the band — a fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass — tune up. Then the man invites everyone into the roped-off area to square dance. "Come on, folks, now don't be shy." The people come, timidly at first: children, old men with craggy faces, friends, lovers, fathers, mothers, neighbors. The dance begins with everyone holding hands in a big circle. Then couples break into smaller circles of two couples each and dance as the man on the platform calls out figures that have been passed down in these mountains from generation to generation. 

The fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass wind into high gear; the man's voice is a musical chant: 

Chase that rabbit, chase that squirrel. 

Chase that pretty girl around the world. 

The dance ends with everyone holding hands again in a circle. The people sit back down on the grass. A clogging team gets up on the wooden platform. The music begins and the doggers dance, their taps resounding in the summer night air. They use the same figures the street dancers have used but their feet move on the platform faster than a juggler's hands. They smile, they laugh. The fiddle takes off on a wild solo. The people clap their hands, their faces as animated as the dancers'. The rhythmic clicking of the doggers' taps keeps time with the music. Behind them the hills are big and blue against the dark sky of dusk. The doggers convey a sense of continuity with the hills and with earlier generations who danced here. 


Buck and Wing

"Clogging is a freedom dance, a soul dance," says Glenn Bannerman, the man who called the dance on the green and a 20-year veteran of teaching clog dancing. "It is caught, not taught," that is, it is best learned intuitively and is an expression of the individual dogger's skill and feeling. 

Clogging is increasingly popular in many areas, but Buncombe and Haywood Counties in western North Carolina are a thriving center for the dance. Team clogging probably originated here a half century ago with the Annual Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, the oldest folk festival in the nation. Today, dance teams abound. Children learn clogging in grade school. Local teams compete with each other and dance all over the country, generating interest wherever they go. 

There are two kinds of clogging teams: precision doggers and traditional, or freestyle, doggers. Precision doggers do the same footwork in unison and follow prescribed routines. Precision clogging is dramatic and colorful and may emphasize elaborate costumes and choreography. Both kinds of teams may use traditional figures and music, although modern precision teams may use popular music as well. In traditional clogging the dancers keep time to the music but each dancer does his or her own individual footwork. The caller, or dance leader, calls out figures and the dancers respond, but their steps are improvised and free-flowing as they "beat out a tune” with their feet. 

"I feel a wildness inside when I get to dancing," says Poochey King of the Southern Appalachian Cloggers, a highly successful freestyle team from Canton. "I'm not even conscious of what my feet are doing. I know what's going on with the team, music and beat, but I'm just doing what I feel." When she is not dancing, Poochey works as an insurance secretary for a real estate firm. 

Freestyle cloggers say their way of dancing, compared to precision clogging, allows more individual freedom of expression and is more representative of mountain traditions. 

"The clog dance is an effort on the part of people to get back in touch with their past," explains Flossie King, Poochey's husband, and caller for the Southern Appalachian Cloggers. "We try to convey our heritage, our way of life to the people. When we're doing a workshop, we try to emphasize that our dance represents the way we grew up and that we're proud of it. Folks today want to know more about how their ancestors lived; they want to have something concrete they can relate to their families. 

"Folks down in the Piedmont had dances,” says Flossie, who works for Champion Paper Company in Canton, "but there was more to offer people in that area. They had theaters and plays. Here in the mountains life was harder and more desolate. Your nearest neighbor might live ten miles away. They had barn raisings and corn shuckings and then when the work was done they broke out the fiddle and they danced. That was a way for everybody to enjoy themselves. I think that's why the dance is still so strong in the mountains." 

