History in the tapping

There’s an old country song that sings out “Fire in the mountain, run boys run” — but this October, the fire’s not from burning trees but the friction of many feet hitting the boards.

America’s Clogging Hall of Fame is bringing dancers from all over the country to participate in the organization’s Annual Grand Championship down in Maggie Valley.

Clogging is one of those Appalachian moments — a truly American form of dance that began in our mountains and is now a featured entertainment event not only in America but in Europe, too.

And forget references to heavy feet. Clogging comes from the word “clog,” of course — a Gaelic term for “time” first applied to dancing because the shod foot of the clogger keeps time with the music, usually with the heel providing the rhythm.

Back in the 1700s, as immigrants came from Europe, the folk dances of the Irish, English, the Scotch, and the German settlers came along in the minds and hearts of the travelers. Eventually their shoes and fiddles met to dance and celebrate the little bit of free time available from a week’s work on the land.

Once in the mountains, the clogging boards yielded to other influences, including that of the Cherokee Indians and other folks that came from over the seas.

And how did Asheville and Maggie Valley get involved? Well, thank Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the North Carolina folk-music collector and festival promoter who popularized clogging when he made it a competition category at the annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, first held in Asheville in 1927. (The country’s longest continuously running folk festival, MDFF celebrated its 77th anniversary at Diana Wortham Theatre this past August.) Records indicate that a group called The Soco Gap Cloggers took home the prize that day.

Now, in 2004, clogging supports a yearlong catalogue of events ranging from the Charlotte Competition, celebrated in its namesake city in June, to next week’s big event at Maggie Valley, to November’s celebration of the Electric Stompers Competition in Abingdon, Va.

Angling for an insider’s view, I called an old friend of clogging, Bill Francisco of Tulsa, a winner at the Grand Lake National Clogging Contest, held in Grove, Okla., last June. (He’s coming to Maggie Valley sponsored by The Trail Blazers Team from Broken Arrow, Okla.)

Remember, to be a clogger at Maggie Valley, your team had to come in at first, second or third place at one of the other clogging festivals held ’round the country.

Francisco is not only known for his clogging at regular celebrations but also for being Oklahoma’s “Santa Clogs.” That’s because every Christmas, he entertains hundreds of Tulsa children with his rosy cheeks (exercise helps, you know), twinkling eyes, and those incredible dancing feet.

Cutting right to the sole of the matter, Francisco admits his route to clogging greatness was “circuitous.” He recalls: “I started out as a classical dancer working for two seasons with the Tulsa Ballet, then [for] two seasons with the Tulsa Opera Company, but [I] realized I was more interested in character and ethnic dancing. So off I went to California to study dance with Ruth St. Dennis.

“As a result of those studies,” he says, “I actually got to work with ethnic dancing held in Havana, Cuba and Haiti.”

Even being drafted into the army in the early ’50s didn’t daunt the budding artist, who says he was “fortunate to be in Germany for 1951 and 1952, including study[ing] with European master teachers.”

After returning to Tulsa, “real” work got in the way of his dream — “but dancing,” says Francisco, “continued to beckon.” So he went to New York to study at the American School of Folk Dancing, where his ultimate muse awaited him.

“After one semester of American Appalachian Dancing — and clogging — I fell in love with being my own character.”

Part of the appeal of the form, in fact, is the exhilarating speed cloggers manage with footwear one has to assume is unusually cumbersome.

Actually, that’s a myth. Francisco reveals: “Clogging shoes are made of very light patent leather, so they’re never heavy on the feet. Then three styles of taps go on the shoe, taps from a clogging-shoe company.

“All of the sounds,” he explains, “come from the percussive use of those taps.”

And it’s “not at all,” he stresses, “like Riverdance.” No, indeed — unlike that ever-pricier stepdancing spectacular, clogging still belongs to us all.

[Author/gardener Peter Loewer is based in Asheville.]

The America’s Clogging Hall of Fame Annual Grand Championship starts Friday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. and runs Saturday, Oct. 23 from 8 a.m.-midnight and Sunday, Oct. 24 from 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. at The Stomping Ground (3116 Soco Road) in Maggie Valley. General-admission tickets are $10/adults, $5/kids. Call 926-1288 for more information.

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