Preceding the development of contemporary clogging in the second half of the twentieth century, there was an earlier tradition of step dancing in western North Carolina, and individual buckdancers and flatfoot dancers were once a common sight at community dances or wherever music was being played. These were not performances, but a form of social dance – a way to interact with other dancers and enjoy the music with one’s feet. While dancers shared certain characteristic movements, the footwork was not standardized, and this allowed for a wide variety of personal steps and styles. Some dancers were lively and percussive; others were subtle and smooth. These step dances have roots in earlier European, African, and Native American dance forms, and as a living tradition, they were not static. In the 1920s, many dancers adopted steps and movements from the Charleston, incorporating that dance into the tradition.
In 1992, I received a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council to document dancers in the western part of the state, who knew the older styles and had learned to dance before the standardization that came with the introduction of contemporary clogging. That fall and during the spring of 1993, I located, interviewed, and filmed more than forty dancers, ranging in age from fifty to eighty-five (the eldest was born in 1908). They included African American and Native American as well as European American dancers living in Buncombe, Burke, Clay, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Madison, Swain, Watauga, and Yancey Counties. The original videos have now been digitized, and with the support of sabbatical funding from Warren Wilson College, I have edited them into nineteen short films, featuring thirty-eight of the dancers. Here they are, arranged by county. Most are about five minutes in length; the longest two, involving multiple dancers, are just over seventeen minutes. (read more . . . )
(project narrative continued)
When I undertook this documentary project, I was a stay-at-home dad, and this was something that I could do accompanied by my eighteen-month-old daughter, Sarah. That fall and spring, the two of us logged many miles throughout western North Carolina in search of dancers. Musicians and dancers, whom I already knew, provided many names, and one dancer led us to another. I also visited regional music venues and asked about dancers at senior centers. There were, of course, many dead ends along the way. More than once, I was informed that the “greatest dancer that ever lived” had recently passed away. One of the more memorable dead ends was Ella Sequoyah, an elderly buckdancer who lived in the Big Cove community on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in Swain County. She didn’t have a phone, but I was able to call a neighbor, who would deliver messages, and we eventually arranged for a time to visit. I looked forward to meeting her. When I arrived at her home, however, I was disappointed to find out that she had recently broken her ankle and could no longer dance. She and her granddaughter were sitting there watching “Wayne’s World” (her favorite movie), and I recall seeing numerous buckdancing trophies, which she had won over the years, up on a shelf. Sadly, I was not able to see her dance or film her.
Whenever possible, I visited dancers at their homes prior to filming, and it turned out having a baby along with me, rather than being a hindrance, was an unintended advantage that opened many doors. More than once Sarah and I ventured along a back county road up some holler to get to a dancer’s home, and I would knock on the door with my banjo in one hand and a baby in my other arm. The door would fly open, and we would immediately be invited inside with the words, “Oh, let me see that baby!” After visiting for a few minutes, I would take out my banjo and begin to play, and Sarah (the baby) would start to shuffle her feet. Invariably, the dancer we were visiting would get up and dance with her, and I, an unknown male and a complete stranger, could assess in a very short time after arriving whether or not this dancer was worth filming. It worked like a charm, time after time! I would then conduct a preliminary audio interview to obtain background information, personal stories, perspectives, and biographical information. (Excerpts from many of these interviews appear in my book, Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics.) Following this, if the dancer was willing and able, we would agree on a time and place for filming. Some of the dancers had specific musicians or recorded music they wanted to dance to; for others, I played the banjo. The filming, which was done by Howard Hill and David Brewin, of the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University, resulted in approximately thirteen hours of unedited video. This footage includes dancing as well as interviews and some shots of the musicians and the dancers’ homes. At most locations two cameras were used: one showing a full body view from the front and the other, from the side, focused at just the feet. These videotapes (in the High-8 and S-VHS formats) as well as audiocassettes of the dancers’ interviews are now part of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (Collection Number: 20389), and while they have been available to researchers, until now, they have not been readily accessible to dancers, or others, who may wish to study or learn from them. In addition to this website, I have posted these dance videos on a YouTube channel: Western North Carolina Buckdancers, Flatfooters, and Charleston Dancers (1993). My intention is that they will serve as a complement to Mike Seeger’s 1984 film Talking Feet (Smithsonian Folkways DVD SFW48006), which was the original model and inspiration for this project. (Talking Feet is now also available online at Folkstreams.net.)
Although I was able to locate and document over forty dancers, I was aware of many others (now deceased), whom I did not have the time or resources to film. There are also a number of counties that I never made it to. The dancers we were able to film, however, demonstrate the diversity of steps and personal styles that existed prior to the advent of contemporary clogging, when dancing was still common in local communities throughout western North Carolina. These dancers were my informants. They became my friends and my mentors, and sadly most all of them are now deceased. I am pleased, however, to finally be able to share their dancing, their wisdom, and their stories of earlier times in the southern mountains. To these dancers, I dedicate this project.