Clog dancing is a synthesis of two old forms of dancing, the square dance and the "buck and wing" or "buck dance," a solo dance which, when done well, requires consummate grace and rhythm. Old-time buck dancers danced on front porches, on parlor or barn floors, or on the bare earth. They danced with their arms hanging limber at their sides and their feet low to the floor in contrast to the dramatic high steps of today's precision clogging teams. They did not use taps and they often danced only to the accompaniment of a fiddle. The individual steps of the freestyle and precision clogging teams are derived from the old-time buck dancing. Many area dancers believe the buck dance has its roots in the folk dances of the English, Scotch and Irish immigrants who settled in the mountains. American buck dancing has been influenced both by black dancing — by minstrels and medicine show performers — and to some extent by Indian dancing, especially ceremonial dances. While not exclusive to the Southern mountains, the buck dance has been most prevalent here. 

In 1975, folklorist Daniel Patterson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote that he had seen North Carolina buck dancing "done by both blacks and whites and know of its being done by Lumbees [southeastern North Carolina Indians]. I've seen it in the east, the Piedmont and the west." 

No one seems to know for certain where the term "buck and wing" originated. The term was popular in Lancashire, England, in the early 1900s for step dancing in clogs, or wooden shoes. In a 1959 article in English Dance and Song ("The East Lancashire Tradition"), Patricia Stacey wrote that "clog dancing, as it has survived in the east Lancashire cotton towns up to the first decade of the present century . . . owes its form largely to the inventiveness of the mill workers who almost without exception were clog wearers. The sound of iron-shod clogs on cobblestones suggests a dance in itself and almost all the youths could perform a few steps." 

In western North Carolina, the fast tempo of bluegrass music has made modern clog dancers dance faster than the old-time buck dancers, and PA systems force doggers to dance more loudly to be heard. Freestyle clog dancing, however, in the old-time buck dancers' tradition, still emphasizes the individual's freedom to "cut loose." "We don't have a set routine," says Cora Mae Phillips of the Rough Valley Cloggers, a freestyle team from Canton. "We try to let the individual interpret the music with his or her feet." 

How hard is it to learn to clog dance? Clogging requires a fine sense of rhythm and much talent and practice. Skilled cloggers dance with a multitude of shuffles, kicks and stomps, with no two freestyle cloggers doing the same thing. Clog dance instructors teach that there are two basic steps in clogging, however: the single step and the double step. The single step consists of a shuffle with the toe and then a stomp with the same foot, then repeating this motion with the alternate foot. The double step adds another "stomp" to the single step so that you have a shuffle with the toe, a stomp, then another stomp. Cloggers use the heel of the alternate foot as a timer and use an infinite variety of shuffles, "buck and wing" steps, kicks and flatfoot stomps. "The real joy of clogging," says Glenn Bannerman, "is being able to take the basic steps and use them any way you want to." 

Traditional clog teams see their way of dancing as being vitally linked to their folk heritage. 

"Go back to barn raisings and corn shuckings," says Poochey King. "When you got to the bottom of that stack of corn and the whole community was there, and there was a gallon of white liquor in there, too, you had folks wanting to dance. You had one dancer who saw his buddy over here showing off and he decides he is going to outdo him. Then you don't go back to the smooth dance (with steps shuffling on the floor in time with the music); then you come to what you are really feeling inside. That's where the clog dancers in western Carolina come from." 


Heavy Heel 

Clog teams have a heavier beat and emphasize the heel more than the oldtime buck dancers did. Where did this heavier heel beat come from? Some dancers say the Cherokee Indians helped provide the heel emphasis, both individually and through their ceremonial dances. 

According to Poochey King, "The Indians definitely influenced our dance styles. You watch the ceremonial dance of an Indian. It's a toe-heel, toeheel movement. The fact that they were here and across the mountains had to influence our way of dancing. Indians married whites and the Indian blood was in the children." 

Sam Queen, a descendant of Irish immigrants, was the king of dancing in the western North Carolina mountains until his death at 80. His team, the Soco Gap Dancers, was the most popular and successful of a number of dance teams that sprang up in the late 1920s and early '30s. Sam learned to call a square dance from buck dancer Bob Love, a black cook at a hotel in Sulphur Springs. Sam's team, wrote Bill Sharpe in 1958, "was perhaps the first of the Appalachian teams to proselyte and its exhibition and instructional dancing has converted thousands to the old folk dances." 

Sam Queen's son, Richard Queen of Waynesville, North Carolina, a retired Congressional secretary, danced with his father's famous team for a number of years. Richard recalls that "the Indians and the Soco team influenced each other a lot because the reservation was just across the mountains. Our people were going over to Cherokee to dance for fun. We were going over there to dance in homes just like they were coming over here. We danced with the Indians more than anybody else. We had a natural closeness with the Cherokee." 

Another popular and well known dancer of the '30s and '40s was Arnold Cooper of Cherokee. His team, the Smoky Mountain Dancers, was made up of both Indians and whites. Richard Queen recalls that the Smoky Mountain Dancers always danced with a heavy heel beat. "We called them the Cherokee Indians, and they were always the hardest to beat in a contest. They could really pick 'em up and put 'em down." 

At 84, retired farmer Cooper no longer dances, but his eyes light up when he talks about it. 

"We called it square dancing," he remembers, "but if somebody wanted to buck a little he'd just do it and dance to beat the devil. I've seen eight or ten on the floor, at it at the same time. They'd just cut loose." 

"Way back when I was a little boy my old daddy and mammy would push the chairs back and have a dance. I think dancing is just born in some people. When you hear dance music start it gets in your feet some way or another. When we chose a team, we looked for people who could keep time with the music. Isn't everybody who can do that." 

Arnold, who is part Indian, remembers seeing Cherokees doing ceremonial dances at the Indian Fairs which began around 1912. To demonstrate how the Cherokees danced when he was a boy, he performs a ceremonial dance on his living room floor doing an Indian chant. "They didn't have anything but an old drum a-beating," he recalls. 


Fun and Customs 

Some stern, austere mountaineers often associated fun and enjoyment with sin. Arnold Cooper recalls that, when he was a young man "if you belonged to a church and went to a dance they'd probably church you [ask you to leave the church] unless you went to the congregation and said you were sorry." A 1948 Saturday Evening Post article about Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the founder of the Asheville Festival ("Minstrel Man of the Appalachians"), quotes a mountain woman telling him when he asked her to sing, "Let me get the young'uns out of the house. We make it a rule never to cuss or sing love ballads when they are in hearing." 

Bascom, the article reports, bravely resisted efforts to repress the dancing spirit. "Whenever religious opposition arose, Bascom argued stoutly that it was not the dancing and the singing that were displeasing to the Lord, but the drinking and fighting that went on whenever people gathered for a frolic. But, he pointed out, they drank and fought wherever they assembled, even at the courthouse and the church." 

Cooper remembers Bascom encouraging him and some other dancers to form a team for the Asheville Festival in 1927. 

"Old Bascom used to come through the country now and then with an old banjer picking and singing. He got to talking a bunch of us into getting a club together and going over and having a contest dance in Asheville. We got together about four or five different teams. I took a team and a bunch of us went. They held the first one in the square, in 1927. They'd roped it off. There was an awful crowd of people there.” 

In the 1920s and the '30s, mountain dancers called what they did "buck dancing," "flatfooting" or "square dancing." No one seems to know when and where the term "clogging" began to be used. Rumor has it that the term may have originated when Sam Queen took his Soco Gap Dancers to Washington, DC, in 1939 to dance for President Roosevelt, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, of England. The Queen saw the Soco Gap Dancers perform and commented, "That's just like our clogging," and the press picked up the term and popularized it. At any rate, "clogging" became more and more popular during the 1940s. 

The Soco Gap Dancers' White House performance was the crowning glory of Sam's career. A Saturday Evening Post article described the event this way: 

"In 1939 the Soco Gap Dance Team, accompanied by the Coon Creek Girls from Pinchem Tight, Kentucky, appeared at the White House in a performance for the King and Queen of England. Bascom, who was leaning in a curve on the gold piano in the blue room picking his fivestring banjo, noted that when Sam led his dancers into the figure called Walking the King's Highway, the King smiled broadly and the Queen was seen to pat her foot when the Coon Creek Girls rendered Sourwood Mountain. To Bascom this was proof of his long held contention that folks of high degree like mountain music as well as anyone else, when they hear it played properly." 

Richard Queen recalls that in the early days of the Soco Gap Team "dancing was just an informal thing until Hayes Clark, a divinity student at Duke University, saw the commercial possibilities of it. Up until then we weren't charging anyone to dance. We'd just take up a collection to pay the fiddler. Then Hayes began selling tickets over here at Moody's Barn (near Waynesville). That was around 1934, and from that year on we were selling tickets and running square dances all over the area. We had a lot of good bookings after the War. We put on dances everywhere. There were tremendous opportunities for good bookings and good money.'' 

Richard Queen does not like the changes that have come about in the folk dance. “All this costuming and precision clogging is killing the individuality of the dancers.” He remembers that the 1939 White House performance was the first time the Soco Gap Team ever used costumes. "And I think that was because someone in Washington suggested it." 

As interest in clogging increased, and as more and more teams were formed, the folk dance began to change, especially during the 1940s. Taps and costumes became increasingly common as the dance became more performance-oriented. Then in the late '50s, James Kesterson of Henderson County, North Carolina, began precision clogging. Kesterson, a professional dance instructor, wanted to modernize the dance, experiment with it and make it showier and more audienceoriented. His precision clogging team, the Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers, was expertly choreographed and very popular with audiences. During the 1960s his team won the Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival five times. And the team was invited to the National Folk Festival in 1963 and the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1965. 

Precision clogging seems to be here to stay; the style is used by many teams of young people in the Asheville area. Often real precision is lacking, however, leaving only the sound of the dancers stomping out the same rhythmic patterns with no attention given to the music or to the subtleties of the dance. 

Some folk festivals allow precision clogging but keep it in a separate category from freestyle clogging. Other folk festivals, which emphasize traditions, don't permit precision teams. The Asheville Festival began omitting these teams in 1970. 

Clog dancing offers people a way to celebrate life as well as mountain traditions. "It's a good barrier breaker," says Flossie King. “We do a lot of convention work and dancing at colleges. Everywhere we find people who love to dance our dance." 

Poochey King adds, "What's amazing is to go to a convention where everybody has coats and ties on, a real formal affair. We just take their hands and lead them out to dance. At first they hold back a little, but then they take those coats and ties off, and I guess they have more fun than anybody. People you wouldn't even think would like to dance." 

Glenn Bannerman, caller for the Saturday night “shindig" on the Asheville Green, remembers going to a dance at Maggie Valley and seeing "a crowd of motorcyclists sitting out front on their hogs. They had boots, black leather jackets, hair slicked back on top — they looked like Fonzie. I wondered what that crowd was doing at a square dance, and I thought, “Oh boy, trouble." But when the fiddle and banjo started inside those men were off those hogs and into the dance with their partners. They were the soul of grace on that dance floor; they really knew how to clog dance. 

“I've danced in New England, Canada, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland," says Bannerman, "and many times when I see folks dancing in these areas I can see that their style is similar to the old-time buck dancers in the Southern mountains." 

The clog dance, like the mountain culture it is linked to, is changing, evolving. Not everyone is pleased with the changes. 

In Western North Carolina traditional clog teams are quietly resisting organized efforts to standardize steps and terminology, to make the calls the same for every figure. 

"If we're not awful careful," says Bob Phillips, caller for the Rough Valley Cloggers, "our uniqueness is going to be gone." 

“You can go twenty miles from here," says Poochey King, "and find people who clog dance in a style different from our own, but they are still clogging." The names of figures and the styles of dancing vary from region to region in the mountains; traditional clog dancers are determined to keep it that way.